Myths and Fears

How to address symbolic and emotionally-charged arguments
about migration and the U.S.-Mexico border

By Professor Josiah Heyman
University of Texas at El Paso
Sept. 23, 2005; rev. July 21, 2006

(1) Illegality (breaking the law, etc.)
People often are disturbed that the law is broken in unauthorized migration.  We can understand this, since we are reasonably law abiding and law respecting individuals.  However, when broad forces drive people to leave their homes in search of work and to reunite with family, and when the law (complete with extensive law enforcement) does not stop them, it may be that the law itself has failed and there is a need for a better solution (e.g., fair and just development in Mexico; safe and legal temporary migration to the U.S. with earned legalization).  A good analogy is the failure of prohibition in the U.S. in the1920s.

(2) Emergency (sense of impending crisis, panic, vulnerability, etc.) 
States of emergency declared by various governors are political publicity designed to make them seem “on top of the issue.”   People need to be careful with political rhetoric and also with dramatic news shows designed to sell advertising time.  Unauthorized migration along the border has been quite stable in recent years (actually slightly declining, to judge by arrest rates).  It rises and falls largely according to the state of the Mexican and Central American economies, and also demand for labor in the U.S.  Migration flows shift back and forth along the border, moving ahead of the concentration of law enforcement; this means that as some areas of the border seem to be in an “emergency” (first Arizona and then New Mexico), others become quiet (San Diego county, urban El Paso).  Whichever side of the immigration issues you are on, there is little need for panic and little reason to hope for quick fixes; this is a set of issues that has built up for a long time and needs to be addressed over the long run.

(3) Invasion (fear of demographic change, fear of separatism, etc.)
Unauthorized migration is not an invasion in any meaningful sense of the word (it is a large movement of people over time, of course, but so is the population boom in Texas in the last 30 years).  It does not involve an armed enemy.  The government of the U.S. or its states are in no danger.  Large segments of the domestic U.S. population support the “invasion” by providing jobs, rental apartments, etc., and of course benefit enormously.  The “invaders” are not cohesive, they slowly but surely enter the U.S. mainstream, and are largely patriotic (expressed loyalty, military service, etc.). 

The population of the U.S. is not being demographically overwhelmed, though it is gradually changing; the number of unauthorized migrants is approximately 4 percent of the U.S. population and growing by about .17 percent (of the total US population) a year.  The Latino population is growing rapidly, but this is largely due to U.S.-born, U.S. citizen Latinos.  If so, fear of invasion suggests hidden fear of Latinos as people.

There is no meaningful case of separatism in the U.S. involving voluntary immigrants, with or without documents.  These are people who choose to come to the U.S., after all.  Separatist movements in other countries (e.g., Quebec/Canada) involve conquered people who were in place before the conquerors came in.

(4) Fear of workers
Poor workers, including those in physically demanding, dirty, and stigmatized jobs, are often feared and disliked because of distaste for their occupations and because of the poverty in which they live (because of low wages).   This is applied to immigrant workers, such as day laborers, especially when they are in fancy areas where they are seen as “eyesores” and “dangerous.”  Yet such jobs are socially necessary, and we should value and admire people who fill them.  Immigrants are not especially dangerous; their violent crime rates are lower than those of comparable U.S.-born populations.

(5) Fear of families, women, children, and use of social services
There is a common fear of immigrants as bringers of/producers of children.  But this expresses a resentment of a normal, healthy human process, one that we should cherish.  Indeed, the U.S. is an aging country that needs immigrants to maintain a healthy young population.  A society with a shortage of children and young families is a very dysfunctional society indeed.  The demographic facts needed to discuss this issue are listed under item 3, above.
The use of taxpayer dollars is complicated.  Immigrants are mostly young working adults and young families.  They benefit society significantly through taxes and social security withholding.  They do use schools and emergency medical services (but in general they underutilize health services).  This tends to cost local governments the most.  The largest benefit is to the federal government.  The overall cost/benefit analysis is close to break-even, with a net benefit from immigration.  Besides, it is morally questionable to think purely in cost/benefit terms.  These are children, after all, whose well-being is at stake.

One of the main objections is that U.S. citizens only (only sometimes legal residents) should have any right to social benefits, health services, or education.  It is ours, and outsiders have no right to it, is the thinking.  However 
   (1) immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, have access to few social benefits--no welfare, and only basic health services such as emergency room care and public health such as vaccinations.  Only K-12 education is a universal right, by Supreme Court decision (Plyler v. Doe).  So the social services issue is overestimated. 
   (2) Immigrants of all legal statuses more than pay their dues to society, by working hard and paying withholding taxes, and more generally contributing to the well-being of all of us.  We all owe each other something, an immense web of mutual debts, including both citizens and immigrants.
   (3) Some things it is appropriate to consider restricted personal possessions, like a car, say.  But some things are so fundamental that we cannot just personally possess them and ignore everyone else.  We cannot afford to live in a society where large numbers of people do not receive primary health care so they transmit preventable diseases or end up in terrible shape at the emergency room, costing many more dollars than the prevention would cost.  We cannot afford to live in a society where millions of children do not attend school and do not receive an education.

(6) Fear of language change/loss of cultural traditions, “Cultural fundamentalism” (akin to racism but using cultural difference as a justification for fear and prejudice) 
People often fear different cultures and feel a sense of communication barriers when encountering languages that they do not know.  When familiar places and landscapes change, this leads to a strong sense of loss.  The best answer is to ask people to have a sense of history.  The United States is a powerful cultural system with a long history of including immigrants, to some extent assimilating them, and also being enriched by immigrants.  Vast numbers of German, Italian, Spanish/Latin American, French, Irish, Scandinavian, Hungarian, Slavic, Yiddish, Lebanese Arab, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and other language speakers/culture bearers have come to the U.S., with no evident harm to great American traditions.  In fact there has been a strengthening of American democracy by insisting on justice and participation.  The evidence is that cultures are not “fundamental,” that people can and do change (and enrich) their cultures.  Recent Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are following the same path.  Adoption of English and other markers of culture change are occurring at the same rate and following the same patterns as past immigrants.

(7) Fear of crime 
We often fear the unknown and the outsider in ways that may not be accurate, indeed, may be unfair.  Immigrants are not especially dangerous or crime-ridden; their violent crime rates are lower than comparable U.S.-born populations. Criminals do cross the border, but the U.S. and Mexican governments have a good  (if not perfect) track record of cooperating, catching, and extraditing them.

(8) Terrorism (vulnerability, etc.)
Terrorists/terrorist devices could come through the U.S.-Mexico border, and we should be concerned about that border in the same way we are concerned about airports, seaports, the Canadian land border, domestic transportation, etc.  However, none of the 9/11 hijackers came through the Mexican border and Mexican and Central American unauthorized migrants have no likelihood of being terrorists.  The effort spent arresting non-terrorists, and the business of human smuggling sustained by “illegalization” of Mexican migration, actually makes it harder to detect possible terrorists coming through this border.  A safe, legal system of labor migration would enable a clearer focus on law enforcement against terrorism along the Mexican border.

(9) Scapegoating
There are many difficulties and forms of rapid change affecting the contemporary U.S., and we are made aware of them (in a fearful, superficial way) by the news media.  These include the decline of the “suburban paradise” in California and other parts of the post WWII United States; globalization of the economy and loss of steady jobs; changes in standards of personal behavior; urban sprawl and pollution; terrorism; bloody, frustrating counter-insurgency wars in distant lands; and a chaotic post-cold war foreign policy world.  If we take almost any of these changes, we quickly see that it is unreasonable to scapegoat immigrants for them, or to exaggerate their role in them; we also see that it avoids facing our own responsibility for these processes.  Unfortunately, powerless outsiders are easy to scapegoat, but this does not honestly and forthrightly address our own issues.

(10) Racism
I find it almost impossible to understand the reasoning involved with open or covert racism, and thus it is hard to get at the underlying emotions involved.  One hopes that we can all embrace our fellow humans in a spirit of love.  At the rational level, as an anthropologist familiar with the scientific literature, I can say that “race” is a disproven and useless way of describing human biological variation.  Hispanic/Latino is a completely preposterous “race,” being made of a vast range of ancestral populations.  Even “Mexican” is not a consistent genetic pool and is not a race.  “White” is certainly not, being a highly varied assemblage of mobile peoples from the long history of Eurasia.  Race is a distorted, pseudo-scientific way of speaking about roles people have had over long periods of history in the power system and the division of labor, especially in the Americas.