The arrest of hundreds of immigrants by ICE in early February and Homeland Security’s new guidelines expanding the number of people eligible for removal have brought media attention back to President Donald Trump’s policies on illegal immigration. ICE raids are not new. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly stated that “ICE conducts these kind of targeted enforcement operations regularly and has for many years.” Indeed, during the Obama administration ICE removed over 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants from the U.S. The new guidelines, however, now make people who “have been charged with any criminal offense that has not been resolved” or may have committed a criminal offense but have not been charged a priority for removal. Thus, removable immigrants have become individuals who are presumed guilty before proven innocent. These actions signal a change both in policy and in the government’s rhetoric. Trump has officially made this group of immigrants one of the scapegoats for the nation’s problems.
One of the most debated aspects of Trump’s immigration policies has been the construction of a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Whether its cost or the terrain makes the project feasible is uncertain. It is also not clear how effective it will be in stopping illegal border crossings. Unlike the real consequences arrests, removals, and the new guidelines have on people’s lives, the building of the wall seems to be a symbolic gesture to fulfill a campaign promise than a practical reality. Nonetheless, symbols and the narrative surrounding them have meaning. They reassert our beliefs and validate our views about the world and about other people. Even if it is a symbolic gesture and its full implementation is unrealistic, the rhetoric that brings these policies into existence is another brick in a wall of misconceptions about illegal immigration. The same misconceptions that not only give new impetus to the removal of hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year but also degrade an entire community of millions of people.
The argument for the implementation of the executive order on border security is that people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally pose “a significant threat to national security and public safety.” Among these immigrants, the order continues, there are “those who seek to harm Americans through acts of terror or criminal conduct.” This language plays into and reinforces the mistaken belief that unauthorized immigrants—especially from Mexico and Latin America—are dangerous individuals who come to the U.S. with the intention of hurting people. It would be irresponsible to deny that drug and human trafficking enterprises operate at the U.S.-Mexico border; that Central American gangs have affiliates in the U.S.; or that terrorism-related acts have been carried out. However, to suggest that an entire community of about 11 million people is engaged in or connected to these activities is not only irresponsible but morally reprehensible.
Of the hundreds of thousands of people ICE has deported in the past two years, less than 1% were “suspected or confirmed gang members.” A report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce states that “immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than native-born Americans.” Additionally, a report by the New America think tank shows that the vast majority of jihadist terrorist in the U.S. were native born or naturalized citizens. The report also explains that “about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration.” The government should focus its resources more effectively by targeting drug cartels and engaging with communities to prevent radicalization. It should also be careful with its rhetoric. Equating unauthorized immigrants with criminals creates a hostile environment for people who are honest and hardworking.
The reason they are willing to risk their lives crossing the desert, willing to live with the constant fear of been captured, jailed, and deported is economic opportunity. According to the Pew Research Center, the flow of immigrants decreased with the start of the Great Recession of 2007. The collapse of the housing market and subsequent economic decline made crossing the southern border illegally less appealing. Furthermore, Mexicans—the main target of Trump’s attacks on the Hispanic community—have been leaving in greater numbers since 2007 than coming in the U.S. A quarter of returnees cited a lack of job opportunities in the U.S as the main reason for going back to Mexico.
Instead of coming to the U.S. to commit crimes, unauthorized immigrants come to work in the agricultural, construction, hospitality, and service industries (growing the food we eat, building the houses we live in, and cleaning the rooms we stay when we go on vacation). Opponents would argue these immigrants are taking jobs away from U.S. citizens and pose a burden on the communities in which they live—as the executive order claims. But in an interview on NPR, the President of the Rural Policy Research Institute, Chuck Fluharty, explained that struggling rural communities need to welcome immigrants if they wish to “thrive in the future.” Along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, a report by the University of Pennsylvania concludes that both legal and unauthorized immigrants have “a net positive effect” on the economy and on local communities. They buy products and services and—contrary to popular belief—pay billions of dollars in taxes each year, including Medicare, Social Security, federal, and state taxes. Although not eligible for the federal and state benefits into which they pay, unauthorized immigrants using fake social security numbers get these taxes collected from their paychecks. Thus, they help fund the programs and benefits U.S. citizens enjoy.
Contrary to the President and his supporters’ rhetoric, the vast majority of immigrants come to the U.S. to work, not to harm people. Although this evidence can help hammer down the wall of misconceptions about illegal immigration, what can really tear it down is a conscious effort to undermine what serves as its foundation, fear. Fear of the other is also the mortar holding together the wall that keeps us apart, fear of those who are different, who have different customs, who speak a different language, who look different. It is what makes immigrants an easy target for all that is perceived to be wrong with the country.
To surmount this fear and dispel the myths about immigration, people need to interact with immigrants, get to know them. By interacting, I do not mean eating at your local Mexican restaurant or occasionally talking to your foreign coworker. Invite them for dinner at your home or to your child’s birthday party. They will be grateful and happy to return the gesture. The best way to conquer the fear of the unknown is to know. I acknowledge not everyone who has misgivings about immigrants is going to be open to these suggestions. There will always be people who dislike foreigners. But if we make an effort, we will realize that unauthorized immigrants are not criminals and terrorist. They are people who make great contributions to this country.