Columnist Razvan Sibii: Immigration myths: Part 3 — Are today’s immigrants different than yesterday’s immigrants?

By RAZVAN SIBII

Published: 03-20-2023 3:47 PM

“But, uncle,” you say, “your own great-grandmother was an immigrant! If she hadn’t come to America, we wouldn’t be here!”

“Sure, but she came the right way! She didn’t cross the border illegally,” comes the inevitable answer.

You know better than to continue this conversation, but you do it anyway: “Your great-grandmother’s family were fleeing Russian pogroms. They scrounged some money, made their way to Hamburg, got on a boat, and then landed at Ellis Island. That was the sum total of their ‘legality’: they found a way to get here. That’s it! That’s exactly what these desperate refugees are doing now!”

Your uncle has played this game before, too, and he deftly switches tracks: “Well, sure, but America needed folks like my great-grandmother back then. And once they got here, they worked hard, they didn’t commit any crimes, they learned English, and they integrated!”

You’re now determined to see this to the bitter end: “America needs immigrants just as badly now. And today’s immigrants work hard, commit fewer crimes than the native-born, learn English as quickly as your folks did, and they integrate, too!”

Your uncle smiles. He knows he’s arrived on safer ground: “No, they don’t! None of that is true!”

He’s just caught you in a trap in which you are welcome to struggle for the rest of Thanksgiving dinner, or at least until your other relatives beg the both of you to, for the love of God, shut up already.

The paradox of anti-immigrant sentiment among the children and grandchildren of immigrants is an old one. I don’t claim to understand all the sociological and psychological mechanisms that activate it. I have, however, noticed that the anti-immigrant “uncles” (who are invariably “good men”) tend to avoid the danger of cognitive dissonance by insisting that yesterday’s (“ethnic white”) immigrants are “totally different” than today’s (Latin American, African and Asian) immigrants.

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This seems to be the cornerstone they require for the xenophobic scaffolding they’re so busy building. And so I’m thinking it is this misconception that needs to be pulled down if we’re to ever convince all these “good men” that the Guatemalan women at the border have the same moral right to refuge as the European women did when they showed up at Ellis Island.

This is the third article in a series of columns that I’ve been writing about the fog of disinformation that surrounds the question of immigration these days. I based my arguments on more than 20 interviews I conducted at the beginning of January with immigrant rights activists.

The first column told of how people applying for refuge in the U.S. are met by a thoroughly dysfunctional system. The second column pushed back against the charge that undocumented immigrants are by definition law-breakers because they crossed the border without authorization.

The overwhelming majority of academic studies out there about who the present-day immigrants are prove that your uncle is wrong: Today’s Honduran immigrant is no different from yesterday’s Irish immigrant in any significant way. Read testimonials from the Ellis Island immigrants and then read interviews with the people currently waiting at the southern border and you’ll be struck by how similar they are.

Immigrants don’t “bring” any more crime these days than they used to in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. And yes, as you told your uncle, numerous studies have shown that immigrants (documented and undocumented) commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans do. (Here’s one recent study: bit.ly/3yJPO5r. And another one: bit.ly/3YUKcjJ. For more, search for “crime rates among immigrants” in Google Scholar).

“But one crime is too many,” your uncle cries. “At what point do we say, ‘I’m sorry, but your people are committing crimes, so we can’t let you in’?”

Well, imagine if the “one crime is too many” argument had been used against Italian or Jewish immigrants. How many Fermis, Cabrinis and Toscaninis would the United States have been deprived of on account of the fact that Italian mafiosi extorted their way to wealth and power throughout the 20th century? How many Einsteins, Berlins and Wiesels would have been turned at the border because of the crimes of Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schultz?

Facile populist rants aside, if a certain group of people commits fewer crimes than the country’s general population, you can’t really argue that that group is on the whole “dangerous” and that its members’ legal right to asylum must be summarily rejected on those grounds. So, no, you shouldn’t close the border to all Salvadorans on account of MS-13, to all Mexicans on account of the drug cartels, or to all Afghanis on account of the Taliban.

My next column will tackle the other parts of your uncle’s diatribe: whether America actually needs the immigrants knocking on its door, the impact of immigrants (documented and undocumented) on the U.S. economy, and how quickly immigrants learn English. It will also take a look at what is meant by “integration” and its obvious racial connotations.

I’m hoping you can keep your uncle busy with the stuff I wrote above until then.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.]]>