Undocumented immigrants are not a new issue for the United States. In the first decade of the twentieth century, over nine million of them entered the country. The last two decades of the twentieth century brought another 11 million.
Just as with the first decade’s wave, the second wave prompted longer-term residents to claim that the newcomers created many problems, including a disproportionate number of them who wound up in prison.
We must learn from history and confront glaring realities of how well new undocumented immigrants adapt and form new social groups. Some of the newly minted opposition to immigration comes from the great-grandsons and granddaughters of former undocumented immigrants.
The United States is a nation formed by immigrants. Those who were not immigrants, notably Native American Indians, held that Spirits or Gods owned the land. For that reason they initially welcomed immigrants…much to their later dismay. Now that we have an entirely new generation of Americans wishing to live in the land, we must adopt a way forward so that everyone succeeds.
Many families of the former undocumented immigrants have adopted their parents’ belief that the new immigrant stock is not as suitable as the old stock. From political campaigns to legislation, data suggests bias and bad facts impact how undocumented immigrants are treated and assimilated. As Congress takes up immigration reform, members should remember their immigrant roots.
It is suggested that immigration contributes to our criminal population. Yet, statistical data compiled for use in legislative action and law enforcement shows that whether there is greater criminality in the undocumented immigrant population depends on how one defines crime. However, while government studies have suffered from inaccurate information and bias, theories that immigration have disproportionately contributed to crime are unfounded.
Previous data demonstrated that immigration had a marked effect on crime and historians have argued that U.S. trends in violent crime correlated with immigrant waves. However, statistics are subject to variable considerations such as undocumented immigrants’ hesitation to report victimization or racial prejudice for fear of deportation.
The accuracy of these studies must be considered in light of the direction and degree of bias such as the differential treatment by native citizens. Additionally, increased detention of non-citizens and impoverishment of the group weigh heavily in an increased incarceration rate.
Studies sometimes fail to take into consideration mechanisms that naturally make undocumented immigrants more vulnerable. These studies reflect the difficulties of consensus regarding immigration criminality.
Concerns about criminality of the foreign-born were behind attempts to curtail lawful immigration in the last century. The National Origin Quota Act of 1924 was enacted for the very purpose of introducing more controls on the immigration program growth. Then, as today, the view that immigration commands important consideration in criminal activity analysis, was pervasive and seems to persist in face of opposing facts.
Today, larger concerns of economics, coupled with the strong political argument that immigrants undercut wages of native-born workers, prompts a prevailing public policy debate. Perceptions of linkage between immigration and crime have greatly influenced the development of sociological theory in the emerging field of criminology.
Unfortunately, the non-responsiveness of police to foreign-born complainants might cause some conflicts to escalate to more violent crime. Nevertheless, current findings indicate that there is a lower rate of incarceration among the foreign-born for nonviolent crimes. In addition, when considering rates for violent crimes, rates for native and the foreign-born are similar.
The government may be closer to passing a comprehensive and responsible immigration program, yet accurate information is hard to come by. Disinformation and heated conversation seem to trump the need to overhaul a system which is hurting not only the undocumented immigrant workers but also native-born workers.
In addition to being assailed as lawbreakers and economy busters, the undocumented and new immigrants are routinely linked to a variety of additional problems. Some claim problems of overcrowding, deteriorating schools, urban crime, neighborhood decay, energy shortages and national disunity are all results of immigration. Nothing stirs the emotions as much as the argument that undocumented immigrant workers displace American workers and lower their wages while spreading disease and breaking the back of social services.
One could say that the current system is, for all intents and purposes, broken. With an underground economy that drives undocumented immigrant workers into low-wage jobs, the current situation jeopardizes the economic security for millions of workers who are already struggling to make ends meet. The millions of immigrants, whether they entered the United States legally or not, are part of the landscape now. Let us not forget that Native American Indians are the only ones who can say they are not the product of immigration.
–Ted Swain contributed to this story