WASHINGTON, September 5, 2016 – Donald Trump has excited audiences with tough talk about immigration. He has repeatedly said that he will build a huge wall across the border and that Mexico will pay for it. He has talked about untold numbers of undocumented immigrants crossing the Mexican border and taking jobs away from Americans. He has talked about widespread crime on the part of those crossing the border. He has driven audiences to frenzied excitement with this talk of an immigration “crisis.”
Even a cursory look at the facts indicates that while we have a problem of controlling our ‘borders, talk of a “crisis” is overblown. Reports by the Pew Research Center show that since 2012, the migratory influx from Mexico to the U.S. Is just below net zero, as more Mexicans leave the U.S. In fact, more people have moved from America to Mexico in this decade than have gone in the opposite direction. The economic situation in Mexico has improved, ensuring better access to healthcare, education and jobs. The decline in fertility in Mexico has resulted in a proportionately lower number of young people and, thus, lower immigration.
When it comes to crime, while Trump has cited a number of tragic crimes committed by those in the country illegally, the overall picture is quite different
Statistics cited by the Trump campaign come from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that found that undocumented immigrants account for disturbingly high levels of violent crime. While they represent just 3.5% of the U.S. population, undocumented immigrants represented 7% of prison sentences following convictions on charges of sexual abuse, 9% of murders, and 12% of assaults in 2013. But only a tiny percentage of the nation’s violent crimes are handled by the federal court system. It is true that undocumented immigrants accounted for 9.2% of federal murder convictions in 2013. But that represented a total of 8 murders. The FBI estimates that there were 14,196 murders in the U.S. in 2013. The few cases handled by the federal court system don’t register as a reliable sample set. The same is true for other violent crimes in those statistics.
The American Immigration Council found that 1.6% of foreign-born males are in jail, compared with 3.3% of the native-born population. The Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes any plan to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants, says that, “There’s no evidence that immigrants are either more or less likely to commit crimes than anyone else in the population.”
The idea that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans is also questionable. Donald Trump says that he will “turn off the jobs and benefits magnet” for immigrants. Yet, argues The Wall Street Journal, “He is offering no new legal ways to work in the U.S. He can build the tallest wall in the world at the border, but as long as jobs exist to be filled, immigrants will come to fill them. Border enforcement without a guest-worker program is like drug enforcement without reducing drug use. It won’t work.”
Beyond this, states the Journal, “The plan would do economic harm by slashing the workforce for construction, agriculture, restaurants, travel and other services. There aren’t enough Americans to fill these jobs now, so many of these services will vanish or become much more expensive. That is why Mr. Trump employs H-2B visa holders at his Mar-a-Lago resort.”
Contrary to Donald Trump’s economic analysis, American manufacturing jobs are being lost neither as a result of trade agreements nor at the hands of undocumented immigrants. Daniel Griswold, senior research fellow and co-director of the Program on American Economy and Globalization at the George Mason University-based Mercatus Center, notes that, “Globalization isn’t killing factory jobs. Trade is actually why manufacturing is up 40%.” What has changed is that our factories produce fewer shirts, shoes and tables. Instead, our 21st century manufacturing sector is dominated by petroleum refining, pharmaceuticals, plastics, machinery, computers, motor vehicles and other transportation equipment and aircraft and aerospace equipment.
Anger about lost manufacturing jobs should not be aimed at either trade agreements or undocumented immigrants, but at technology. A study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University reports that productivity growth caused 85% of the job losses in manufacturing from 2000 to 2010, a period that saw 5.6 million factory jobs disappear. The U.S. has not been alone in losing factory jobs. Manufacturing employment has fallen in Europe and South Korea and one of the largest losers of manufacturing jobs has been China, according to Bloomberg’s Charles Kenny.
The conservative economist Walter Williams points out that, “In 1790, farmers were 90% of the U.S. labor force. By 1900 only 41% of our labor force was employed in agriculture. Today, less than 3% of Americans are employed in agriculture. What would Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump have done in the face of this precipitous loss of agricultural jobs? They might have outlawed all the technological advances in science and machinery that have made our farmers the world’s most productive and capable of producing the world’s cheapest food. History suggests another alternative to those concerned about the manufacturing job loss. The Luddites were 19th century English textile workers who protested against newly developed labor-saving technologies. They went about destroying machinery that threatened to replace them with less-skilled, low-wage laborers.”
Yet another cause for joblessness is a decline in the American work ethic. In his much-discussed book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance, writing about his own roots in the Appalachian white working class, describes a culture of indolence, the inability to arrive at work on time, a refusal to follow orders on the job, the preference to stay at home, often subsidized by government welfare programs. Vance worked for a summer in a floor-tile warehouse near his home in Ohio. It was relatively easy work, paying $13 an hour, a relatively good wage in the area. But, he writes, “The managers found it impossible to fill my warehouse position with a long-term employee.” The culture he describes is similar to that of the black underclass in urban areas.
Vance, who managed to escape from this Appalachian culture, describes a close relative as “a classic welfare queen.” He writes about 9-month old babies being fed Pepsi in their bottles, and the abuse of food stamps he saw as a cashier at a local grocery store.
Discussing Vance’s book, Time columnist Joe Klein writes that, “‘Hillbilly Elegy’ makes the current political dialogue seem fatuous. Both parties are incapable of discussing the real sources of our national dyspepsia, or how to deal with them. Forces like the global economy, racism and federal programs that cultivated dependency have all been part of the problem. But what we have now is something different: a bottom-up crisis of individual responsibility, largely beyond the reach of public policy. Indeed, some of the ‘solutions’ proposed by each of the parties are likely to make things worse.”
Why Donald Trump has made immigration a center-piece of his campaign is less than clear, as are his evolving views on the subject. Conservative columnist Don Lambro, writing in The Washington Times, reports that,
“Before Mr. Trump declared his presidential candidacy…he sought out a small band of hardcore conservative strategists to come up with a package of issues that would catapult him to the front-runner in the race. No issue tested more strongly than illegal immigration among the GOP’s conservative base and that has become his dominant issue…But among the American electorate at large, every poll shows that the overall economy, jobs, government mismanagement and a $20 trillion national debt remain the leading concerns of most Americans. There are new signs that Mr. Trump’s over-the-top focus on illegal immigration isn’t the winning issue he thinks it is. Those signs came in…Republican primaries where Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, each of whom were challenged by Republican hard-liners, handily won their renomination contests. Both of them are pro-immigration reformers who have kept their distance from Mr. Trump.”
There is no question that we should have better control of our borders. It makes good sense to have better immigrant vetting and to deport any undocumented immigrants involved in criminal activity. There is also a strong case to be made against “sanctuary cities,” which feel they have a right to violate our immigration laws. And we do not want to follow Angela Merkel’s example and admit more refugees than we can properly handle.
But we will not properly confront any problem if we misunderstand it and promote the notion of “crisis” when one does not, in fact exist. In his latest speech on immigration, seeking to moderate his promise to deport 11 million men, women and children, The Wall Street Journal declares, Donald Trump “missed a chance to make a more reasonable case to honor the law without embracing mass deportation that is politically impossible and economically damaging. To hunt them down,..(Trump) would triple the number of deportation agents. So the same federal government that can’t manage a competent E-verify program for its own documents is going to harass employers for not adequately vetting those documents?”
We have had far more heat than light when it comes to the Trump campaign’s treatment of the question of immigration. Politics often tends to simplify complex problems for partisan advantage. That is certainly the case when it comes to immigration.