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Nine Myths about Immigrants and the American Immigration System

December 18, 2018 — It is not an easy time to be an immigrant in the United States. Leaders at the highest level of government vilify immigrants and those who hope to seek better lives for their families here. Myths and inaccurate political talking points abound. Against this backdrop, the Jesuit Conference’s Office of Justice and Ecology and the wider Catholic Church continue to be among the most consistent supporters of immigrants’ rights, inspired by our belief that when we welcome a stranger, we welcome Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46).

Each of these nine myths is accompanied by a response rooted in fact and Catholic social justice teaching.

1. It’s not our problem that other countries are difficult places to live and have corrupt leaders. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with taking care of our own citizens?

Catholics believe that every single human being is a beloved child of God, no matter where they’re from or what their country of origin is. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that whenever they welcome a stranger in their midst, they welcome Christ himself. He didn’t say anything about checking paperwork first. Also, we are a “both-and” people, not “either-or” — everyone who is suffering is worthy of care and welcome.

Children at the comedor, or dining room, of the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) in Nogales, Mexico. KBI is an immigrant aid organization co-sponsored by six U.S. and Mexican church groups including the Jesuits.

More practically speaking, the United States has a particular obligation to welcome migrants because some of our domestic and international policies have exacerbated social, political and economic crises in the countries people are fleeing from. Plus, we spend a miniscule amount on foreign aid —just 1.2 percent of the federal budget, funding that could help improve the lives of people in their own countries so they wouldn’t feel the need to migrate. Until we tackle issues of corruption, poverty, and violence, we should expect to continue to see a steady stream of migrants arriving at our southern border.

2. Don’t undocumented immigrants unfairly jump the line ahead of those people who are following the rules and waiting their turn?

Many of the individuals and families from Central America presenting themselves at the border these days are seeking asylum, which is a legal right recognized by the United States. They are afraid of being returned to their home countries, often due to rising violence in Central America. For people who aren’t seeking asylum, long wait times for visas — it takes 22 years of waiting to get a visa to move here from Mexico, for instance — encourage individuals and families who are fleeing violence and a lack of economic opportunities to find other ways of entering the United States.

A man stands in a spray of water from a fire truck during a June rally by immigration activists outside the White House. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

3. Aren’t immigrants taking jobs that citizens would otherwise have?

Simply put, immigrants do not take jobs from American citizens. For starters, the unemployment rate in the United States is the lowest it’s been in nearly 50 years, and our economy has added jobs for eight straight years. Plus, immigrants often work physically demanding jobs Americans don’t want, and immigration is consistently tied to economic growth and innovation here.

4. Undocumented immigrants get paid under the table and don’t pay taxes, then they take advantage of our schools and social services. Isn’t that unfair?

About half of undocumented immigrants do pay income taxes, totaling $23.6 billion in 2015, for services they can’t even use, like Medicare or Social Security benefits. Many hope paying these taxes will help them establish a paper trail in case they’re ever eligible for legal status someday. Undocumented immigrants also pay taxes in other ways, like property tax and sales tax. 

5. My ancestors are immigrants, but they followed the rules and came here legally. Why don’t people who want to migrate to the United States follow the rules?

When did your family come to the United States? Because the rules used to be extremely different. For example, before the Immigration Act of 1924, immigrants did not have to obtain visas at U.S. consulates before entering the country. They simply presented themselves at ports of entry where they were inspected and, with few exceptions, allowed into the country. Restricted categories were limited to carriers of contagious diseases, polygamists, anarchists, beggars and importers of prostitutes. Between 1880 and World War I, only 1 percent of the 25 million European immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were excluded.

A man who is part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America trying to reach the United States holds his son Dec. 9 in Tijuana, Mexico. (CNS photo/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)

The first significant law restricting immigration into the United States targeted non-Europeans. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. This law was not repealed until 1943.

Comparing today’s immigration system to the systems used before the 1960s is not like comparing apples to oranges. It’s like comparing apples to hippopotamuses. They’re that different.

6. Isn’t it true that Hispanic immigrants don’t learn English and don’t assimilate into American culture?

There’s a popular new children’s book out called “P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever.” Some other entries include “G is for Gnat” and “K is for Knight.” The point is that English is an extremely challenging hodgepodge of a language. And learning a new language as an adult is even harder than it is for kids.

Children play at a camp in Tijuana, Mexico, set up for people arriving in a caravan of Central American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in November. (CNS photo/David Maung) 

Even though some adults who immigrate to the United States might not learn English right away, their children become bilingual at a faster rate than previous waves of immigrants here, when you might’ve found neighborhoods in New York where only Italian or German were spoken for decades and decades. In truth, since people have been coming to America, they have been learning English —the most successful single language in the history of the world. English is going to be fine.

7. Don’t undocumented immigrants bring drugs and violence to our communities?

This just isn’t backed up by the facts. Crime rates among immigrants are consistently lower than the rate among native-born populations. From 2009 to February 2017, almost half of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s removals were of people who had never committed any crime at all. Of those who did have some sort of criminal record, 60 percent committed nonviolent crimes such as an immigration offense or traffic infraction. Resources that could go to getting violent criminals off the streets are directed instead toward arresting and deporting immigrants with no criminal histories.

8. Wouldn’t a border wall help keep us safe?

A border wall is a terrible idea. For one thing, we are experiencing a net negative flow of undocumented Mexican immigrants — more people are leaving than are coming. The wall is a solution in search of a problem. Not to mention it’d be insanely expensive, essentially impossible to construct, devastating to wildlife and unjust to residents on the border whose land would be seized through eminent domain.

The appeal of a border wall to supporters of the idea is largely symbolic, a way to protect particular cultural values from the perceived threat of multiculturism. There is no better way to break down stereotypes about the threat of migration than by getting to know a migrant personally, learning their name and their story. Then, the abstract political issue of “immigration” fades away, replaced by a real person. The Jesuits run the Kino Border Initiative on the US/Mexico border, a great place you can visit and start to build some of these relationships.

Fr. Sean Carroll, SJ, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, an immigrant aid organization, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

9. Shouldn’t the Catholic Church stay out of politics and just stick to faith and morals?

“A good Catholic meddles in politics,” Pope Francis said during a 2013 homily. “Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something!”

Sister Maria Engracia Robles, who works at Kino Border Initiative, an immigrant aid organization co-sponsored by six U.S. and Mexican church groups including the Jesuits, talks about human rights with undocumented immigrants. (CNS photo/David Maung)

The Holy Father touched on an extremely countercultural Catholic teaching here: Politics is a good thing. Through politics, we can set up societal structures that can guarantee access to food, healthcare, education and the other things all human beings need to live good lives. Through politics, we can join together to welcome those seeking refuge within our borders.

Neither the Jesuits nor the broader Catholic Church are partisan when engaging in political conversations and debates, but we are involved. Political involvement is one essential way we can put our faith into action.

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