Some Truths about Immigration, and Are Anti-Immigrant Groups Racist?

The Pew Research Center’s Senior Demographer Jeffrey Passel ( a former student of mine) and their senior writer D’Vera Cohn have put out a report contradicting some of the stereotyped white framing of Latino immigrants. Titled “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” the report can be found here.

They point out that in spite of anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from people obsessed with a vigorous, often racialized, framing of not-white immigrants (they almost never focus on white immigrants, documented of undocumented – why is that?) the numbers of these have actually not increased over the last few years, a decline actually predating the current Bush Depression:

A 2008 report by the Center . . . concluded that the undocumented immigrant population grew rapidly from 1990 to 2006 but has since stabilized. In this new analysis, the Center estimates that the rapid growth of unauthorized immigrant workers also has halted; it finds that there were 8.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. labor force in March 2008.

It would be significant if the anti-immigrant groups would actually recognize and openly accent this fact. One would think they would be delighted at the decline. Do they need to keep accenting increases and large numbers to get funding and members? The Pew Report also has interesting data on the relatively small percentages of the U.S. population that are involved when it comes to undocumented immigrants:

Based on March 2008 data collected by the Census Bureau, the Center estimates that unauthorized immigrants are 4% of the nation’s population and account for 5.4% of its workforce. Their children, both those who are unauthorized immigrants themselves and those who are U.S. citizens, make up 6.8% of the students enrolled in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.

That is, they work a lot, with a larger percentage of the workforce than of the general population. And their children go to schools. Neither picture fits the negative racial framing of them as lazy goverment aid recipients or freeloaders. And both percentages are rather small – far -smaller than the anti-immigrant folks often suggest. Indeed, these percentages are smaller than for the peak periods of earlier white immigration around 1900. Many of us who are white have undocumented ancestors because of the very lenient — or indeed mostly no — immigration laws for European immigrants from the 1790s to the 1920s.

Over the past decade, misinformation about and hostility toward immigrants have too seldom been countered by educators and officials willing to speak on the truth. Government data indicate that immigration from Asia and Latin America since the 1960s is not fueling a uniquely large population expansion. The 1980s saw a population increase of only 10 percent, the second-lowest rate of increase for any decade in U.S. immigration history. The 1990s saw a somewhat faster increase (13 percent), also smaller than increases for most decades over the past century and a half. For example, in the decades from the 1850s to the 1920s, the percentage increases in population ranged from a low of 15 percent over the 1910s to a high of 36 percent over the 1850s.

New York - Ellis Island
Creative Commons License photo credit: David Paul Ohmer
Between 1901 and 1910, some 8.8 million immigrants entered the United States, mostly from Europe. This was the largest number of immigrants to the United States for any decade prior to the 1990s. Immigration and Naturalization Service data for 1991–2000 show that total legal immigration was the largest yet, nearly 10 million. Yet, during that early-twentieth-century decade, the U.S. population was much smaller than today—92 million, as compared with 281 million in 2000. The ratio of documented immigrants to the U.S.-born population is much lower today than the immigrant/population ratio was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, even adding in estimates for undocumented immigrants who stay permanently, the United States has not only a smaller percentage of foreign-born than in earlier decades but a smaller percentage of foreign-born than some European countries. Given its long history of successful absorption of immigrants and the size of its native-born population and geographical area, the United States is unlikely to ever be overwhelmed by the current rate of immigration. (See chapter 13 in this book.)

The Pew report notes too that about a quarter of today’s undocumented immigrants are not Latino, yet these immigrants seldom get noted well in the loud anti-immigrant debates. Indeed, even among the Latino undocumented immigrants, some 41 percent are not from Mexico:

Significant regional sources of unauthorized immigrants include Asia (11%), Central America (11%), South America (7%), the Caribbean (4%) and the Middle East (less than 2%).

The Pew Report also has other data that contradict certain other stereotypes of the immigrants:

Unauthorized immigrants living in the United States are more geographically dispersed than in the past and are more likely than either U.S. born residents or legal immigrants to live in a household with a spouse and children. In addition, a growing share of the children of unauthorized immigrant parents–73%–were born in this country and are U.S. citizens.

That is, they often live in areas other than the border states, and are more likely to form the families that yet other conservative groups like to accent in regard to issues other than immigration. Where are these “pro-family” groups when it comes to these family-oriented Latino immigrants who work hard and press their children to get good educations?