BLUF: America has been touted as a melting pot, a place where all are welcome. Yet, immigration to the United States is both extremely difficult and incredibly costly. However, while America may not welcome immigrants with open arms, legal and noncitizen immigrants contribute considerably to society in a way that America’s economy and innovation have come to depend on.
When she walked onto the Inauguration stage, dressed to perfection, Jennifer Lopez bellowed a beautiful patriotic medley.
This land is your land and this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me
The words are familiar, sung in plenty of elementary schools and at 4th of July celebrations around our great nation, every year. Famously written by American folk singer Woody Guthrie in 1940, because he was tired of hearing “God Bless America,” the words are not just a popular patriotic jam (in fact the original version includes verses critical of America), but they are often used to paint a picture of America where all are welcome. For example, This Land/Our Land is a music video project featuring six young immigrant musicians performing a new arrangement of the alternative national anthem.
The Biden Administration has signaled immigration is likely to be one of its key issues, with several executive orders on the subject signed in the president’s first week of office. So let’s talk immigration. Is this land really made for you and me?
WHO IS AN IMMIGRANT?
Before we can answer that question, let’s take a closer look at who immigrants are, the causes of immigration, and what immigration looks like in America. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, an immigrant can be a “Permanent Resident Alien or “an alien admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Permanent residents are also commonly referred to as immigrants.” However, the department also recognizes the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)’s definition of “an immigrant as any alien in the United States, except one legally admitted under specific nonimmigrant categories (INA section 101(a)(15)).” But, an immigrant can also be “an illegal alien who entered the United States without inspection, for example, would be strictly defined as an immigrant under the INA but is not a permanent resident alien.”
Did you get any of that? Me neither. Basically, an immigrant is a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence, or (and I personally like this definition the best) a plant or animal that becomes established in an area where it was previously unknown. Dignity check: President Biden has proposed swapping the term “alien” in all US immigration laws with the word “noncitizen,” calling out the inhumaneness of the term.
An immigrant is different from a migrant in that migrants move temporarily for a variety of reasons (think birds who fly south for the winter, or snowbirds — rich people who take winter holiday at the beach) while immigration requires a degree of permanency. This is not to be confused with “emigrant” which means you are leaving your country for another.
So how does someone legally immigrate to America? Well, it’s complicated. There is the family route (you’re related to someone or married to someone), the employment route (140,000 green cards available annually based on five preferences), the diversity lotto (50,000 awarded randomly from over 14 million annual applicants), and refugee and asylum quotas. For an in-depth look at all of that, check out this explainer. And let’s talk cashmoney, because none of these things are cheap! For example, it costs more than $1,000 just to apply for a green card (which can take years — without a guarantee of approval) and retaining a lawyer can rack up additional thousands of dollars. American citizenship application costs vary by type, encourage legal representation, and should your citizenship be granted… welp, you can expect to pay thousands more in fees.
Fun (f*cked up) facts: According to a US News & World Report article, less than 40% of Americans would pass the citizenship test. For example, only 13% of people surveyed knew what year the US Constitution was ratified (1788); 60% percent didn’t know which countries America fought during WWII, and only 43% knew how many justices are on the court (9). And, guess what! Each year, those immigration lotteries? Well, companies scam the crap out of good folks who give them every saved penny they have.
WHAT CAUSES PEOPLE TO IMMIGRATE?
There are a countless number of causes prompting immigration, including both push and pull factors. Push factors are reasons in one’s originating country causing, and in some cases forcing, a person to leave. Think war, famine, natural disaster, few jobs. Pull factors are reasons a person may be attracted to another country. Think job opportunities, safety, education.
A concern as of late has been how climate will impact migration. A brilliant but deeply disturbing New York Times (NYT) piece demonstrates eloquently how serious climate migration already is but how devastating it is likely to become. Today, 1% of the world’s population lives in what the author calls a “barely livable hot zone” or (a climate similar to the Sahara Desert – FUN!); however, the NYT projects that by the year 2070 — 19% of the world’s population will be forced to leave land too hot to inhabit.
Yes, there are some immigrants who are paid “under the table,” thus not paying income tax; however, the IRS estimates that more than 6 million noncitizen immigrants file individual income tax returns each year.
If a person has been forced to leave their country, they are often considered to be either a refugee or an asylum seeker. Refugees are classified as such usually before leaving their country (think: Syrian refugees who were classified as such by the United Nations). An asylum seeker leaves their country and crosses or gets to a border then applies for asylum based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or group affiliation and that person fears themselves or their families will be persecuted if they are forced to return home. Asylees and refugees account for a small percentage of total immigrants to America — 61,092 refugees and asylees in 2018 down 42.2% from the 105,350 in 2016.
WHAT DOES IMMIGRATION IN AMERICA LOOK LIKE?
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020 there were more than 40 million people living in America who were born in another country — more immigrants than any other country in the world. That same study found that in 2017, 77% of immigrants in America are here legally and 45% were naturalized US citizens.
In 2016 America, the top origin country for immigrants was Mexico, about 25%. Surprising to some, the second and third largest origin groups? China and India at 6%! Followed by the Philippines at 4% and El Salvador at 3%. But times they are a-changin’ because while more than 1 million immigrants are welcomed into America annually, the majority of those immigrants are now coming from China, not Mexico. In 2019, 149,000 immigrants arrived from China, 129,000 from India, with the third most immigrants coming from Mexico at 120,000. One interesting statistic about the future of migration is that Asian immigrants are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the US by 2055, surpassing Hispanic immigrants.
Let’s take a look at some common myths and facts about immigration in America…
MYTH: IMMIGRANTS DON’T PAY TAXES
You might think noncitizen immigrants are getting around the “system” by not having to pay taxes on their job income but, you would be wrong. Yes, there are some immigrants who are paid “under the table,” thus not paying income tax; however, the IRS estimates that more than 6 million noncitizen immigrants file individual income tax returns each year. Yup, that’s right, noncitizen immigrants are paying taxes into a system they may never benefit from (think: paying Social Security that many never cash out on). In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office shows that between 50%-70% of noncitizen immigrants pay federal, state, and local taxes and contribute more than $7 billion into Social Security annually. Not only do noncitizen immigrants contribute to our public services through taxes, they also spend billions of dollars supporting the American economy. In Texas alone, 1.4 million noncitizen immigrants added almost $18 billion to the gross state product, and contributed $1.58 billion in state revenue, while only costing the state about $1.16 billion in services used.
MYTH: IMMIGRANTS ARE A DRAIN ON THE AMERICAN SYSTEM
Not only do noncitizen immigrants contribute significantly every year via taxes they can’t cash in on, did you know that legal immigrants in America actually are doing better than many US-born populations? For example, from 1994 to 2015, immigrant homeownership rose 2.3 percentage points while US-born homeownership remained flat, contributing $3.7 trillion to housing markets nationwide. According to a Center for American Progress report, “working-class households — those with incomes less than twice the federal poverty line — headed by an immigrant rely to a much greater extent on their earnings from work and less on public programs than working-class households headed by a US-born person.” That same report showed that almost 30% of American entrepreneurs are immigrants.
MYTH: IMMIGRANTS HURT THE ECONOMY
A pretty shocking February 2020 policy brief using 2016 Census Bureau data found that reduced immigration, perhaps impacted by Trump’s immigration policies and COVID-19, to the US would have a devastating impact on the long-term future of the economy’s growth over the next four decades. Projections show that if immigration continued at 2016 levels, the US labor force would grow at a 0.45% annual rate from 2016 to 2060, eventually creating a 193-million-person workforce. However, 30% and 50% declines in legal immigration would only grow the US workforce by 0.30% and 0.19% annually — massively decreasing the potential of American economic growth. That same brief stated just how clearly immigration strengthens America’s economy and how devastating it can be without it, “The US will not be able to maintain its current standard of living unless the US government acts to significantly increase immigration, improve labor force participation, and, together with employers, raise labor productivity growth.”
MYTH: NONCITIZEN IMMIGRANTS ARE DANGEROUS
EHHHH/ERR? Whatever sound a beeper makes when you get it wrong. Make that noise because this is incorrect. Data shows that US-born citizens are actually over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes than noncitizen immigrants.
FACT: IMMIGRATION IS DIRECTLY LINKED TO NATIONAL SECURITY
Bingo! Finally, we get one right. In many ways, immigration has huge impacts on our national security and our national security decisions shape immigration flows, directly and indirectly. When it comes to ensuring safer borders, effective information sharing with other countries around the world bolsters what we know about the individuals entering our country but also about those push factors that may prompt waves of migration now and into the future. Think climate change: what are we doing to mediate the impact of habitability on other nations, particularly ones that are not consumer-driven like America? Think proxy wars and conventional weapons sales: these can end up exacerbating conflict leading to refugee crises. Dialogue with allies (and, unpopular opinion, enemies) around the globe, can help America tackle the root causes of migration, bolster safety within our borders, and find global solutions to long-term mass migrations (think burden sharing).
The point is, while America was supposed to be made for everyone (we are, after all, a giant “melting pot”), it’s actually really hard to get legal immigration status in America and yet, more than 75% of immigrants in America today are here legally. One could make a pretty valid case that, in many instances, documented or not, the American economy not only needs immigrants, but thrives with them. So while we have not made this land one for all, credit should be given to the millions of immigrants every year who live the American dream and make it their own.
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