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Myths hinder rational talk about immigration

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Katherine Fennelly
Katherine Fennelly, professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
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Minnesota has a well-deserved reputation as a state of civic-minded residents who care about the welfare of others. We have consistently ranked among the top five states in voter turnout, volunteerism, civic engagement and charitable giving. We have been justifiably proud of our reputation as a place that welcomes immigrants and refugees. And we are home to a wealth of foundations, nonprofits, human rights and social service agencies and immigrant-run organizations that strive to integrate foreign-born residents.

Why then have punitive measures toward immigrants become a rallying cry for some politicians? 

Will local municipalities or the state really benefit by mandating English as the only language for publications and services, by empowering police to check the immigration status of individuals who are stopped for traffic offenses or who "look illegal," or by creating an environment that discourages immigrants from coming to the state?

The cry for official English-only policies is a classic example of a policy in search of a problem. Such proposals are based on common myths:

The myth that immigrants don't want to learn English, and that such legislation will promote assimilation.

The facts suggest otherwise. Almost all immigrants understand the importance of speaking English. The primary obstacles to learning English are not lack of will, but the age at which immigrants enter the country and the lack of accessible ESL classes. Not surprisingly, adults often struggle to learn a new language, while their children quickly become fluent.

The myth that contemporary immigrants don't learn English as quickly as our European forebears.

I have heard some Minnesotans say that today's immigrants should "learn English the way that our parents and grandparents did." In fact, it took several generations for most European immigrants to learn English. Today the vast majority of children of immigrants are becoming fluent in English while simultaneously losing the ability to speak their parents' languages -- to such an extent that sociologist Ruben Rumbaut calls the United States a "graveyard for languages."  If Minnesotans are pressed to recall the experiences of their European ancestors, they may concede that Great Aunt Gertrud or Grandpa Olaf never fully gave up German or Swedish, even after decades in the country.  

The myth that English is not currently the primary language of all official publications. This is blatantly false.  

The myth that the state would save money by prohibiting the publication of signs and educational materials and emergency information in more than one language. There are clearly some costs that can be attributed to printing materials in multiple languages. How should those costs be gauged against the costs of creating obstacles to access to vital services, receipt of drivers' licenses, reporting of crimes, obeying laws and ordinances, or payment of taxes?

Is it logical to emphasize the need to prepare students to compete in a global community, while at the same time disparaging bilingualism among immigrants?  

A number of the punitive measures proposed to restrict the numbers of immigrants or their use of services are based on the widespread misassumption that immigrants cost more than they contribute.   

While it is true that there are short-term costs to towns that have a rapid influx of foreign-born residents, these costs are overshadowed by the long term benefits to the economy. Our biggest economic challenge as a state is the rapid pace of aging and the related increase in expenditures for services for the elderly. For example, one recent headline in the Star Tribune bemoaned the closure of schools due to declining enrollments, while another warned about the high costs of an aging society in which retirees will soon outnumber schoolchildren. 

As a colleague and I wrote in a recent report on the Economic Impacts of Immigration in Minnesota, a young labor force is essential for continued prosperity. As American workers age, immigrants have become a vital source of new workers. In the face of what some have called a "silver tsunami" of retirements, our choices are to hire young, foreign-born workers or to outsource jobs to other countries.

Nationally, the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that the "immigration surplus" (the amount by which the native-born population gains from immigration) is $37 billion per year. The fiscal benefits of immigration over time have been reported by such august, nonpartisan groups as the Congressional Budget Office, the President's Council of Economic Advisers and a group of over 500 economists (including five Nobel Prize winners) who calculate that the benefits of immigration exceed the costs.   

But it takes time for new immigrants to find jobs and housing, to study a new language and join the labor force. As a result, in the short term immigration may cost towns money, while at the same time filling the coffers of higher levels of government and of companies that employ immigrants on a large scale. The solution isn't to allow less immigration, but to look beyond the short term and to call for a more equitable distribution of the fiscal benefits.  

Just as we take it for granted that we must invest in children born in the United States in order to prepare them for tomorrow's workforce, we must invest in immigrants and refugees who will play a key role in the Minnesota economy. Without immigrants our state would soon have a predominantly elderly population with too few working-age, tax-paying residents to support the rest.  

This leads us to another myth: that immigrants don't pay taxes. Regardless of their legal status, all immigrants pay retail, excise and property taxes, and over half of undocumented workers have state and federal income taxes withheld from their paychecks. Far more of them would comply if they were brought out of the shadows by comprehensive immigration reform that accorded them legal status. 

Rather than driving down wages, immigrant workers actually have a small but positive upward influence on American workers' wages. This is because new workers stimulate the economy through their consumption of goods and services, which -- in turn -- creates more jobs. In 2007, the President's Council of Economic Advisers estimated that wage gains from immigration were between $30 billion and $80 billion per year, and that "sharply reducing immigration would be a poorly targeted and inefficient way to assist low-wage Americans."

Much of the anger toward immigrants is directed at the undocumented. What is poorly understood is that it is U.S. policies that have created the phenomenon of the so-called "illegal alien." In the years since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement there has been a dramatic increase in the flow of goods and capital among the United States, Canada and Mexico, but no corresponding increase in the numbers of visas allotted to foreign workers. The shortage is most dramatic in the very categories of jobs that are projected to increase the fastest in the next decade -- those that require only on-the-job training. Without comprehensive immigration reform, low-skilled foreign-born workers have "no line to get into" to obtain legal status.   

To maintain our reputation as a state of caring and civic-minded individuals, Minnesotans need to reject harsh policies aimed at punishing and alienating immigrants, and replace them with policies that promote integration. To do so is not only in our social interest; it is key to the long-term prosperity of the state. 

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Katherine Fennelly is a professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.