Takeaway | Spring 2017 Issue

From Assumptions to Facts

Immigrants breathe life, culture and money into American society.

By Jim Newton

THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO EXAMINE IMMIGRATION. One bad way is through assumptions. Many assume — and claim — that immigrants do not pay taxes. That’s incorrect (see our infographic). Many assume that immigration is a recent phenomenon and is driven almost exclusively by Latin American migration. Wrong. Many, including some in Washington, assume that illegal immigrants arrive in the United States principally by sneaking across a lightly protected border. Wrong again.

Then there are those who study immigration, as do the researchers featured in this issue. They don’t start from positions of hostility — immigrants take jobs that should go to Americans or they absorb government benefits. These researchers start by looking at life itself. How do immigrants arrive? How and where do they live? What persuades them to come to the United States and to stay here, sometimes longer than they had intended. When — and only when — we have answers to those questions will it be possible to fashion sensible, humane policies for regulating immigration.
Professor Roger Waldinger, for instance, has broken American feelings toward immigrants into categories. He notes that Americans are protective of our borders and troubled by people who enter illegally, but that once immigrants are here, those attitudes turn protective, because most Americans recognize the contributions of their immigrant neighbors, no matter how they got into the country.

These dual attitudes may suggest policies that regulate entry but discourage deportation.
Or consider the work of Margaret Peters. By examining the longstanding and global connections between immigration and trade, phenomena liked Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump are more explicable. Paul Ong, meanwhile, gives us a detailed map of where immigrants settle after they arrive in the United States and how developments such as gentrification affect their work and livelihoods. Finally, there is Abel Valenzuela, asking whether immigrants take existing jobs or create new ones, a vital distinction at the heart of how working class communities can or should welcome newcomers.
Policy rooted in research — rather than fear or nativism — is not only likely to be more humane, but it also is likely to be more enduring and efficient.

If we bar young engineers from this country on the mistaken assumption that they will take American jobs, we will simply deny America the benefit of their work. If we engage in mass deportations, we may sunder families and undermine neighborhoods without getting anything in return. If we discourage people who are in this country illegally from contacting police, we all may be more vulnerable.

Smart research does not guarantee intelligent policy, and the pieces featured here may or may not guide policymakers toward rational ends. What is certain, however, is that without research we are left with only gut feelings and untested assumptions. That’s a guaranteed route to irrationality.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books of biography and history, and he teaches at UCLA.

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