From the Goucher Quarterly, Winter 2007

A recent report on immigration, and the reaction to it, highlighted for me one of the fundamental flaws of American political dialogue in the early 21st century: the automatic dismissal of information that is unexpected or counterintuitive.

In December 2006, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the comptroller of Texas, revealed the results of a comprehensive study of the impact of undocumented immigrants on the Lone Star State’s economy. What she found was that this much-maligned group of people had actually added $17.7 billion to the gross state product and produced $1.58 billion in state revenues in fiscal year 2005.

The absence of the estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in Texas would have been a blow to the state’s economy, Strayhorn said, further noting that their contribution to state revenues far exceeded the $1.16 billion in state services they received that year.

Were it not for its surprising conclusions, such a report might have been ignored entirely in the midst of post-election excitement and the holiday season. What happened instead is that the research was summarily rejected and the comptroller herself widely vilified for advancing such seemingly ridiculous notions.

One prominent Texas state legislator, who wants to contort the Constitution by revoking the U.S. citizenship of babies born here to undocumented immigrants, pronounced the study “outrageous.” The head of the Federation for American Immigration Reform declared it “a slap in the face to anyone with common sense.”

That’s the way it goes with the issue of immigration. At various moments of profound irony in American history-and this is one, par excellence-those who establish the parameters of political debate in this nation of immigrants have decided that immigration is a “problem” in urgent need of a “solution.”

Never mind that most Americans say they like the immigrants they know (the Koreans who run their neighborhood dry-cleaning establishments, the Hispanics who clean their houses, the Ethiopians who keep taxi services and parking garages running, and the Indians who revive failing hotel franchises in small towns, to name just a few). We are supposed to think there are too many immigrants, legal and “illegal” alike, and that they are exploiting our good will and generosity, creating a drain on our resources, and becoming an unsupportable burden.

What if there are not too many immigrants in the United States after all? What if, as the comptroller of Texas discovered in her state, undocumented workers are actually contributing more than they are receiving? What if they are helping to keep agricultural products affordable, stepping in to relieve the shortage of qualified construction workers, and breathing new life into both small towns and big-city neighborhoods that had been virtually abandoned for dead?

In the midst of near-hysteria, it is quite easy for local demagogues in places like Taneytown, Maryland, and Hazelton, Pennsylvania, to push through ordinances declaring English to be the official local language or banning undocumented immigrants from living within their boundaries-and for state officials to introduce referenda intended to deny undocumented immigrants access to public schools and health care facilities.

But who will step up and take the other side in the volatile immigration debate? How many officeholders at various levels of government are willing to tell some of the most obvious, albeit unpopular, truths:

  • that it would be totally impractical and unaffordable, not to say ineffective, to build a wall across the length of the U.S.-Mexican border, as authorized (but not funded) by Congress last year in a burst of pre-election foolishness;
  • that, contrary to popular self-righteous myth, many of our own ancestors came to this country with less-than-perfect documentation;
  • that we are much better off with undocumented immigrants being treated for diseases, even at public expense, than having all of us at risk of catching them, and with their children in school, rather than on the streets, vulnerable to recruitment into gangs; and
  •  that a miniscule percentage of immigrants have any inclination to participate in the illegal drug trade or to commit terrorist acts.

There are many problems associated with today’s immigration, to be sure. As Strayhorn noted in her report, local governments often bear an undue burden of the costs for health care, law enforcement, and the like, for which state and federal agencies will not accept responsibility. Another little-recognized phenomenon is that, through their work, some undocumented immigrants pay Social Security and other taxes for which they may never receive credit, because the system leaves them no choice but to use false identity documents and Social Security numbers. Furthermore, unrealistically low official quotas for legal immigration have led to tragic human smuggling and other associated criminal behavior along the border, especially in the Arizona and New Mexico deserts.

But if Congress were to set immigration numbers according to economic forces and market demand, and enact the kind of guest-worker program that President Bush has advocated, much of that illegal activity would become unnecessary and obsolete.

That would involve shaping policy on the basis of real data, however, not simply yielding to conventional wisdom-and to those who reflexively dismiss any facts that don’t support it.

Sanford Ungar is the author of Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants, originally published in 1995.