Rhetoric Meets Reality: Immigration

By Kayla McGrady ’05

Note: This section of the story did not appear in the print version of the Voice.


Faress Bhuiyan, assistant professor of economics, teaches economic development and labor economics and researches determinants of quality of life
Anita Chikkatur, associate professor of educational studies, researches the effects of immigration trends and diversity in American public schools
Adriana Estill, associate professor of English and American studies, specializes in Latino studies
Stefanie Simon, Robert A. Oden Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Liberal Arts, teaches psychology and researches American attitudes toward immigration
Brisa Zubia, assistant director of intercultural and international life, works with Carleton’s international students and students of color

Are we now—and have we ever been—a nation of immigrants?

Estill: The belief that the United States was once an open and welcoming nation to immigrants is compromised. As a nation we’ve always struggled with who belongs here, who is part of a modernizing force, and who needs to be left behind. I illustrate this to students with a quote from Ben Franklin in which he bemoans the hordes of immigrants who “still speak German.” Xenophobia has always been ingrained in United States culture, but the targets change.

In American studies we define “race” as a whole set of historical and social constructs that build up around a people. So when we talk about racism’s impact on discussions about our southern border, our ideas around Latin Americans are affected by our long history of seeing South and Central America as underdeveloped compared to us. Historically, the United States has imagined itself shepherding Latin America into modernity, but always with some control over it. That’s what the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, and interventions in countries like Guatemala and Argentina are about. In some ways Americans fear [Latin American] immigrants will somehow undo our civilization.

Simon: My research group wanted to discover how the rhetoric of “we’re a nation of immigrants” influences Americans’ attitudes toward immigrants today. We found that immediately after asking people (who aren’t descendants of Native Americans or slaves) to imagine their ancestors arriving in the United States, liberal-leaning people tended to report more positive feelings toward immigrants, while the opposite happened for conservatives.

We hadn’t initially been looking at ideology as a factor, but after this trend emerged we did more literature review and found a narrative of continuity and discontinuity that helped explain it. Language from liberal leaders like President Obama about “remembering our roots” predisposes liberals to relate today’s immigrants to their ancestors [continuity], while conservative politicians’ language about illegal immigration predisposes conservatives to feel separate from today’s immigrants, because their families came here “the right way” [discontinuity]. So depending on the audience, “we’re a nation of immigrants,” rhetoric meant to unite us, might backfire.

What factors influence Americans’ feelings toward immigrants?

Simon: Americans’ feelings about how well they’re doing influence their feelings about immigrants. When people feel deprived, they go into a mind-set of looking for loss instead of potential gain and become more likely to view the issue as a zero-sum game, where immigrants are just taking resources, rather than adding to the culture or economy.

Bhuiyan: From a strictly monetary perspective, immigrants add to the economy by buying food, driving business, and bringing in new ideas. Undocumented immigrants, in particular, provide a labor force that fuels family farms and mom-and-pop shops. If we remove that labor source without providing something like a small-business tax break to compensate, having to pay higher wages for low-skill labor could price those small businesses out of the market. The wage bill is a much bigger fraction of a small business’s cost than a big firm’s, so the small grocery store is going to lose out to Walmart, which could better absorb added payroll expense without having to raise prices.

Econometricians—economists who measure how theories play out in the real world—have found no empirical evidence that immigrants are messing up life for other citizens in their communities. It’s usually a neutral or slightly positive effect overall.

Chikkatur: That isn’t to say people don’t feel the impact in specific areas because of how we allocate resources, like school funding. Kids who need to learn English are concentrated in particular areas. A place like Faribault, Minnesota, where about half the elementary students qualify for free or reduced lunch, doesn’t necessarily have the resources to support an influx of nonnative speakers. So how do we figure out how to make our schools’ resources equitable across locations?

Zubia: We’ve had Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA] students at Carleton for three years, and they’ve flourished academically. Some of them volunteered to share their stories at a panel discussion last fall and more than 100 people came. I think they’ve broken some stereotypes and opened people’s eyes to the reality of [undocumented immigration].

After the election, some of them wondered if they should even continue with their education, given the uncertainty. Should they be home supporting their families instead? But they got an e-mail from President Poskanzer pledging that Carleton will replace any financial support they lose if DACA is terminated.

It helps all of our students to put a face to the situation, to build relationships, hear stories, and see where people are coming from.

Bhuiyan: Economics isn’t just about the amount of money you have—it more broadly talks about a society’s welfare. What affects our quality of life? For example, we interact with undocumented immigrants culturally, through our social networks and through our businesses, so we should consider those effects when discussing the economic impact of undocumented immigration.

What are the barriers to immigrants who want to enter the country legally?

Chikkatur: After my family applied for a visa to come here from India (when I was a young child), it took eight years before we got authorization to come. But my family wasn’t in immediate need. My parents had a vague idea that my brother and I would have a better education here, but they weren’t suffering politically or economically. That system only serves already-privileged people. A family in Central America facing gang violence doesn’t have eight years to wait for a visa. Our system might as well not even exist for them.

Zubia: People who cross the border illegally do so because our legal immigration system doesn’t serve them and the risk is worth it to them. What can we do to change that?

Estill: Even as Americans discuss whether and how we should limit immigration, the United States continues to adopt economic, social, and political policies that encourage people to come here, whether or not that result was intentional. We can’t change immigration by simply focusing on the people crossing our borders. We also need to look critically at our foreign policy, because the role we play in countries around the world directly affects immigration flows.

Bhuiyan: The terror rhetoric that’s causing us to shut out refugees is way off if you look at actual projections of risk. From a geopolitical view, we’re taking a risk by not accepting refugees. Even if it’s unintentional, our actions might look bigoted to the rest of the world, and that will deter high-skilled immigrants from coming here. My friends in Bangladesh, well-educated doctors and teachers, don’t want to come here now because they don’t want their children to be harassed in a classroom.

If we feel that perhaps our policies in Syria and the Middle East could have been a little better historically, that we failed in some respect, then letting some refugees in would be a quick, relatively low-cost way of showing we care about our brothers and sisters around the world.

Where can we learn more?

Estill: I really like the way Matthew Frye Jacobson’s book Whiteness of a Different Color traces how Irish and Italian immigrants weren’t originally seen as white but eventually became so. For a great history on the nexus of U.S. policy and race, Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects is a classic.

The Pew Research Center is a respected source of good memos and pieces that summarize the data they gather. They do good work on Hispanic issues and immigration.

Zubia: Watch the documentaries Documented and The Second Cooler.

Chikkatur: I recommend to podcasts about various aspects of immigration: a story on “Dreamers” (undocumented students) on NPR’s Latino USA and a story of the sanctuary movement on NPR’s CodeSwitch.

To learn more about the topic of immigration and education I recommend Subtractive Schooling by Angela Valenzuela and Made in America by Laurie Olsen.

Bhuiyan: To learn more about economics and immigration, I suggest The Economic Consequences of Immigration by Julian Lincoln Simon and Issues in the Economics of Immigration, edited by George J. Borjas.

Ask the Experts

Carleton’s Community, Equity, and Diversity Initiative (CEDI) organized four expert panel discussions during winter and spring terms to address students’ questions on public policy topics similar to those covered in this story.

The first panel, held January 17, featured immigration law experts from the University of Minnesota and the American Civil Liberties Union, including Ben Casper-Sanchez ’90, executive director of the Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School. Casper’s remarks are excerpted here.  

"There’s a lot of gloom and fear [about immigration], but let’s put it in perspective.

"The Obama administration was already deporting 400,000 people a year, a historical high, mostly focused on people with criminal records. The budget for federal immigration enforcement has gone up continuously and is now about $18.5 billion a year—$4 billion more than the total spent on all other federal law enforcement activity, including the FBI, ATF, and federal marshals.

"So we’re already at a point where we’re nearing capacity. Immigration courts—judges who decide who gets deported—are totally overwhelmed. We could double the number of judges and we’d still have multiple-year backlogs. So the notion that you could come in and immediately deport large numbers of people is fallacious. You could marginally increase it, maybe, if you [spent] another $5 billion. Maybe up to 500,000 people a year. But if you’re a person who’s been here many years working undocumented but not falling into the criminal justice system, and you have U.S. citizen family members, your chance of actually falling into the deportation system are relatively small—and will remain small, in my view, even if there’s an increase in spending.

"I think the number-one policy for the incoming administration is fear. They’ll promote—rather than keep quiet—their enforcement activities. That will raise the level of fear, even if the risks aren’t statistically much greater. And they might take regulatory actions, like possibly expanding the number of people who can be subjected to expedited removal proceedings. Most undocumented people who are arrested have procedural rights to fight their cases in immigration court. But there are laws that allow the government to deport on an expedited basis—if you have a criminal record or if you were caught within 100 miles of the border and haven’t been here for more than two years. They could increase those margins, and that would be raise a lot of fear. So I think there’ll be a lot of publicity, and they’ll get a lot of bang for their political buck by scaring the hell out of people."

Watch recordings of this and other CEDI panels online.

Update: Following President Trump’s executive order on January 25 restricting refugee resettlement and blocking entry to the United States from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen, President Poskanzer sent an e-mail to the Carleton community stating that the college would provide legal representation, financial assistance, and any other necessary help to any Carleton community member affected by this or subsequent orders. “Despite swirling political winds, there are core values to which Carleton subscribes,” Poskanzer wrote. “Our commitment to international education remains unwavering.”

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