PBS and Immigration Apologetics

In its article, “4 Myths About How Immigrants affect the U.S. economy,” PBS manages to get just about everything wrong about the impact of immigration on the United States. Let’s go through the “myths” one by one and see how they hold up to logic and evidence. 

Myth #1 “Immigrants take more from the US government than they contribute.” The article claims they don’t actually. Yet, a couple of sentences into this section the article admits they actually do: “First-generation immigrants cost the government more than native-born Americans.” How much more? $1600 per legal immigrant per year. As I have pointed out in previous essays on this blog (see “The Immigration Situation“), that’s tens of billions of dollars annually, a tax burden borne by native-born workers to support the immigrants who will compete for their jobs. But don’t worry, the authors of the article write, “second-generation immigrants” contribute more in taxes than nonimmigrants.

But “second-generation immigrants” aren’t actually a thing. The United States inherited from English common law the principle of jus soli. The politicians and pundits call it “birth-right citizenship” (and they’re keen on keeping it). It means that, with very narrow exceptions, if you are born in the United States, then you are a US citizen. You can have second-generation immigrants in Sweden and Norway (and most of the rest of the world) because they have jus sanguinis (citizenship by ancestry), but not in the United States. An accurate calculation of the fiscal burden of immigration would therefore not count a first-generation native-born citizen on the immigrant side of the tax ledger. It would count him on the native-born side of the ledger. This deceitful way of talking about immigration is rampant in immigration apologetics. One might think that the journalistic standard of objectivity would correct such an error. The widespread persistence of dishonest framing supports the propaganda model of the corporate media.

The article admits it’s hard to measure the fiscal impact of illegal immigrants (to this point, the article has been only about legal immigrants). But consider that using schools, hospitals, and public infrastructure while paying little in property tax (indirectly through rents), little in sales taxes (California, the state with the largest number of immigrants, doesn’t tax food), and no income or payroll taxes cannot possibly be associated with a net increase in revenue. Moreover, the burden would be greater if illegal immigrants weren’t afraid of being detected by authorities and so avoid formally utilizing public services, which puts stress on the system in other ways. Many immigrant advocates argue for distribution of public services without respect to immigration status. Of course there is a moral obligation to provide water, food, shelter, and medicine to those in our country who need it. But this is all the more reason to reform immigration to reduce the flow into the country.

Myth #2: “Immigrants take American jobs.” The article admits that immigrants make up 17 percent of the US labor force. That’s more than 27 million workers. How is it possible that such a large figure would not displace native-born workers? As I have pointed out in essays on this blog (see, e.g. “The Immigration Situation“), immigration not only pushes native-born workers out of low-skilled/low-wage jobs, it also displaces high-tech workers. Firms fire or avoid hiring skilled/high-wage native-born workers in favor of skilled/low-waged immigrant workers. Why? Profits. Value is produced by work, and the cheaper the labor, the more surplus value the capitalist appropriates in the labor process. Immigrant labor puts downward pressure on the wages across industries, harming the standard of living of native-born workers.

The reader need not remind me that immigrants don’t have the power to fire native-born workers. It’s the capitalist who exploits labor for profit. When we control immigration we control the ability of capitalists to use foreign labor as a cudgel against native-born labor. I’m not blaming immigrants for this situation.

The claim the PBS article makes, namely that “immigrant often have jobs that Americans tend not to take,” is a typical business propaganda line. It makes it sounds as if there are jobs lying around with no American workers waiting to fill them. Consider work in which immigrants are overrepresented: construction workers, custodial services, food services, groundskeepers, housekeepers, and taxi drivers – work that is not easily automated. All of these occupations are presently majority native-born. The composition of these occupations is changing not because American workers are lazy, but because capitalists are hiring immigrants over native-born workers. The propaganda line seeks to redefine the displacement of workers in these occupations as unwillingness to work. This is victim blaming.

The fallacious nature of this shopworn line is confirmed when we consider skilled labor occupations. More than a third of software engineers are immigrants. Is software engineering an occupation native-born Americans avoid? Or it is the case that a foreign-born software engineer will earn a lower wage for the same work thus generating greater surplus value of the capitalist? There are native-born software engineers, displaced by outsourcing, who are again screwed by the importation of cheap skilled labor. Take another example: doctors. More than a quarter of physicians in the US are foreign born. Is medicine a field in which native-born citizens are reluctant to enter? There is a perception that there is a physician shortage in the United States, but studies show that this is because of the way health care is organized and utilized not with the actual number of physicians per capita. Foreign-born physicians are highly desirable in a corporate system of medical care.

While the rhetoric is false, it works to create the perception that native-born workers are snobs who find certain occupations beneath them. It makes it easier to displace African-American groundskeepers, for example, by making it sound like they voluntarily leave the occupation to immigrant labor because the work is beneath them. You know, spoiled American workers and all that. Not to mention lazy poor people. On the other hand, memes asking “Who will pick our apples, take our orders, cook our food, bus our tables, clean our toilets?” cast immigrants as necessary for this “dirty work.” Capitalist use immigrant labor to create split-labor markets. 

The claim that we don’t have enough native-born workers to fill these jobs also asks us to ignore decades of state-led strategies to absorb and manage surplus workers. There are 2.3 million people in prison, half of whom are locked away for non-violent property and drug offenses. There are millions more with felony records who reside outside prison walls. They are disproportionately black and brown native-born citizens who, in most cases, had no job or were earning very little money at the time they committed the crime for which they were incarcerated. And a felony conviction makes it hard to work on the other side. Think of all the millions of native-born American workers who are out of work because the government facilitates the importation of foreign labor while leaving the native-born to languish in US prisons and jails and ghettos. It’s not possible to train them for the work now performed by cheap immigrant labor? It’s unfair to the men who want to support their families. Historically, labor shortages inspire prison reform (see Ruche and Kirchheimer’s Punishment and Social Structure). A dependable flow of cheap immigrant labor undermines those efforts.

What prevents Americans from seeing a mass of unemployed labor on one side and a mass of jobs on the other and seeing a solution to the problems of black America? Why do they instead insist that these jobs are for immigrants?

The claim that immigration has not come at the cost of American wages is contradicted by the fact that half a trillion dollars (you read that right: 500 billion dollars) is transferred from the native-born working class to the capitalist class every year because of the wage differential between native-born and foreign-born labor. That’s the point of hiring immigrant workers: to pay them less than native-born workers. Immigrants may increase overall economic output, but what is not being said in this article or generally in the establishment media is that large-scale immigration redistributes the wealth and income in a way that harms native-born workers. Since America was opened up to immigration in the mid-1960s, we have seen wages stagnate, union density plummet, income inequality increase, and a shift in politics from left to right. The proportion of our population that is foreign-born is now approaching late 19thcentury levels. Are working Americans the better for it? Are economic conditions better today than they were in the 1960s? Is the left stronger today then yesterday?

Myth #3: “The US economy does not need immigrants.” Here, the article makes the oft-heard claim that immigrants offset a falling birth rate. The first question we should ask: Why is a falling birth rate such a bad idea? Because of the aging population? The article tries to scare the reader: “If not for immigrants, the U.S. workforce would be shrinking. Social Security, which is paid for by current workers, would be in even more serious budgetary trouble than it already is.” But Social Security is not in trouble. Social Security is trillions of dollars in the black. And we can raise payroll taxes if there’s ever a problem.

Another claim elites make is that the workforce would be shrinking but for immigrants. What would be shrinking is a low-wage labor force for capitalist to exploit for mega-profit. What happens to wages when there is greater demand for workers? Wages go up. Few workers mean fewer people waiting to take your job for less money. That means more money for you. Better jobs with better pay and better conditions. But that won’t happen if businesses can always depend on cheap immigrant labor. Workers are not just competing with cheap labor overseas. That cheap labor is being brought here. Who can blame immigrants for wanting to come over and take advantage of that? I don’t. This is capitalism. But I am a socialist and I am not interested in helping capitalists undermine the living standards of the American worker.

More people is not environmentally sustainable. The United States has 326 million people. We are the third largest country in the world. Only China and India are bigger. We don’t need more people. According to naturalist Karen Shragg, writing for Free Inquiry, the United States should have 150 million people to be sustainable.

When the public discourse focuses on individual behavior change, we hear a statistic such as this: on average, every adult in the United States is responsible for giving off 19.8 metric tons of carbon per year. This compares to only 4.6 metric tons per average Chinese citizen. This is a statistic that shows our excess. But why, then, does China contribute more emissions than the United States? Because its total population is so much larger. China’s nearly 1.5 billion people are responsible for 29.51 percent of the world’s total annual carbon emissions (2015), and the United States with its relatively smaller 324 million accounts for 14.34 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions (2015). 

Karen Shragg (2017)

More people means more consumption of resources, more pollution of land, sea, and air, more habitat destruction, more noise, more traffic. What was the point of promoting family planning and birth control in the first place? To reduce poverty and reduce our ecological footprint? Or to create a need for foreign-born workers to do the dirty work of capitalism? Proponents of growth like to characterize those of us who worry about population as something akin to eugenicists. But does the environment matter or not? Economic growth and consumption are priorities for capitalism. We’re facing overshoot and collapse. We cannot maintain a modern standard of living, be environmentally responsible, and continue to add people to our population.  

Myth #4: “It would be better for the economy if immigrants’ children were not citizens.” The debate over jus soli and jus sanguinis seems impossible to have in the current political climate without those who see the problem with birth-right citizenship being accused of the worst of motives. So let’s leave that matter to one side. I will suggest you look at what most of the world does. Here, I will just want to draw attention to this absurd argument: “A Migration Policy Institute analysis estimates the number of unauthorized immigrants would increase from 11 million to 16 million by 2050 if birthright citizenship were repealed.” A tautology as an argument seems appropriate for this mess of an article.  

* * *

The establishment media – in this case PBS – is not interested in covering the immigration issue in an objective manner. What I am reading on an almost daily basis now is corporate propaganda designed to justify current levels of immigration and, furthermore, weaken support for rational immigration reform. PBS is the paradigm. Because the experience of Americans tells them that the claims made in the context of immigration apologetics are incredible, rather than winning the argument for immigration, intensifying nativist sentiment seems the more likely effect. If the corporate media is going to push immigration for their corporate sponsors, they would do better by immigrants, the native born, and naturalized citizens alike to try their best to be accurate and truthful in reporting and analyses.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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