Barnard Professor’s Moya Addresses Myths and Realities on US Immigration

April 25, 2019

Barnard College history professor José Moya, Director of the Forum on Migration and of Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies, gave a presentation late April on “Immigration in the US: Reality Versus Fake News,” hosted in conjunction by Columbia Global Centers Santiago and the Latin American School of Social Science (Flacso).

During the conference, moderated by Flacso Director Angel Flisfisch, Moya clarified common misconceptions and debunked myths regarding immigration in the United States. Among them:

  • Xenophobia is more intense today. The answer depends on the comparative periods, said Moya. If comparing to 19401980, then this is true. But if comparing to 1750-1930 then not so, according to the professor, referring to a quote from one of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who spoke of the “swarthy” Germans trying to “Germanize” Pennsylvania “instead of our Anglifying them.”
  • The US is the world’s largest immigrant country. Again, this depends on perspective. The US has received the highest amount at 19% of total immigration, but in proportion to the total population, immigrants represent 14% in the US, placing it number 67 on the ranking of immigration as a percentage of the population. In contrast, the immigrant population represents 84% of the total for the first nation on the list, the United Arab Emirates.
  • Other countries “send their worst” to the US. False. To begin with, no country “sends” immigrants, noted Moya. Further, while the US selects a low amount of immigrants (12%) based on their qualifications, it still receives 34% of doctorate immigrants, 40% of Nobel science winners, and 45% of hightech founders.
  • Immigration increases levels of crime. False, at least not in the US. While this may be true in other areas of the world such as Europe, in the US, the rates of imprisonment of immigrants are 56 times lower than for non-immigrants. Also, this number is actually distorted considering that many immigrants are within the demographics of those who commit crime (men aged 18-25), and the prison rate for immigrants is higher because many are in prison simply due to illegal immigration but for no other crime. When considering these two factors, the imprisonment of immigrants would be much lower, Moya pointed out.

Other areas of concern that Moya addressed included whether immigrants “steal” jobs from the non-immigrant population, if immigration brings overall salaries down, whether immigration propagates diseases, and if immigrants take advantage of social services. On this last point, Moya was emphatic in saying that retirement contributions automatically deducted from illegal immigrants’ paychecks and kept by the US government have surpassed US$ 1 trillion, effectively keeping the country’s social security system afloat.

In fact, due to the ageing population coupled with very low birth rates in developed nations, these countries will very likely be competing with each other soon to attract younger immigrants to maintain the country’s living standards, he added.

The immigration expert closed his presentation with a graph showing that the US was actually low on the list of a 2015 Gallup poll asking people if they felt immigration of foreign workers was bad for the country. Just over 35% of those polled in the US answered yes, putting the US in 38th place out of 44. In that ranking, Iraq led the list at nearly 80%.

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