8 Things You're Getting Completely Wrong About Central America's Migration Crisis

8 Things You're Getting Completely Wrong About Central America's Migration Crisis

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

No, it won’t destroy your economy nor put your kids at risk. Here are the statements many people are getting wrong about immigration.

The recent migrant caravan from Honduras has sparked rather vocal reactions from those who support it—and especially from those who oppose it. However, the discussion is riddled with base misunderstandings concerning the nature of immigration as a whole. Yes, Trump is known for his disparaging comments against migrants; the problem is that way too many people seem to agree with his sentiments. But it's important to note that his comments often lack solid evidence and plenty of beliefs surrounding migration tend to be based on nothing but prejudice. So, to dispense with the myths, here are the main false statements that are often championed against immigration.

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1) “Closing or reinforcing the borders will prevent migration!”

Migration tends to occur through other channels, both legal and illegal, when borders are closed or immigration policies are tightened. Furthermore, restricting migration not only prevents immigrant inflow, but outflow as well. In other words, many who would’ve otherwise returned to their country instead opt for permanent residence when they realize they will not have the option to come back in the future.

Hein de Haas, a professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, notes the important examples of the so-called “guest-workers,” people who are granted the right to work in a given country temporarily without citizenship. It happened in Spain after the country introduced visa requirements in 1991: Moroccans who used to travel back-and-forth as seasonal workers instead began to seek residence, bringing their families over, and increasing illegal immigration as well. 

As de Haas points out

This does not mean that governments cannot or should not control migration. It rather shows that liberal immigration policies do not necessarily lead to mass migration and that ill-conceived migration policies can be counterproductive. Free migration is often strongly circulatory, as we see with migration within the EU. The more restrictive entry policies are, the more migrants want to stay.

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(Photo by @sfbex)

2) “The arrival of these immigrants will noticeably upset our national infrastructure and it represents a significant economic strain!”

Not only is illegal immigration economically harmless to the host country; it is actually beneficial, according to plenty of research—both to the government's coffers as to the individual citizens overall. 

To refer to one of the many studies that point to this conclusion, in 2010 a paper was published in the Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control which shows illegal immigration stands to produce considerable welfare benefits and gains for the native population. Furthermore, a 2018 study found that failing to legalize the “illegal immigrants” who are already in the country leads to a loss of public revenue on the one hand, while native workers (with different skill sets) stand to gain a lot from mass legalization on the other. 

A different study from 2015 concludes that “increasing deportation rates and tightening border control weakens low-skilled labor markets, increasing unemployment of native low-skilled workers. Legalization, instead, decreases the unemployment rate of low-skilled natives and increases income per native.” In general, all of these and many other similar studies show a marked support for the thesis that immigration, legal or illegal, greatly benefits the economy of the countries that receive it. There is simply no evidence nor justification to believe that lighter regulations will lead to a worse economy, and there is reason to believe exactly the opposite.

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3) “Immigrants steal our jobs!”

First, most people from the caravan are looking to escape violence and poor conditions in their own country. They don’t actively want to “steal” anybody’s job. If anything, they want to earn it; and ultimately, even if they make it into a country, no one is forced to hire them. Whoever chooses to hire an immigrant is granting them a job, so the immigrant isn’t stealing anything.

Second, immigrants tend to take the kind of jobs that most in the native population avoid. They fill the positions that citizens find undesirable, undertaking tasks no one else wants to do. In fact, research shows most Americans have a level of education which, simply put, gives them a different skill set than required by the jobs immigrants tend to take. In The Economic Logic of Illegal Immigration, Gordon H. Hanson reported for the Council on Foreign Relations that while most native U.S. workers have intermediate educational levels (at least high school and probably a college education), a remarkably small percentage of illegal immigrants hold this privilege. So, the skills for natives and the skills for immigrants hardly overlap and, as it happens, more immigration of this kind can encourage the economy and promote native citizens to focus on higher career prospects.

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4) “Illegal immigrants carry different diseases!”

Illegal immigrants don’t carry different diseases than those who can potentially enter the country legally. And while the control of foreign diseases is a challenge in a world where populations have high mobility rates, the answer isn't shunning migration altogether, but to promote several global health programs. It is impossible and undesirable—as seen above—to stop migration, but there are ways to prevent the spread of disease. In fact, if we were to promote legal migration not by restricting the borders, but by offering more opportunities for regulated migration, we could increase health checkpoints to filter out diseases—rather than people. Focusing on opening legal channels can potentially lead to better outcomes than focusing on closing illegal channels. 

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5) “Immigrants increase crime rates!”

There is consistent evidence across multiple studies and research that, historically, it is less probable for an immigrant to commit a crime than it is for a native citizen, and in fact immigration tends to decrease criminal rates. In this sense, people usually overstate and overestimate the relationship between immigration and high crime rates. As the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine points out in The Integration of Immigrants into American Society,

Americans have long believed that immigrants are more likely than natives to commit crimes and that rising immigration leads to rising crime. This belief is remarkably resilient to the contrary evidence that immigrants are in fact much less likely than natives to commit crimes.

It’s also simply not true that immigrants tend to be bad people. Even those who are trying to escape violence or poverty, such as the people in the Honduras caravan, show a tendency to decry violence in the first place (that’s the whole point). From the fact that someone is running away from violence it patently doesn't follow that they'll bring the violence with them. It is therefore unfortunate (and outright deceitful) that immigrants and other minorities have often been over-portrayed as being prone to crime, even though evidence and statistics consistently show exactly the opposite.

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6) “They have no right to enter other countries!”

The right of asylum has been a concept held by humanity since the earliest known juridical systems, from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Hebrews to our contemporary civilization. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 unequivocally affirms that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” This was further supported in 1951 by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as well as the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967. The United States recognizes this right under federal law.

7) “These are unprecedented levels of immigration!”

Neither the caravan nor this century’s rate of immigration represent an unprecedented trend. Studies have shown that immigration has remained stable and its rate is amazingly constant, at levels of approximately 3% since 1960. Recent so-called refugee crises are also not unprecedented, and their significance as special migratory phenomena has been greatly exaggerated.

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8) “The rejection of the caravan is an isolated affair!”

Be it to avoid permanent settlement, or just to stop it from moving across borders, rejecting a migrant caravan reinforces xenophobic prejudices, whether we want it or not, and regardless of whether we ourselves are xenophobes. If anything, the moral and political example we would set by supporting the caravan’s intended movement far outweighs any potential cost. But if we turn them away, or if we vocally argue against their freedom to move across countries, we are contributing to the hostile (and, as shown, biased and unjustified) atmosphere engulfing today’s political landscape. 

(Cover photo by Robert Zepeda)


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