Dispelling Myths about Undocumented Immigrants in the United States
Discovering the total number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has never been easy. Firstly, the current United States political climate is rife with uncertainty. When motives, intentions, and even facts themselves are transformed into fodder for debate, arriving at definite conclusions about any policy can pose Herculean challenges for even the experts, let alone the average citizen.
Nowhere does this sentiment ring more true than in the national debate about immigration. Naturally suspicious of authority, many undocumented immigrants resist attempts by scholars to study their American lifestyles. They fear, not without reason, that any information they reveal puts them at greater risk of arrest and potential deportation. Because of their pervasive silence, the concrete realities of these immigrants’ daily lives go unnoticed by the American population at large.
When facts cannot be found, fiction rushes in to fill the void. Myths about an America besieged by hordes of violent criminals pouring over the borders have taken root at every level of governance, despite the narrative’s shaky basis in reality. Such rhetoric serves only to place a political solution further out of reach by dividing Americans on the true costs and benefits of immigration, lawful or otherwise.
Fortunately, groundbreaking research conducted over the past few years presents a rare opportunity to look beyond the headlines and, hopefully, an opportunity to begin new conversations from a basis of fact. The Pew Research Group recently released an exhaustive analysis of the most recent statistics available on undocumented immigrants — where they come from, where they live, how long they’ve lived in the United States, and more. While their numbers cannot be regarded without a dose of skepticism, precisely because undocumented immigrants in the United States are so difficult to study, their statistical methods account for this information gap by aggregating data from a number of different sources. The result is a comprehensive look at immigration by the numbers: how many undocumented immigrants live in the United States, and what sorts of economic and societal dynamics do they truly add to the American way of life?
Pew Research on Undocumented Immigrants
The majority of the study focuses on demographics — where immigrants live and where they come from. As detailed in the study, over 60% of unauthorized immigrants are concentrated in just 20 metro areas throughout the United States. Perhaps surprising is the population of unauthorized immigrants living in the New York City metro area: 1.15 million. This is more than around Los Angeles, the California city widely regarded as the focal point for unauthorized immigration. This suggests that a wall alone would not be enough to secure America’s borders, as the vast majority of NYC’s immigrant population likely arrived by plane with a travel visa in hand.
However, another revelation from the study is that undocumented immigrants are not confined to metropolitan areas. As this auxiliary graph shows, there are unauthorized immigrants living in practically every corner of the country, including locations that are not typically thought to have substantial immigrant populations. There are around 5,000 in Akron, Ohio, for example, and over 5,000 in Anchorage, Alaska.
When combined with other statistics from the study, the wide distribution of undocumented immigrants in the United States becomes vitally important. Particularly, and contrary to widely held belief, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has been declining for several years. In addition, the number of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the last five years has plummeted over the last decade, meaning that many unauthorized populations have lived here for several years by this point.
Takeaways for United States Policy – What Should Be Done?
What does this mean for U.S. policy? First, the new statistics should signal a change in how Americans think of undocumented immigrants. Instead of fighting off non-existent waves of border hoppers, national policy should be centered around understanding and building trust with the immigrant communities that are already in place across the country. Once better relations are established between authorities and immigrants, it will become substantially easier to enforce deportation laws against those who truly deserve it, as these groups don’t inherently like crime or violence more than any other demographic in America.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it can no longer be denied that unauthorized immigrants are an essential thread in the fabric of American society. Not only are these populations in the majority of cities and towns across the country, the slowdown of new immigrants entering the country means that those who are here have had ample time to integrate themselves into their local communities. Should they be deported all at once, under sweeping federal legislation that doesn’t consider the human impact of such an action, the societal and economic impacts would be profound, and not just for the areas most commonly associated with undocumented immigrants.
However, one fact the Pew Research study reveals that might make national legislation difficult is the overwhelming diversity of America’s unauthorized communities. There are immigrants living here from every continent, every racial and ethnic background, and every culture across the globe. They live in different states, they experience different qualities of life, and they carry different cultural traditions into their everyday realities. Thus, targeting one nationality, such as Mexicans, or one religion, such as Muslims, is not only discriminatory but ineffective as well, for any approach that divides based on identity does not address the true root of undocumented immigration.
It is for this reason that we at the Immigrant Tax Inquiry Group have focused on the employer/employee relation as the basis for our policy. Whether working for others or starting their own businesses and hiring others, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States are deeply involved in commercial enterprise. In proposing legislation that targets this common link between immigrants, we hope to provide a comprehensive solution that is equitable to all stakeholders, citizen and immigrant alike.