Skip to main content Accessibility

Immigration: Getting the Facts Straight

Almost every day now, it's possible to hear supposedly authoritative "facts" about immigration and immigrants bandied about by politicians, major media commentators and even allegedly objective news reporters.

By Heidi Beirich

Almost every day now, it's possible to hear supposedly authoritative "facts" about immigration and immigrants bandied about by politicians, major media commentators and even allegedly objective news reporters — statistics and other assertions that paint a frightening picture of hostile, disease-carrying and highly criminal Latino "aliens" bringing economic ruin to the United States. A case in point is the 2005 claim made by CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" show that 7,000 cases of leprosy had been reported in the United States in a recent three-year period — one of the "deadly imports," in Dobbs' words, that immigration brings. In May, the night after a CBS "60 Minutes" profile of Dobbs aired, Dobbs went on the air to furiously attack Intelligence Report Editor Mark Potok, who had been quoted in the piece criticizing Dobbs' characterizations of illegal immigrants. Christine Romans, the CNN reporter who first brought up the 7,000 figure, said she had got it from "a respected medical lawyer and medical historian" — the late Madeleine Cosman, a woman who told a 2005 nativist conference that "most" Latino immigrant men "molest girls under 12, although some specialize in boys, and some in nuns." As it turns out, officials say there are fewer than 250 new cases of leprosy each year.

These kinds of "facts" generally originate with modern nativist groups and ideologues like Cosman or even unabashedly race-based hate groups, but that has not stopped them from making their way, often by force of sheer repetition, into mainstream venues like "Lou Dobbs Tonight." In addition, it's no longer uncommon to hear false or distorted statistics and half-truths coming from more mainstream groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform and The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and aired on innumerable radio talk shows and major cable programs like the Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor."

This kind of mass defamation of certain immigrants is hardly a new phenomenon in American history. In earlier periods, Irish, Jewish, Catholic, Asian and other groups were publicly vilified, often by our country's leading statesmen, as lazy, degenerate, stupid, ugly, criminal, disloyal and more. Today, very few of the current roster of negative stereotypes — not to mention the conspiracy theories about immigration that are also increasingly widespread — contain any truth at all. But they play to an audience that may be predisposed to believe them; in 2000, even before the current immigration debate heated up, the General Social Survey published by the National Opinion Research Center found that 73% of Americans felt immigrants were likely to cause crime and 60% believed they were likely to cost native jobs. Today, in an even more poisonous atmosphere, millions of Americans apparently believe the lies touted by nativist extremists. What follows is an attempt to distinguish demonizing propaganda from reality.

THE CLAIM: Immigrants are infecting the country with diseases like leprosy.

THE PURVEYORS: CNN's Lou Dobbs, in an April 14, 2005, broadcast, said an "invasion of illegal aliens" was bringing "highly contagious diseases" to America "decades after those diseases had been eradicated" here. Dobbs' reporter, Christine Romans, stated that more than 7,000 new cases of leprosy had been reported in the previous three years. (This spring, after being challenged on that figure, Dobbs said that he stood "100%" behind it). Colorado columnist Frosty Wooldridge also claimed, in 2003, that "7,000 new cases of leprosy" had been carried here by immigrants from Mexico, Brazil and India in the previous three years. Patricia Doyle, a "health columnist" for the hate site, repeated that number on Peter Boyles' KHOW-AM show in late 2006. The late anti-immigration activist Madeleine Cosman claimed in 2005 that "illegal aliens" were bringing in leprosy, malaria, tuberculosis and Chagas disease. White nationalist Pat Buchanan, appearing on Boyles' show in September 2005, asserted that undocumented immigrants were responsible for once nearly eradicated bedbugs reappearing in 26 states.

THE FACTS: The nativists' favorite health claim, about the frightening disease of leprosy, is false. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "200-250 new cases" of leprosy, or Hansen's disease, are reported each year. In a 2006 report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of reported cases of leprosy in the country "peaked at 361 in 1985 and has declined since 1988." The claim that malaria is being spread by immigrants also is wildly exaggerated. The Centers for Disease Control says the disease, which can only be transmitted by mosquitoes, was "eradicated" in the 1950s in America, although there is a remote possibility that a mosquito could transmit the disease from an infected immigrant to a native American. The reappearance of bedbugs is a real phenomenon, but is largely blamed on "widespread use of baits rather than insecticide sprays for ant and cockroach control," according to a fact sheet from the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. It is true that most new cases of tuberculosis have been diagnosed in immigrants, according to a 2002 government study. It is also true that immigrants from Latin America have brought Chagas disease; however, it is transmitted only by blood-to-blood contact, like HIV, so the risk of contagion is limited.

THE CLAIM: Undocumented immigrants kill 25 Americans a day.

THE PURVEYORS: U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), in a May 5, 2006, column on his website, claimed that a day without immigrants would create a far safer America: "The lives of 12 U.S. citizens would be saved who otherwise die a violent death at the hands of murderous illegal aliens each day. Another 13 Americans would survive who are otherwise killed each day by uninsured drunk driving illegals." King's claim has been repeated hundreds of times, sometimes by extremist activists like Clyde Harkins of the American Constitution Party, and frequently by radio hosts like Peter Boyles of Denver's KHOW-AM. Boyles also suggested last year that undocumented immigrants had murdered 45,000 American citizens since Sept. 11, 2001.

THE FACTS: King claimed he had "extrapolated" his numbers from a study by the General Accounting Office, Congress' nonpartisan investigative arm, that he said showed 28% of inmates in local jails and state and federal prisons were "criminal aliens." What the GAO study actually reported was that 27% of federal prisoners were immigrants, legally here or otherwise. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' figures on incarcerated persons, federal prisoners made up about 8% of the total incarcerated population. Given that, the 28% figure cited by King represents about 2% of the total number of persons in jails and prisons in the country. What's more, another GAO study estimated that only 12% of the non-citizens in federal custody were there for committing violent crimes. The GAO did not distinguish between those who were in the U.S. lawfully and those who were not. Regarding the claim of 45,000 Americans murdered by illegal immigrants, FBI statistics show some 85,000 murders from 9/11 to the end of 2006. If the claim by Boyles and others were true, that would mean undocumented immigrants, who make up fewer than 5% of the U.S. population, were responsible for 53% of all murders.

THE CLAIM: Undocumented immigrants are more criminal than natives.

THE PURVEYORS: Dan Stein, executive director of the supposedly mainstream immigration restriction organization Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), claimed in a March 8 press release that illegal immigration poses "a real and documentable risk" to Americans. "Illegal aliens are more prone to criminal activity than the rest of the population," Stein said. Twenty-three days later, Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the vigilante Minuteman Project, told an audience that it was "okay to say 'rapist,' 'robber' and 'murderer'" when describing "illegal aliens."

THE FACTS: Several studies refute the notion of relatively high criminality among Latino immigrants (the vast majority of today's immigrants). Ramiro Martinez Jr., a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University who's spent years studying homicide statistics in U.S. border cities heavily populated by Mexican-born men and women, found the homicide rates were significantly lower for Latinos there than for other groups — even though the Latinos' poverty level was very high, and poverty and criminality are closely correlated statistically. Criminologist Andrew Karmen, in his 2006 book New York Murder Mystery, found the same trend in New York City, where the "disproportionately youthful, male and poor immigrants" of the last two decades "were surprisingly law abiding." Robert J. Sampson, chairman of Harvard's sociology department, reported in a 2005 article in The American Journal of Health that the rate of violence among Mexican Americans was significantly lower than among non-Latino white and black Americans. Remarkably, studies by sociologists Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut also show that second- and third-generation immigrants commit significantly more crimes than their parents, suggesting that U.S. culture somehow eventually produces more, not less, criminality among its citizens.

THE CLAIM: Immigrants are depressing the wages of native Americans.

THE PURVEYORS: On his April 1, 2006, show, CNN's Lou Dobbs said that the "most authoritative" study showed that legal and illegal immigration was depressing native wages by $200 billion a year. California nativist activist Joe Guzzardi has claimed that wages remain "stagnant" because of undocumented immigrants. Similar claims have been made by almost all immigration restrictionists in recent years.

THE FACTS: Despite what many view as the intuitively obvious relationship of immigration to wages, the fact is that most economists have not found a significant link between rising immigration and falling wages, the exception being studies in the early 1990s that showed a slight negative effect on African-American high school dropouts' pay. Overall, the National Academy of Sciences found in a broad look at the question in 1997, there was "only a weak relationship between native wages and the number of immigrants" in a given place. This was true for all types of native workers. The one group that did suffer were "immigrants from earlier waves, for whom the recent immigrants are close substitutes in the labor market." More recent studies have actually found a positive effect on native wages. The Public Policy Institute of California published a study this year that found that immigrants arriving in that state between 1990 and 2004 increased native-born workers' wages by 4%. The benefits, attributed to immigrants generally performing complementary rather than competitive work, extended to native workers at all educational levels.

THE CLAIM: Undocumented immigrants are "stealing" American jobs.

THE PURVEYORS: The allegation that undocumented immigrants are causing native unemployment is pervasive in the nativist movement. Terry Anderson, a black Los Angeles radio host and hard-line anti-immigration activist, for instance, told "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on Oct. 23, 2003, that legal and illegal immigration was "killing the [native-born] work force." Texas nativist leader Debbie Rawlins said in 2006 that "Hispanics" were "taking our jobs, our homes." The far-right California Coalition for Immigration Reform has a billboard on the California-Arizona border that reads, "Demand Illegal Aliens Be Deported. The Job You Save May Be Your Own."

THE FACTS: A 2006 Pew Hispanic Center study, "Growth in the Foreign-Born Workforce and Employment of the Native Born," found no evidence that the large increases in immigration since 1990 have led to higher unemployment among native Americans. The center examined census data on the increase in immigrants in each of the 50 states, comparing those figures to state jobless rates and participation in the labor force by the native born. Although immigrants tended to be younger and less educated than native workers, the report found "no apparent relationship between the growth of foreign workers with less education and the employment outcome of native workers with the same level of education." These findings were in line with those of most economists, who have failed to find a link between immigration and job loss. "The big message here," said University of California economist Giovanni Peri, who conducted a similar study in California, "is there is no job loss from immigration."

THE CLAIM: Poor immigrants cost native taxpayers a fortune in social services.

THE PURVEYORS: Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on June 12, 2006, that immigrants were exponentially driving up welfare costs. "[I]f you're bringing in high school dropouts who aren't married and have children out of wedlock, what are they going to do? They're going to be on welfare. ... It's going to cost at least $70 billion a year." Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at its City Journal, wrote in 2002 that undocumented immigrants "do get welfare" based on having children who are born in this country and are therefore citizens (she did not explain how parents pulled this off). U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), citing Rector, claimed this year that low-skill immigrant households were costing American taxpayers "over $1 million per head of household."

THE FACTS: As a general rule, the federal government reaps a net benefit from undocumented immigrants in the form of Social Security payments that the workers are never able to collect because they are not citizens; it is the states, in terms of social services, education and medical services, that pay the bulk of costs associated with supporting the undocumented population. Even so, Rector and MacDonald's claims are disputed by numerous scholars, including even MacDonald's senior colleague at the Manhattan Institute, Tamar Jacoby. Jacoby, who studies immigration extensively, told the conservative National Review that while individuals might receive more in services than they paid in taxes, "they are growing the [overall economic] pie so significantly that that cost pales in comparison." Jacoby cited a recent study of immigrants in North Carolina that reported that over the prior 10 years, Latino immigrants had cost the state $61 million in a variety of benefits — but were responsible for more than $9 billion in state economic growth. The same point was made in a 1997 National Academy of Sciences study that found "the less-educated immigrants who impose a fiscal burden are the very same immigrants who provide the economic benefit reported." A major survey of the net effects of immigration, published in 2006 in The New York Times Magazine, cited only one economist, George Borjas of Harvard, claiming a negative net effect. Many other economists disputed Borjas. "If Mexicans were taller and whiter," University of California, Berkeley, professor David Card told the magazine, "it would probably be a lot easier" for the public to accept the majority view of economists that the net effects of immigration, which is now predominantly Latino, are positive.

THE CLAIM: Proposed immigration reform would vastly overpopulate America.

THE PURVEYORS: Heritage Foundation senior fellow Robert Rector, quoted in a May 15, 2006, article on the far-right website, said that the proposed Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill would likely result in 103 million legal immigrants in the next 20 years. He added that the figure could reach 200 million people. Years earlier, immigrant-bashing columnist Frosty Wooldridge of Colorado claimed that current immigration "is pushing us toward 200 million added people vying for diminishing resources," though he offered no support for his number. Other nativists have repeatedly made similar assertions.

THE FACTS: As was quickly pointed out when Rector first made these claims, his numbers defy basic logic. His minimum figure of 103 million people is roughly equal to the entire current population of Mexico; to reach his high figure of 200 million people moving to the United States in the next 20 years, you'd have to throw in the equivalent of the current population of Central America, too. Several leading demographers told the San Francisco Chronicle in May 2006 that Rector's projections were vastly overstated, ignored the effects of emigration, and used unreasonably high estimates of legalization and naturalization. The same month, a report from the Congressional Budget Office, specifically analyzing the Kennedy-McCain proposal, estimated that the bill would result in 8 million people legally entering the country over 20 years, a tiny fraction of Rector's estimates.