Nativist ideology is filled with falsehoods, half-truths, and distortions. From the impact of immigrants on the economy to the pace of their integration into U.S. society, the nativist creed more often than not gets it wrong. For example, consider the current chairman of the Senate’s immigration subcommittee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, titled “America needs to curb immigration flows,” Sen. Sessions displays four fundamental misunderstandings of the economic and social dynamics of immigration to this country:

1. Sen. Sessions believes that immigration to the United States is turned on and off by the legal limits which Congress imposes at any given time.

However, the presence of 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country would seem to suggest otherwise. In the real world, unauthorized immigration is the product primarily of labor demand which outstrips limits on legal immigration. And, as the recent drop in unauthorized immigration reveals, unauthorized immigrants stop coming when there are no longer jobs available.

2. Sen. Sessions believes that what we need now is “immigration moderation: slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together.”

This one statement contains glaring inaccuracies on the relationship of immigration to wages, public benefits, and social integration. To begin with, immigration has not caused wages to fall for native-born workers as the result of ruinous job competition. In fact, the best available evidence suggests just the opposite. Economist Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, observes:

“immigrants and natives tend to differ in their educational attainment, skill sets, and occupations, and they perform jobs that often are interdependent. As a result, immigrants do not compete with the majority of natives for the same jobs. Rather, they ‘complement’ the native-born workforce—which increases the productivity, and therefore the wages, of natives.”

As a result, Peri calculates that:

“total immigration to the United States from 1990 to 2007 was associated with a 6.6 percent to 9.9 percent increase in real income per worker. That equals an increase of about $5,100 in the yearly income of the average U.S. worker in constant 2005 dollars. Such a gain equals 20 percent to 25 percent of the total real increase in average yearly income per worker registered in the United States between 1990 and 2007.”

3. Sen. Sessions ignores the formidable barriers which are in place to prevent immigrants from receiving public benefits.

As the National Immigration Law Center points out:

“Since the inception of programs such as food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), nonemergency Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and its precursor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), undocumented immigrants and persons in the United States on temporary visas have been ineligible for assistance. “

Moreover, since the 1996 federal welfare and immigration reform laws, “most lawfully residing immigrants were barred from receiving assistance under one of the major federal benefits programs for five years or longer.”

4. Sen. Sessions implies that immigrants are not integrating into U.S. society, or aren’t doing so fast enough.

Yet scholars who study this issue have found no significant difference between the pace of integration among today’s immigrant communities and earlier generations of immigrants. According to sociologist Tomás R. Jiménez, of Stanford University:

“Today’s newcomers are integrating into U.S. society in ways reminiscent of immigrants from previous eras, with the children and grandchildren of immigrants mastering English, improving their educational status, and joining the U.S. workforce.”

In sum, the wages of native-born workers are not being dragged down by immigrants; they are stagnating for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration. At the same time, immigrants are not lounging on “welfare” rolls, nor are they refusing to learn English and better their socioeconomic position. The arguments of Sen. Sessions are all bluster and no substance.

Photo by Gage Skidmore.

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