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Noah Smith: Facts could help refocus immigration debate


Facts and public perceptions aren’t always in alignment. Eventually, facts do percolate into the public consciousness, but it always seems to take some time. The process is slowed dramatically by ideology, which makes people believe what they want to believe instead of looking at the bald facts.

For example, take the rhetoric of U.S. politicians about immigration. There are three basic facts that don’t seem to have entered the public debate.

In the recent televised Republican primary debate, Donald Trump said that Mexico is sending “the bad ones” to the U.S. This wasn’t the first time he had falsely claimed that Mexican immigrants are likely to be criminals.

The first big fact about immigration is that immigrants, including Hispanic immigrants, don’t commit much crime.

In 2007, the Immigration Policy Center found that Hispanic immigrants are incarcerated at lower rates than native-born Americans. The report stated that “for every ethnic group without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants.… This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population.”

Many other studies confirm the same finding. So Trump, and every other politician who has tried to raise an alarm about supposed immigrant criminality, is flying in the face of the facts.

The second big fact about immigration is that there isn’t a substantial inflow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. at this time. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2014 was 11.3 million (out of a total U.S. population of 318.9 million), or about 3.5 percent of the total. In 2011, it was 11.5 million. In 2007, at its peak, it was 12.2 million.

Obviously some immigrants still come here illegally, but their numbers are not large enough to make up for those who leave every year.

The third big fact about immigration is that its sources have shifted a great deal in the past few years. As recently as 2008, immigration from Mexico dominated. Now, immigration from Asia has passed it in dramatic fashion. The country that sends the U.S. the most immigrants each year now is China. The No. 2 source is India. Mexico is No. 3. And the trend lines look clear. The great Latin American immigration boom is ending, and the great Asian immigration boom is just beginning.

With immigrants flooding across the border from Mexico in the early 2000s, the idea of recruiting more immigrants seemed silly to many; it was much more important to think about ensuring fair treatment for those who were already in the U.S. But with that deluge slowing to a trickle, the U.S. needs to actively recruit more immigrants from places such as India and China. That means more green cards.

That’s because the U.S. definitely needs immigrants. The U.S. population is aging, and in order to pay for retirees, the country needs young people. If the country focused on high-skilled immigrants, the U.S. could simultaneously reduce income inequality and boost the nation’s standard of living.

So next time you see politicians debating immigration, remember these three facts: Immigrants are quite law-abiding; essentially all of them are now coming to the U.S. legally; and they are now coming mostly from Asia, and the U.S. will have to recruit more of them. It is always good to have facts that are up to date.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist.