As we all learned in high school, it was immigrants that built this country. Drawn by the chance for a better life, more than 20 million arrived around the turn of the twentieth century. Mostly poor, uneducated and unskilled, they provided cheap labor for America’s burgeoning industries. They faced harsh working and living conditions, along with resentment from those who opposed the nation’s open immigration policy. But they survived and prospered, all the while helping to build what was to become the greatest economy in the world.
This great experiment in democracy brought in new people with new ideas and fostered competition that brought out the best of both, creating what became known as American Exceptionalism. And it worked, not just then but even today, with almost half of America’s Fortune 500 companies being started by immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Today we are experiencing a new wave of immigrants, mostly people of color coming across our southern border with Mexico. Fleeing from oppression in their home countries, they come seeking a better life. They hold the same potential benefits as those who came here before – the promise for a new age of prosperity. American Exceptionalism 2.0.
Unfortunately, there are many who fiercely oppose this new wave of immigration. Consumed by prejudice and intolerance, just as their predecessors were more than a century ago, they fail to see the potential benefits. Instead, they fear the worst. Increased crime and violence from a generation of freeloaders who present nothing but a burden to America’s economy.
Such ideas, fostered by misinformation spread through social media and political rhetoric, have been with us for a long time. However, the facts paint a completely different picture. When we look at the research, we find that most new arrivals are law abiding, hardworking, and loyal, perhaps even more so than the rest of us.
Contrary to the stereotypical depiction, immigrants are not chronically in need of health care and other social support. Instead, they are healthier than expected when entering the country, willing to work and contribute to society. This is especially true for refugees like those currently seeking asylum in America. The federal government does pay the initial cost of their resettlement. But over their first 20 years of residency, they pay it all back and more in taxes.
What about the rapists and murderers we’ve heard about? The worst of the worst, coming across the southern border to wreak havoc and disorder? Again, these stories are intended only to frighten and build political opposition. The truth is that crime rates among immigrant populations are actually lower than those of native-born Americans. According to landmark study by the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, even those who have entered the country illegally have lower rates of conviction – 45% lower, in fact. Moreover, the data show that rates of violent crime go down as immigration increases.
These data are not only clear but conclusive. Rather than being a burden, immigrants are a good investment in America’s future. Even so, many people – some 42% according to a recent Gallop poll – remain convinced that immigration leads to crime. Why do so many cling to these false beliefs? The author of the study may have the answer. “The tendency to believe false information about immigrants could be that people who don’t like immigration could just ascribe all types of negative behavior to them in order to justify their dislike.”
It’s time to leave such false narratives behind. History has proved them wrong. Today we know the truth. It was diversity that made America great, diversity of people and ideas, brought together in a free and open society where everyone has the chance for a better life.
America has come a long way since its beginnings, and It has been an uphill battle. But through war, civil strife, and political upheaval, the country has been steadily moving beyond its racist past. It is time to celebrate people of color and welcome a new era of freedom and prosperity. Let’s not let petty biases and prejudice stand in the way.
Dan Skiles is a consultant and former Executive Director at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.