Nativist Arguments Depend On, Circulate False Information
[Image: Choo Youn Kong / AFP-Getty Images]
Sometimes I wonder what people who get riled up about immigration would do if they actually knew how the laws worked, instead of relying on the lies that have been spun into conventional wisdom.
Utah State Rep. Stephen Sandstrom wants Utah to pass a SB1070-style law that would drive undocumented immigrants further into the shadows. He told the LA Times one of the reasons he has become Utah's leading anti-immigrant politician is that it is so hard for immigrants to come through legal channels.
Sandstrom became fluent in Spanish and sponsored one family that wanted to immigrate to the United States. He was shocked at the hurdles they had to surmount. They had to sign a form pledging to refuse all U.S. government benefits for five years. Sandstrom thought of the people here illegally who accessed those benefits. It didn't sit right with him.
There are a couple of inaccuracies repeated in this short paragraph. First, the passage suggests that all it takes to immigrate to the U.S. is a financial sponsor like Sandstrom and a pledge not to access benefits. This is incorrect. It's true that each applicant for permanent residence must locate a U.S. citizen or permanent resident financial sponsor to sign an "affidavit of support," a requirement derived from the long-standing prohibition on accepting immigrants who will become a "public charge." But to apply for permanent residence in the first place, applicants must have an employer or close family member in the U.S. able and willing to file the underlying petition for them.
Most people who want to emigrate to the U.S. can't because they lack such a petitioner. A financial sponsor alone gets you nowhere. Yet most Americans believe that the U.S. takes all who wish to come, as long as they wait in the famous "line." This line is a fantasy. It only exists for the small number of people who have close family members in the U.S. or an employer willing to wade through the red tape and expense of an employment petition. And some of those fortunate enough to be able to wait in the line must wait 10, 15, even 20 years for a visa.
But the other myth that Sandstrom repeats to this reporter is perhaps even more pernicious, the myth that undocumented immigrants are on the dole, stealing money from taxpayers.
In reality, undocumented immigrants are already ineligible for public benefits like food stamps, Medicaid, SSI, and housing assistance, even though many pay payroll, property, and sales taxes. If any undocumented immigrants do happen to get benefits for which they're not eligible in the first place, they risk making themselves ineligible for legal status down the road, since receipt of public benefits is used by immigration officials as an indicator for likelihood of being a future "public charge," a ground of inadmissibility.
Does Sandstrom know that the story he tells to reporters to justify his passion for persecuting immigrants isn't true? I would hope that an elected official would take the trouble to learn the specifics of his pet policy issue, but perhaps Sandstrom hasn't done that. Or perhaps he is deceiving the public for political gain.
But back to Sandstrom's main complaint against undocumented immigrants: he wants them to leave because--this is his own argument--it is impossible for most immigrants to come to the U.S. through legal channels.
One of his chief complaints is that predominantly Mexican illegal immigrants crowd out other, legal immigrants -- people like the Venezuelans, Peruvians and other Latin Americans whom he meets on regular return trips to South America and whom he believes are not allowed to legally immigrate because there are too many illegal immigrants here already. "This is not anti-Hispanic in any form," Sandstrom said.
The precise nature of the "crowding out" mechanism is left to the reader's imagination. Does each community have a limit on the percentage of brown faces it can accommodate? Would conservative politicians agree to increase visa numbers to reduce backlogs and lower wait times for family reunification if there were fewer people crossing the border? I haven't heard of any such proposals. Most anti-immigrant politicians like Sandstrom haven't dedicated much energy to smoothing the path of legal immigration. Instead, they've slammed the front door shut and then bemoaned the resulting unauthorized immigration.
Sandstrom's argument only holds up if you don't think about it too hard. It goes something like this:
1. Legal immigration has become increasingly difficult over the past 20 years because of anti-immigrant legislation resulting from a bipartisan backlash against globalization, worsened by a wave of nativism after 9/11.
2. Because it's so hard to immigrate legally, we have a duty to deport any immigrants who fail to meet the strict eligibility requirements designed to screen out most applicants or dissuade them from trying to immigrate at all. After all, we owe it to the people we are hassling and forcing to live separated for years from their loved ones.
Wait ... what?
The fact that Sandstrom is still repeating this argument to reporters makes me wonder how much, or how little, he's been challenged on it at home in Utah. More likely is that the majority white population of Utah (I grew up there) is alarmed at the increasing number of Latinos who've made their home there in the last 15 years. This fear of the new fuels the nativist frenzy that has driven Sandstrom's political career. Nativism doesn't care much for arguments supported by facts and reason, it cares about keeping out those who are different.
Which brings us to the fruits of the efforts of anti-immigrant politicians like Sandstrom who ride the nativist wave: families suffer. Pro-migrant activist Tony Yapias works with the families who are hurting right now in Utah and around the country.
Yapias spends much of his day fielding calls from desperate illegal immigrants. "Tony," they tell him, "my mother in Mexico is sick. What can I do?" Current immigration law, he says, creates millions of tragedies.
Yapias put his head in his hands. "What it does to our families is just devastating," he said.
Has Sandstrom talked to any of these families, families like the ones my brother knows who are barely scraping by, who pay tithing to Sandstrom's church, who mow his lawn and clean his office? Perhaps he would see them if he weren't so intent on keeping them invisible.