Immigration: not most pressing issue

Candidates favor spotlighting immigration, though most Americans put economy first.

William Rickards

William RickardsAccording to a recent Gallup poll last month, only 8 percent of voters believe immigration is the most important issue facing the United States today.

The most important issue? The economy, standing at a whopping 37 percent among the general public, and 28 percent among millennials alone. So how then, is it possible that immigration takes up so much of the limelight in campaign speeches? Because for candidates running for office, immigration provides an easy scapegoat for other, more complicated problems.

Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the top of the polls has been largely credited to his “outsider” status in a GOP field filled with Washington politicians. Trump likes to make the point that he is not a politician loudly and often. Whether it is calling for an end to birthright citizenship or promising to deport all illegal immigrants and their “anchor babies” (read: legal American citizens).

There are currently 500,000 immigrants in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. That is 9 percent of the population that could potentially have its privacy invaded and status as citizens called into question by the federal government for nothing more than coming to the United States for a better life.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Trump ignores numerous studies that repeat again and again that immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, do not commit crime at a higher rate than native-born citizens. A recent study by the American Immigration Counsel revealed that in 2010, when accounting for level of education, native-born men ages 18-39 had an incarceration rate triple that of foreign-born Mexican men.

“They’re illegal,” Trump said on “Meet the Press” about families that might face deportation. “You either have a country or not.”

Trump has also taken a hard line position against immigration on economic grounds, stating on his campaign website that:

“The influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans—including immigrants themselves and their children—to earn a middle class wage.”

The trope that immigrants are out to take American jobs is not simply a fantasy to Republican candidates, however.

“It would make everybody in America poorer—you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that,” Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders told Vox last month.

“What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.”

Sanders, to his credit, does not support building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and has supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Sanders was talking about an open border policy, which most presidential candidates haven’t supported. Sanders has, however, in 2007, opposed a bipartisan bill that would bring more workers into the United States.

“What concerns me are provisions in the bill that would bring low-wage workers into this country in order to depress the already declining wages of American workers,” Sanders said of the bill in May 2007. “With poverty increasing and the middle-class shrinking, we must not force American workers into even more economic distress.”

Sanders’ rhetoric falls into the same myths about immigration that Trump does. Economists regularly attest that new immigrants aren’t even in competition with American workers and create jobs. Most recently, a working paper from researchers at Indiana University and the University of Virginia found each new immigrant actually created jobs, never coming into competition at all with more middle class American workers.

Sanders’ position, borne out of an antiquated alliance with unions and economic illiteracy, as well as Trump’s position, borne out of xenophobia, makes out immigrants to be boogeymen waiting to take the jobs out from under the American worker. Far from seeing free trade as beneficial, Sanders takes a protectionist view by blaming immigration. Far from seeing immigrants as human beings, Trump insists on denying reality and demonizing an entire group of people.

Unfortunately, numbers and statistics—the true winners of battles like these—aren’t running for president.

William Rickards can be reached at

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