What is Just?

Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Wall: Why a US-Mexic0 Wall Is Not the Solution (Part II)

This post is the second part of a two-part blog post on why a U.S.-Mexico wall is not a good idea or a good solution. I will begin with the ending paragraph from my last post.

We cannot escape our ethical obligations to Mexico, but neither can we escape our ethical obligations to our own country. Two such obligations are the obligation to protect the people in our own country and the obligation to be fiscally responsible. Perhaps, we might worry, undocumented immigrants pose a threat to our country’s safety and financial health. It turns out, however, that this is not the case.

While President Trump spoke a great deal about murderers and rapists from Mexico in his presidential campaign, a recent report by the non-partisan, non-profit group National Bureau of Economic Research actually found that “immigrants have lower rates of incarceration compared with the native born” and that their “rates of institution have fallen over the last three decades.”[1] The study notes that one likely reason for low incarceration rates among immigrants is that they tend to be highly motivated to have a better life. Most immigrants have risked a great deal to come to the United States. This is especially true for immigrants from Mexico who must cross an extremely dangerous desert by foot to reach America or who must pay large sums of money to be smuggled across the border. Immigrants risk their lives to come the U.S., often fleeing life-threatening situations in their own countries. It should not really surprise us that most are so averse to doing anything to jeopardize their new life here.


 All the photos in this blog post are taken by and used with the permission of my friend, Steve Pavey. Steve is an photographer and an applied anthropologist who works with the undocumented community. You can find more of his work at Hope in Focus

It is not just the National Bureau that has reached the conclusion that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. Drawing on census data, Researchers at the National Immigration Council found that “In 2010, less-educated native-born men age 18-39 had an incarceration rate of 10.7 percent—more than triple the 2.8 percent rate among foreign-born Mexican men, and five times greater than the 1.7 percent rate among foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men.” Daniel Griswold, from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, writes about crime and immigration in Arizona that “According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, the violent crime rate in Arizona in 2008 was the lowest it has been since 1971; the property crime rate fell to its lowest point since 1966. In the past decade, as illegal immigrants were drawn in record numbers by the housing boom, the rate of violent crimes in Phoenix and the entire state fell by more than 20 percent, a steeper drop than in the overall U.S. crime rate.” This study shows, then, that even as immigration increased in Arizona, crime rates fell.

Many other studies have reached similar conclusions about the disconnect between immigrants and crime. In his article “Rethinking Crime and Immigration”, Robert J. Sampson and his colleagues conducted an in-depth study of violence in Chicago between the years of 1995 and 2003. They found that,

“In particular, first-generation immigrants (those born outside the United States) were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than third-generation Americans, adjusting for individual, family, and neighborhood background…Our study further showed living in a neighborhood of concentrated immigration was directly associated with lower violence (again, after taking into account a host of correlated factors, including poverty and an individual’s immigrant status). Immigration thus appeared ‘protective’ against violence”.

Other studies such as a 2010 study on immigration and crime by Tim Wadsworth also suggest that it appears that immigration can actually be correlated to a decrease in crime we have seen in recent years. Research like this seems to suggest that it is more likely that a person living in the United States would suffer a criminal attack at the hands of a U.S. citizen than she would face an attack by an undocumented immigrant. In fact, research from the CATO Institute suggests that a person’s chance of being killed by an undocumented immigrant is 1 in 10.9 billion per year.

Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

It is certainly true that crimes are committed by some undocumented immigrants, but  crimes are also committed by United States citizens and Canadians citizens, and citizens of every country. Crime is not solely the problem of one group of people It is a problem of the human race.[2]

While there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that immigrants are not a threat to our safety, we might wonder if they pose an undue financial burden on our country. This is certainly an important concern, but evidence suggests that this fear is largely unfounded. It is certainly true that many undocumented immigrants use social services, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that immigrants actually give much more to our economy than they cost us. Many undocumented immigrants pay taxes. They pay into our social security and Medicaid system, even though many of them will not ever use these services. They also invest into the economy because they buy products and services. Many immigration researchers refer to immigrants as “makers not takers” for the overall benefit they add to the economy. For instance, the National Research Council conducted a study which concluded that “legal and illegal immigration adds $1 to $10 billion per year to US GDP and has little negative effect on job opportunities for most citizens.”

Studies also indicate that immigrants actually use fewer social services than native-born citizens and that the more education they receive, the more they invest into our economy. Adam Davidson of the New York Times interviewed Stephen Goss “the chief actuary for the Social Security Administration” who stated that immigrants “contribute about $15 billion a year to Social Security through payroll taxes. They only take out $1 billion (very few undocumented workers are eligible to receive benefits). Over the years, undocumented workers have contributed up to $300 billion, or nearly 10 percent, of the $2.7 trillion Social Security Trust Fund.”[5]


Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

As another example of the way in which immigrants are “makers and not takers”, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), which is a non-partisan think tank finds that “undocumented immigrants nationwide pay on average an estimated 8 percent of their income in state and local taxes”[3] while “the top 1 percent of taxpayers pay an average nationwide effect tax rate of just 5.4 percent.” [4] It may be that illegal immigrants actually pay more in taxes than Donald Trump, but we cannot determine this right now because he has yet to release his tax records.


Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

While we do not want to consider immigrants merely in terms of their investment pay-off, research seems to indicate that immigrants are indeed a great investment.[6] What is interesting is that it is not just liberals or so-called “social justice warriors” who make these claims about the contributions of undocumented immigrants. A number of conservative, libertarian, and free-market advocates makes this argument as well. Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst with the CATO institute who has written for Forbes, Fox News, and The Wall Street Journal has argued that stringent immigration laws like the ones enforced in Arizona actually hurt the economy significantly. The National Bureau of Economic Research also concluded that deporting undocumented immigrants would hurt the overall economy severely.[7]

Even though we have an ethical responsibility to Mexico and immigrants, and even though immigrants give more to our economy than they take, we still may decide that we need to slow the rate at which immigrants enter our country. Even if we decide this in the end, building a wall is not the way to do it. A wall between Mexico and the U.S. will likely cost upwards around $21.6 billion. While President Trump says that he will make Mexico pay for it, many economists think that U.S. citizens will pay for this wall one way or another. Even if it is possible to make Mexico pay for the wall with no cost to the U.S. (this guy is optimistic), it still is a bad idea. The wall will not keep immigrants out. If current problems continue in Mexico, people will continue to be desperate to get out. They will figure out a way to tunnel under, go through, or go over the wall. (Their life depends on it.) This will require more money for repairing or policing the wall, and this is money, time, and energy that could be much better spent in other places.


Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

Instead of spending billions on building a wall, we need to invest the money in programs and policies such as legalizing some drugs, decriminalizing all drugs, and rehabilitating drug addicts in our own country so that the U.S. is not fueling drug cartels. We need to invest the money in figuring out how to ameliorate some of the negative effects of NAFTA so that we can help stabilize Mexico’s economy. We need to invest money into education in our own country because the more we educate people here, immigrants and U.S. citizens, the higher their earning potential and the more likely they are to invest in in our economy and to rely less on social services. Instead of making Mexico pay for the wall, the U.S. and Mexico need to continue to build bridges with one another. Both countries are full of intelligent, creative people who can figure out a solution that addresses the actual causes of immigration.

Robert Frost wrote a Poem “Mending Wall”, part of which reads thus:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.

Right now, many folks in our country are arguing  that “Good fences make good neighbors.” It is time for us to recognize, as Robert Frost said, that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. That something is the power of hope, bravery, and determination. The U.S. needs to work with Mexico, not against Mexico. Together we can figure out solutions to some of the problems besetting both of our countries and the immigrants torn between them.


Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

[1] Kristen F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piel. “Why are Immigrants Incarceration Rates So Low?” Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation. National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2007, Pg. 4

[2] There are some studies that suggest that immigrants have higher rates of incarceration or crime. One site that suggests such a view is the Center for Immigration Studies.  However, the data in many such studies (as this site thoughtfully highlights) is unclear or leads to multiple interpretations. For instance, data suggesting that immigrants make up a higher percentage of prison inmates in one city does not mean that immigrants make up a higher percentage of prison inmates nationwide. Such information also does not necessarily suggest that immigrants are more criminally prone. It might mean they face increased profiling in certain cities. Lastly, just because many immigrants are incarcerated, does not indicate that immigrants are more prone to violent crimes than other groups of people. Many immigrants are imprisoned solely because they are undocumented immigrants.

[3] You can read here about the tax compliance rate of undocumented immigrants.

[4] You can read about the methodology that the ITEP uses to gather their information here.

[5] There are certainly studies and websites suggesting that immigrants pose an undue financial burden to our economy. I do not have the space to list and discuss these sites here. However, it is safe to say that any report of the cost of immigrants must not only examine how much immigrants cost in terms of social services and how much they pay in terms of taxes. The study must also examine how much immigrants invest into the local economy through buying products and services, as well as how much they stimulate business growth. It is also important to consider the specific length of time immigrant families use social services and what percentage of  immigrant families use social services as compared to the percentage of U.S. citizens that use social services. It is only through considering all of these factors that we gain a clear picture of the financial burden immigrants do or do not pose on our economy.

[6] It is important to note that part of the reason that immigrants give so much to our economy is because they are often payed so poorly for their work. This is an issue that any immigration reform plan must consider seriously.

[7] It is very likely that some states, for instance southern states such as Texas or California, have a higher number of immigrants and bear an unfair share of costs in social services supporting immigrants. The answer here is not to build a wall but to figure out ways to ease their financial burden.

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