We spoke to Shuya Ohno, who works with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), about stereotypes regarding immigrants to the United States.
Q: What is one of the greatest misconceptions Americans harbor regarding immigration?
A: I think a lot of people think they take away our jobs. The truth is that at every sector in the economy, we need more immigrants to fill jobs. We know about the agriculture sector, but it’s also construction, and other low-wage jobs. The reason there are so many low-wage jobs open right now is because over the last fifty years, the education level of the American worker has changed; [whereas] fifty years ago about 50% had graduated from high school, now it’s over 80%. The economy reflects that with higher-paying jobs that require college degrees. That doesn’t mean that janitorial and food preparation services have gone away—those jobs still need to be filled. In fact, they need to be filled more so now because there are more people in the country. Studies show that areas with the highest number of immigrants have fairly low or some of the lowest unemployment rates.
Q: Let’s talk about the widespread notion that illegal immigrants choose to be illegal rather than legal in this country.
A: Of course, if they could come in legally they would, but that option doesn’t exist. You have to understand it’s not an easy choice to make to cross the desert, especially with young ones, risking your life. They are fleeing economic and political devastation and persecution. They want a better life just as all generations of immigrants to the U.S. have wanted. If they could come in legally, they would. If the Ellis Island system would stlill exist, all these people would absolutely have legal status.
Q: Misconceptions regarding assimilation are rampant, aren’t they?
A: Yes, another great misconception is that they don’t want to learn English, assimilate, and be Americans. This is simply not true. There’s huge waiting lists all over the country, especially in metropolitan areas, for ESL [English as a Second Language] classes. People want to learn English as it’s critically important. It’s not that people don’t’ want to, it’s that there’s not enough services for them. In every wave of immigration to this country, this is always an attack: newcomers don’t want to assimilate. But by the second generation, their kids are bilingual; by the third, English is the primary language. This was true of Italians, Germans, and absolutely true of Spanish-speaking immigrants today.
Q: What about immigrants and health care?
A: People think immigrants are taking up all the room in the ERs and getting benefits US citizens don’t. The federal government basically is allowing K-12 education for anybody living in the country. It’s good for everyone to keep kids schools. Similarly, ER care should be available for everyone, so this is why immigrants are allowed there regardless of their immigration status. This is misleading in a way because most undocumented immigrants get no public benefits, no welfare, no food stamps—they certainly don’t get health care (no preventative or pre-natal care) so they rely on emrgency care. The use of ER services by undocumented immigrants is very small compared to the per capita use by the general population. Most of the undocumented population are healthy, working age people and they’re working most of the time. They can’t afford not to work. One of the most ridiculous things I ever heard was a Massachusetts state legislator say that immigrants bring in diseases. I don’t want to dignify that with further comment. It’s just absurd.
Q: What of the idea that immigrants don’t pay taxes?
A: [The] former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, said that immigrants—including undocumented immigrants—pay more than their fair share in taxes. Undocumented immigrants pay federal income tax but don’t get any of the benefits a regular tax payer does. These people don’t get tax refunds nor are they granted welfare, food stamps, and other federal benefits.
*Please note!* In the coming weeks, we plan to ask similar questions to a member of an anti-immigration group, as well as other stakeholders such as politicians, immigrants, and more. If you have any specific people in mind, drop us a line.
(This is today's last post.)