By: Linda Chavez
Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about Mexican immigrants in his announcement speech two weeks ago should have been an occasion for conservatives to say that we have no room for bigots in our midst. Instead, a host of conservatives, from Ted Cruz to National Review’s own Rich Lowry, have defended his message, if not the crude way he expressed it:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
In his column, under the title “Sorry, Donald Trump Has a Point,” Lowry avers that Trump’s “instantly notorious comments . . . did more to insult than illuminate” — but, he says, “there was a kernel in them that hit on an important truth that typical politicians either don’t know or simply fear to speak.”
Lowry’s argument — based entirely on statistics from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) — is that Mexican immigrants are poorly educated, with low skills, and will become an economic burden on the rest of us. And make no mistake, neither Trump (read his full remarks) nor Lowry was talking only about illegal immigrants. As Lowry puts it:
For all its crassness, Trump’s rant on immigration is closer to reality than the gauzy clichés of the immigration romantics unwilling to acknowledge that there might be an issue welcoming large numbers of high-school dropouts into a 21st-century economy.
Instead of CIS’s analysis of welfare use by Mexican immigrants, Lowry might have looked at a 2011 National Bureau of Economic Research study that found immigrants with income less than 200 percent of poverty were less likely to take advantage of safety-net programs than the native-born. Granted, the data are not broken down by country of origin, but since Mexicans make up 29 percent of the total immigrant population, and other Latin American immigrants another 23 percent, it is doubtful that the much smaller population of, to use Lowry’s example, Koreans (2.6 percent) could account for the overall lower rates. A 2013 Cato working paper also showed that not only do immigrant adults and children participate in means-tested programs at lower rates than similarly situated native-born adults and children, but their benefits, on average, are substantially lower. About half of low-income citizen children in citizen households receive food stamps (SNAP), compared with one third of non-citizen children and two fifths of citizen children in non-citizen-headed households.
Unlike many native-born welfare recipients, Mexican immigrants are also not mired in long-term dependency. According to a study by Jennifer Van Hook and Frank D. Bean, 58 percent of Mexican immigrants exited cash-assistance programs within one year, compared with only 38 percent of non-Hispanic white natives. Most Mexican recipients work, albeit at low-paid jobs, and the Van Hook/Bean hypothesis is that Mexican immigrant culture “encourages less welfare participation . . . and more post-welfare employment.” But more important, conservatives’ goal should be dismantling the most destructive elements of the welfare state itself. Stopping immigration won’t accomplish that.
Nor does Lowry mention that immigrants actually subsidize our biggest entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security, to the tune of billions of dollars each year. Without immigrants and their contributions, these programs would already be years closer to insolvency. The title of a paper by Leah Zallman for the Partnership for a New American Economy, a pro-immigration group of 500 Republican and Democratic mayors and business leaders, says it all: “Staying Covered: How Immigrants Prolonged the Solvency of One of Medicare’s Key Trust Funds and Subsidized Care for U.S. Seniors.” Looking at data from the Current Population Survey and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey for the years 1996 to 2011, she found that immigrants contributed $182.4 billion more to Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund than they consumed in benefits. And even when immigrants were beneficiaries, their benefits were lower than for the native-born, especially among those who were non-citizens. Stephen Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration, noted that illegal immigrants have “a net positive effect on Social Security financial status generally,” contributing $12 billion to the cash flow of the Social Security Trust Funds in 2010. “We estimate that future years will experience a continuation of this positive impact on the trust funds,” he said.
Conservatives’ fixation on the supposed deleterious effects of Hispanic immigrants, and Mexicans specifically, on the future of this country is particularly hard to understand at this point in time. Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, is now at net zero. More Mexicans have left the U.S. since 2006 than have arrived. Indeed, China and India surpassed Mexico in 2013 as the leading immigrant-sending countries. As for the Mexicans and other Hispanic immigrants already here, the notion that we don’t need them flies in the face of everything we conservatives believe about the role of the free market. They come here to work — not get welfare — and they fill important niches in our economy.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, contra Lowry, we actually do need “high school dropouts in a 21st century economy”: 66 percent of new jobs projected between 2012 and 2022 will require a high-school diploma or less, including more than one quarter of new jobs, 4.2 million, that will not require any educational credentials. But homegrown dropouts aren’t the best fit. Ask employers whether they would rather hire an American (of whatever race or ethnicity) who dropped out of an American high school or a Mexican or other foreign-born immigrant without a high-school diploma, and you will get near unanimity — not because employers are anti-American or pro-Mexican, but because the factors that motivate someone to leave school in the U.S. and in Mexico are quite different.
American high-school dropouts, in the aggregate, leave school because they lack motivation, have authority problems or drug problems, or engage in other behaviors that make them less than ideal employees — not because they are poor. Not so Mexicans, who leave school largely to help support their parents and siblings in a society with few opportunities for upward mobility. By the time they come to the U.S., they are likely supporting a wife and children as well — perhaps the single biggest motivator to show up on time, perform your job well, and stay out of trouble, especially if you are illegally present in the U.S.
Do we really want to spend trillions of dollars educating American students for twelve years or more so they can work on poultry-processing lines, or clean office buildings, or pick fruits and vegetables? But these jobs are as necessary to the American economy as higher-skilled jobs. Mexican immigrants are heavily concentrated in service jobs (31 percent); natural resources, construction and maintenance (25.2 percent); and production, transportation, and material moving (22.3); with fewer in sales and office (12.6 percent) and in management, business, science, and arts (8.6 percent). Immigrant workers dominate agriculture, with 77 percent of all such workers being foreign-born, along with the hotel and accommodations industry (59 percent) and construction (also 59 percent). Does Lowry really believe that we don’t need these workers, or that he’ll magically convince Americans to take these jobs?
We could, I suppose, force employers to pay minimum wages of $15 or $20 or even $25 an hour, plus benefits (though the market has pushed wages in some of these jobs that high already, and Americans still won’t take them). But raising wages inevitably will make the price of goods and services higher, which will end up costing consumers. And when businesses can’t pass on price increases to cover the demands of better-educated American workers, who are overqualified for these jobs in the first place, they will face a Hobson’s choice: pick up and take their production elsewhere, or go out of business altogether. Of course some service jobs can’t be shipped to Mexico or China, nor can machines replace maids who make hotel beds or construction workers who hang drywall.
Mexico may not send its top 1 percent — few countries do — but the Mexicans who come are a vital part of our economy, making up about 5 percent of our work force. Mexican men have one of the highest labor-force-participation rates of any group in this country, at 88 percent, surpassing that of native-born males (71 percent). Most important, the children of these immigrants do well. A 2013 study by Pew Research found that among second-generation Hispanic adults (that is, the children of immigrants from Latin America), English had become nearly universal; their high-school-completion rate, at 83 percent, lagged that of whites by only about 2 percent, with 52 percent having at least some college and 21 percent having earned at least a bachelor’s degree; and average household earnings approached $50,000 a year. More than one in four second-generation Hispanics marry non-Hispanics (mostly non-Hispanic whites), with an even higher intermarriage rate for college-educated Hispanics, 43 percent. And nearly two thirds of second-generation Hispanics consider themselves “typical Americans.”
Beyond some conservatives’ overheated worries that Mexicans will become future welfare dependents, Trump’s claims that Mexican immigrants are a bunch of criminals, except for “some, I assume, [who] are decent people,” is not just racist, it’s flat-out wrong. Crime has been going down in the U.S. at the very time that immigration, including illegal immigration, has been increasing. Violent crime has been dropping since 1994 and is now at levels not seen since the 1970s. Incidentally, illegal immigration shot up dramatically between 1995 and 2000, and the population of illegal immigrants peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million. Some academics have argued that this is no mere coincidence. Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson claims, based on his study of violent crime in Chicago neighborhoods, that
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.
I won’t make a case that higher immigration levels have led to the dramatic decline in violent crime in the U.S., since correlation is not causation, but trying to link Mexicans to increased crime certainly doesn’t comport with the facts. It’s not that Donald Trump was politically incorrect in his pronouncements — and is now being punished for them — it’s that his comments were based on nothing but ignorance and bigotry. In fact, according to an analysis of FBI crime statistics by Congressional Quarterly, of the ten safest big cities, fully six are in California and Texas and have very large Mexican-origin populations, and a seventh, New York City, has a large Hispanic population as well. Indeed, El Paso, the safest big city in the U.S. for several years running, has a population that is 81 percent Hispanic, including 26 percent who are Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal.
You would never guess any of this from reading the doomsday scenarios coming from conservatives. As a result, the flame-throwers get all the attention, and they find an all-too-welcoming audience among our ranks. Ann Coulter’s Adios America! The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third-World Hellhole is currently No. 9 on the New York Times hardcover best-sellers list. Donald Trump has managed to jump to No. 2 in GOP presidential polls nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire, despite — or perhaps because of — his comments. That should concern us as a movement. If we conservatives hope ever to expand our ranks and actually elect a conservative to the White House, we need to begin mending fences with Mexican Americans and other Hispanics, not defending the likes of Donald Trump.
— Linda Chavez is president of the Becoming American Institute and a former member of the senior staff in the Reagan White House.