In a bid to whip up his base in the closing days before the midterm elections, President Donald Trump announced his intention to end birthright citizenship. The move shifts focus from the thousands of desperate women, men, and children fleeing violence and unrest in Central America to an even more vulnerable target: the approximately 275,000 babies born annually in the United States to non-citizen parents. With a stroke of his pen, Trump is hoping to do away with a right that is spelled out in the Constitution and which represents America’s historical values of equality and openness.
A day earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fierce defender of liberal democratic values, announced that she would not seek another term after a foreboding election in the state of Bavaria in which a third of voters cited migration and the integration of foreigners as the biggest problem facing the state. The populist onslaught has been egged on by the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (Afd), which gained seats in last month’s election despite the fact that the number of refugees and migrants in the country has dropped markedly from highs three years ago.
On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians are portraying immigrants and refugees as a plague on society: job-takers and criminals who make us less prosperous and less safe. It’s a familiar narrative, usually untethered from the facts, that has been used throughout history to stir up democratic society’s worst—and most self-defeating—political impulses. If we don’t change course, the consequences could be dire, and not just for thousands of desperate immigrants who deserve a chance for a new life. History has shown that when immigration policy is tightened, we all lose.
In the mid-1800s, America learned the hard way that policy driven by anti-immigrant rhetoric has consequences not just for our moral standing, but our economy and national security. Chinese laborers in California were manning the gold rush and building the first transcontinental railroad. In doing so, they provided cheap labor and tax revenue to fill California’s fiscal gap. Mainly young, healthy males, these immigrants made little use of social services and health systems.
Still, when the post–Civil War economy declined in the 1870s, political leaders embraced and spread anti-Chinese sentiment, blaming the “coolies” for depressed wage levels. In California and around the country, states passed long-lasting anti-Chinese laws. So did the federal government: Chinese Exclusion Act deprived Western states and Hawaii of needed labor, tax revenues, and citizens available to fight and work during wartime.
This kind of erratic, transactional approach to immigration policy has been a defining feature of our relationship with Mexican migrants, which has been marked by spasms of expulsion motivated by political or ethnic antipathy, followed by a re-embrace whenever it’s perceived as serving America’s economic interests.
During the Great Depression, the U.S. government moved to deport Mexican-born workers and American citizens of Mexican descent in order to exclude them from welfare programs under the New Deal. Over one million Mexican nationals were removed in the 1930s. The resulting shortage of agricultural labor prompted a series of short-term deals between the U.S. and Mexico that began under FDR as the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement and were signed into law by President Harry Truman.* The so-called Bracero Program offered legal, temporary work to Mexican migrants in exchange for a guaranteed wage and humane treatment. It was a flop, in part because poor enforcement led employers to seek lower cost undocumented labor elsewhere, but it’s another example of the correction and collective “whoops” that often follows immigration policy when it’s based on bigotry instead of facts, at great cost to the American taxpayer.
With the U.S. still mired in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the demonization of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent is equally counterproductive, and potentially even dangerous. This year marked the first time in over a decade that the military has fallen short of its recruiting goals. For years, the military has actively sought talent from ethnic minorities with knowledge of the languages and customs of other nations, bringing immigrants and refugees into the defense community precisely for their burning desire to fight the tyranny and persecution they left behind. Programs like Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, welcomed such individuals into the military in exchange for a fast track to citizenship. More than 10,000 people joined the military, mostly the U.S. Army, this way. The program was suspended earlier this year as part of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.
Foreign student enrollment in U.S. universities is down after a decade of growth, sending some of the world’s smartest young minds to countries less hostile to immigrants. Scientists are leaving the U.S., taking up posts in Canada, China and elsewhere. Approvals for H1-B visas, frequently used by high-skilled workers in the tech industry, are down.
These policies are based on straw-man arguments that conflate terrorism with immigration. Of the nearly 800,000 refugees resettled in the United States since 9/11, just three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities. Between 2001 and 2015, more Americans were killed by homegrown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists.
When it comes to the economy, a large body of research shows that immigration confers net benefits to society. Indeed, the president’s dehumanizing rhetoric toward immigrants comes at a time when he himself boasts of an economy that is “booming like never before.” That’s classic Trumpian embellishment, but it’s true that the economy is growing at a healthy clip, undermining Trump’s own assertions that immigrants are hurting the economy. A recent study by Citi Global Perspectives and Solutions concluded that migrants are directly responsible for two thirds of U.S. economic growth since 2011.
Delusions about immigrants are hardly limited to the far-right fringe. The same Citi Global study found that across countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, host citizens believed that human flows were far larger, jobs far fewer, and migrants less productive in the labor market than they actually were.
A study by Harvard economists uncovered similar misperceptions. In France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., and the U.S., the average native believed that there are between two and three times as many immigrants as there are in reality. In the U.S., legal immigrants are about 10 percent of the population, but U.S. respondents believed the figure was 30 percent. In all countries, immigrants were viewed as poorer, less educated, and more likely to be unemployed than they actually were, and this was believed to be mainly because of lack of effort rather than adverse circumstances. In all countries except France, respondents overestimated the share of Muslim immigrants by a wide margin.
In this age of obfuscation, we’ve become desensitized to political rhetoric that ignores the facts. One right-wing website, Gateway Pundit, described people in the migrant caravan as “invading migrants” who are “organized into groups and sub-groups like an army.” That’s ironic, given our history of supporting paramilitaries in the region. Many of the Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. have endured unspeakable violence, much of which can be traced back to U.S. policies in the region during the Cold War. That history has largely been swept under the rug, making it easy for those who traffic in propaganda to absolve America of responsibility and demonize those who have had to bear the fallout of our foreign misadventures. But reality has a way of catching up.
In a few decades, America will be a plurality of racial and ethnic minorities. Immigration policies that emphasize exclusion and enforcement won’t change that inexorable trend. They will only make us less competitive in the global economy, and strip us of any standing to advocate for the rule of law and human rights around the world.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that President Harry Truman introduced the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. The agreement predated his presidency.