Exaggerated impact: why the subject of immigration is distorted globally for political advantage

Ernesto Castañeda is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at American University and Director of the Immigration Laboratory. Castañeda explains why immigration is a significant force countering population decline in the United States and why it matters to America’s economy and global power.

I run the Immigration Lab where we conduct research on migration – in all its aspects. For example, emigration – people leaving their country of origin; or internal migration – people moving within a country. Millions of people live in a different province or state from where they were born, such as China or the United States. We also study international migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, people crossing borders in search of economic opportunities or trying to reunite with their families. . We studied refugees from Central America in Washington DC, as well as from Afghanistan. We also compared Latin American immigrants in New York and North African immigrants in European cities. I have been studying migration since 2003, so almost 20 years.

Immigration is a hot topic right now. How different are they from the ones you started studying 20 years ago?

It’s funny because in the media we always highlight new things, and there are indeed new twists, new characters. But the story, the dynamics, the human drama, the structural issues are basically the same. So the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is why new crises are easier to understand, as immigration researchers have seen something similar happen in the past.

How politicized is immigration?

Immigration is something that has been with us for a very, very long time. This is something that will continue to happen. This is something that no state can completely stop forever. But unfortunately, as far as I can remember, this is something that has been politicized. There are a lot of misunderstandings in the public. Especially because politicians have, for a long time and in different places, used this subject for their short-term political advantage. So it’s a recurring thing. However, when I meet immigrants on a daily basis, the reality of their lives and what they experience is very different from what you hear from politicians and a lot of media.

My research has tried to understand what has happened in the past and what is happening now on the streets in an attempt to improve our understanding of immigration. If you look at all types of data, there are far more opportunities arising from migration than problems.

The latest census shows that without immigration, the US population would actually be declining. So there’s a lot at stake when it comes to available workers, isn’t there?

Yes, although some think that lower immigration is not a bad thing, especially if it means maintaining a white majority. Yet immigration is not a “great replacement” conspiracy, but the maintenance of a successful trajectory of economic growth, cultural dynamism, scientific and technical innovation. In the economic system we live in, one of the main ways the economy continues to grow is by attracting new workers. Cultural differences disappear over time and family generations. In addition, we are talking about changes around the edges. The vast majority, over 80%, of the American population was and will likely continue to be born in the United States.

At the start of the pandemic, people were scared, and rightly so. It made sense to reduce air travel, border crossings and refugee resettlement. Over the past two years, due to Title 42, which allows the government to bar entry of people who pose a potential health risk at ports of entry, even asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico and have to wait there.

Nevertheless, in the United States alone, we have lost over a million people to COVID-19. People also worry about inflation. But inflation has also been compounded by COVID deaths, people staying out of the labor force, and falling immigration, leading to a shortage of workers.

Thus, over the past two years, we have seen a significant decrease in migration as American couples have an average of two children, keeping the population barely growing. Thus, the current population will not increase without immigration. Declining population growth also means declining economic growth and US influence abroad. If this happens, you will need to be prepared to earn less money and spend more on goods and services. I don’t think we’re ready for that to become the norm. If we stop welcoming immigrants, innovations, demographic and economic growth will take place in another part of the globe.

In your nearly 20 years of research, what is one thing that would surprise someone not in the field you are studying?

It is important for everyone to know that most people do not want to leave their home town. Most people want to stay because that’s where their loved ones, family members and friends are. It is the place they know and they are attached to it. It takes a lot – like an invasion, hunger, a great educational or professional opportunity – to want to leave home.

Another thing that is important to know is that only about 3.5% of the world’s population lives in a country different from where they were born. There are as many people moving within China as across international borders. Thus, international migration is a very important phenomenon for immigrants themselves – we are talking about the future of many individuals and families. But compared to the world’s population, this is a very small proportion. And it’s not because of the immigration deterrent and border fences.

We are therefore talking about exceptions. Unfortunately, politicians and people give the impression that this is the main problem. People may think that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, but the opposite is true. Immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. They are also less likely to use drugs.

The border wall is a monument to intolerance and racism which actively stigmatizes the inhabitants of the region. Anti-immigrant policies and discourses are driven by national politics, scapegoating, misinformation and dramatic images of caravans, border camps and border crossers without providing the full context and actual descriptions of reality. There are a lot of myths around migration, but when you look at the data qualitatively, quantitatively, in different societies, in different time periods, it’s almost the opposite of what people think. This is why academic research on immigration is very important to rectify history.

Jessica C. Bell