Illegal immigration seems to have spawned a dreary debate about the merits of Mexicans, when it should be drawing attention instead to a very different matter: how to build on the luster and wonder of the American dream.
Immigration is not the pox neo-Know Nothings make it out to be. Begin with the astounding influx of illegal immigrants, the vast majority of whom hail from Mexico. While the population includes an eye-popping number of crooks, drug-dealers and would-be welfare sponges, it also provides a helpful prop for sustaining American economic growth and cultural dynamism.
Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey reports that 62 percent of illegal immigrants pay income taxes (via withholding) and 66 percent contribute to Social Security. Forbes magazine notes that Mexican illegals aren't clogging up the social-services system: only 5 percent receive food stamps or unemployment assistance; 10 percent send kids to public schools.
On the work front, Hispanic unemployment has tumbled to 5.5 percent, only slightly above the national average of 4.7 percent and considerably lower than the black unemployment rate of 9.3 percent. Economist Larry Kudlow praises Hispanic entrepreneurship: "According to 2002 Census Bureau data, Hispanics are opening businesses at a rate three times faster than the national average. In addition, there were almost 1.6 million Hispanic-owned businesses generating $222 billion in revenue in 2002."
Skeptics counter that immigrants have clogged our hospitals, which is true but primarily in places that offer lavish benefits to illegal immigrants.
As for crime, the picture doesn't quite conform to conventional wisdom. Heather McDonald discovered that illegal immigrants in 2004 accounted for 95 percent of all outstanding homicide warrants in Los Angeles and two-thirds of unserved felony warrants. (Gangs, aided and abetted by laws that prevent local officials from handing illegal-immigrant criminals over to federal authorities, account for much of the mayhem.)
On the other hand, the most comprehensive survey to date of national crime data concludes, "In the small number of studies providing empirical evidence, immigrants are generally less involved in crime than similarly situated groups, despite the wealth of prominent criminological theories that provide good reasons why this should not be the case."
Authors Ramiro Martinez Jr. and Matthew T. Lee note, for instance, that the Latino homicide rate in Miami is three times that of El Paso, Texas, which has one of the nation's largest immigrant populations. That's not just an anomaly. Another major study, "U.S. Impacts of Mexican Immigration," by professors Michael J. Greenwood and Marta Tienda reports that "crime rates along the border are lower than those of comparable non-border cities."
This doesn't mean immigrants from Mexico are saints it just means that they may not be the marauding horde some make them out to be. As it turns out, crime rates in the highest immigration states have been trending significantly downward.
Total crime and property crime in California are half what they were in 1980; violent crime has fallen more than a third. The state's Hispanic population during that time has increased 120 percent.
Similar trends apply in other high-traffic states, with the exception of Colorado. While Arizona's population grew 41.8 percent between 1993 and 2003, for instance, the rates for every major category of crime fell.
Why, then, the fuss? In America today, unemployment remains low, employment is booming, wages have begun to grow in tandem with the economy, tax receipts are exploding at the federal and state levels, and the United States continues to run laps around its European and Asian economic rivals.
The United States somehow has managed to absorb 10 million to 20 million illegal immigrants not only without turning into Animal Farm, but while cranking up the most impressive economic recovery in two decades and the most prolonged period of declining crime in a century all in the teeth of the post-9/11 recession, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the double-whammy hurricane season of 2005.
Rather than panicking, the political class might want to take a deep breath and attempt a little common sense. Virtually everyone agrees that we need to secure our borders, deport lawbreakers and slackers among the illegal-immigrant population, and revitalize the notion of citizenship by insisting that prospective citizens master the English language and the fundaments of American history and culture.
The Statue of Liberty symbolizes America's affection for the world's tired and poor, the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Before someone razes Lady Liberty and decides to erect a wall to "protect" America from the world, shouldn't we at least spend a little time trying to get our facts straight?