There’s much to unpack from the fallout of Shitholegate aside from the all too obvious, but now expected, impulsiveness of a president incapable of even pretending that he can keep his racist thoughts to himself. How should countries where English isn’t commonly spoken cover the incident with a term that doesn’t lend itself to easy translations? How can a compromise on an out of date, patchwork immigration system be possible when the party in power seems fine with slapping a “rich whites only, think Norway” disclaimer on INS applications and calling it a solution? How spineless are the senators refusing to confirm they heard him say what he said despite their partisan colleagues confirming it to the press, and how did they lose their backbones?
But perhaps more importantly, we should talk about the media’s coverage of the immigration issue in general, because while condemnation of Trump’s slur was nearly unanimous on all channels that aren’t unabashed GOP propaganda (i.e., Fox News), pundits have continually dropped the ball in the coverage of the ins and outs of the American immigration system. There’s a reason why much of the GOP believes that we have open borders, take in random people with no vetting and no skills from countries with nonexistent economies, who will refuse to assimilate, and they bring drugs and crime with them despite even the simplest bit of research showing that none of this is true.
No one actually bothers to correct them anymore and they really don’t want to hear the facts as shown by countless social media threads in which throngs of rabid xenophobes insist that more than half of Dreamers are on welfare, even though this is expressly illegal and the government would’ve surely noticed a staggering half a million claims to those barred from making them. Their fear and aversion to facts simply renders them deaf to anything that doesn’t match their favorite talking points. So what is the reality of coming to America and how do immigrants really fare? Obviously, years of data paint a very different picture than Fox and Breitbart.
Breaking Down The False Narratives
America’s borders are anything but open. Visitors from 38 nations, nearly all Western European, English-speaking, and Nordic countries, don’t need a visa to come to America for 90 days through the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. (And no, Mexico is not one of the eligible countries, though Chile is.) Anyone from the other roughly 160-some countries and territories must apply for a visa to even set foot on American soil. Without a visa or documents proving that they are citizens of a VWP nation, or if they overstay their 90 days without proper paperwork, they’re quickly and unceremoniously put on a plane back to their last known point of origin.
Refugees allowed into the country must spend years and a lot of money filling out forms and going through in-person interviews in a complicated vetting process which requires medical checkups, submitting biometric information, and yes, finding a place to live in America as a prerequisite for even trying to clear customs. (Full disclosure, the author and his family went through this process when immigrating to the United States.) Since the process requires a fair bit of time and money, it’s often those with professional skills who apply because they can afford the travel and fees more readily.
This is why and how there are immigrants from “shithole countries” holding degrees at a higher rate than their American-born counterparts. The biggest reason why immigrants come to the United States is to pursue opportunities they didn’t have in their home countries, which makes perfect sense. If they were financially and materially comfortable, why would they pack up and leave their lives behind? But to pursue new opportunities, they need skills and determination, and this is why we end up skimming off the best educated and upwardly mobile refugees from even the worst off nations.
This is in part why refugees end up generating more economic activity and tax receipts than it costs to process them in the first place, according to a special internal study that the current mouthpiece for nativist white supremacism in the White House and aspiring Bond villain, Stephen Miller, felt the need to censor. Miller suppressed the study so it wouldn’t undermine Trump’s anti-refugee stance with something as pesky as facts showing that we actually profit from taking in the proverbial poor and huddled masses, and turning them into small business owners and productive members of society.
And this is on top of data showing that foreign-born and native low-skilled workers compete for different work, and that illegal immigration to America actually peaked in 2007, then fell and leveled off, no doubt as a consequence of the Obama administration’s unprecedented deportation of over 2.5 million people and the Great Recession, all flying in the face of GOP scaremongering. We also have statistics showing that immigrants can adapt faster to profound economic changes, and have done extremely well in the changing job markets compared to native citizens.
Unfortunately, they don’t always find a match for their credentials stateside, with one estimate saying that 1.5 million college-educated migrants aren’t being employed in the high-skill jobs for which they’re qualified, which can contribute to the impression that many refugees are taking low wage jobs from Americans because that’s all they can possibly do. This is not a uniquely American problem. A grim joke in Israel asks “why are our toilets so clean?” and answers with “because we have PhDs scrubbing them.” This is one of the problems that a sane, objective fix to our immigration policy not based solely on “how do we get rich white people to move here?” should address.
Another noteworthy point is the Republican obsession with a Mexican border, which has been seeing fewer and fewer crossings on average, and populations of Hispanics, growth rates of which have long leveled off, while the biggest ethnic groups of new arrivals are Asian, and the Asian-American community is growing faster than any other, fueled by rapidly expanding Chinese, Indian, and Filipino populations. As GOP figureheads warn us about the supposedly out of control illegal migration from the South, that migration has slowed, and new immigrants are coming primarily by plane across the Pacific, with visas, not hopping fences while the border patrol looks the other way.
Even more importantly, cities with large populations of immigrants, both legal and undocumented, don’t see more crime, contrary to the oft-repeated claims of white nationalists. In fact, immigrants of all statuses and ages are less likely to break the law compared to native-born citizens. While it is true that there are illegal immigrants with a history of crime, and legal immigrants with rap sheets, the bottom line is that they account for some 5% to 7% of the prison population, and many of them are serving time for border hopping or petty crime, not torturing and assassinating for cartels and mobsters.
Furthermore, we know that immigrants to America not only assimilate but more so than in all other countries studied for such comparisons. It’s almost impossible to live in the United States and not quickly pick up English, or not be surrounded by a social circle largely composed of natives. The fact that the American ethos in theory, if not always in reality, is that all those who live in America are Americans, no matter where they or their families are originally from, serves to encourage immigrants to see themselves as part of the fabric of their adoptive country, aiding assimilation. This is why treating them with sudden suspicion and disgust risks undermining their integration.
Of course, when it comes to immigration, the system is not perfect and could use reforms and fixes. For example, a point-based system that isn’t intended to rule out anyone without a six-figure income and a master’s degree, or millions in a bank the deposit box of which holds a Nobel Prize or an Olympic medal, would provide objective criteria for evaluating one’s chances of receiving a visa or permanent residency. Merit-based initiatives could address the brain-waste problem we mentioned earlier.
But when the party in power is more interested in the wealth and skin color of the immigrants, if it even wants to allow any immigrants, none of these much-needed reforms will become law, unless they’re in some mutated, malicious form to placate vocal white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
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How The Media’s Both-Sideism Corrupted The Immigration Debate
In short, we actually have a good handle on immigration, and while there are necessary updates to be done to the current system, we do not have a massive crisis of random people rampaging across the country willy-nilly, committing crime after crime. These are not new facts suddenly gathered after Trump’s xenophobic rhetorical tsunami. All these data were well known long before a dyspeptic Donald descended a golden escalator and kicked off his campaign with vicious smears against Hispanics before conceding that he’ll grant that some of them might be good people, setting the tone for the rest of his hate-filled shamble to the Oval Office.
Had the media actually replied in unison, with a forceful, fact-based rebuttal of Trump’s fire and fury instead of watching him with bemused eye-rolls and assuming he’d drop out after a few months of being a gag candidate for free press coverage, returning to The Apprentice, it’s tempting to think they might have made enough of a dent in his candidacy to change its trajectory. They may not have succeeded because his supporters will dismiss anything outside their echo chamber as lies with absolutely no evidence to the contrary, but at least the media could have tried to do its job, which brings up to the question of why exactly they abdicated their responsibility.
Much of the media seems to be afflicted with pathological both-sideism that masquerades as objectivity. The idea is that by giving equal time to both sides of an issue, any issue, makes them objective. But this is flawed at its core. In politics, just like in science, there are many questions to which there’s a right answer backed by evidence and data. To pretend this is not the case doesn’t help the audience understand the topic better or make them sound objective, it only muddles the waters by pretending that any opinion on an issue is valid, no matter how biased, badly misinformed, or malicious it might be.
And worse yet, the GOP is extremely adept at exploiting this both-sideism by forcefully pushing their agenda and playing the victim when pundits actually do try to push back, claiming they’re not being objective by questioning what they just said and accusing them of being biased. The result is much like the Leslie Knope/Bobby Newport debate in Parks and Recreation.
When Leslie was on the offensive, the self-obsessed, bored moderators tried to soothe a whining Bobby complaining of his hurt feelings, completely ignoring any relevant issue that was just raised. It took his threat of bankrupting the town unless he’s elected to the City Council to wake the moderators from their stupor and actually debate the issue of who’s fit for the office and why. We see the same problem in the news today. Everything is treated as “just, like their opinion, man” unless it’s an existential threat.
Obviously, this style-over-substance and decorum-obsessed approach is letting us down by ignoring the factual consensus on an issue in favor of the drama of two opposing demagogues pretending their views are equally important. So what’s the alternative? We can borrow a solution from science blogs. When reporting on a development or a controversy, they stick to the consensus and the existing facts, framing the discussion in terms of whether there’s reason to overturn it. They aren’t debating if gravity is a thing, but what a new finding about it says and how it fits into the current framework of facts. We need to do the same thing with policy because we often have data and a basis to lean one way or the other on many questions.
We don’t have to ignore alternative views or ban critics from their time on air, but we must do it in the proper, factual context. Isaac Asimov once said that our political and cultural life nurtures anti-intellectualism “by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” We must finally heed this warning. We don’t settle facts or what they mean by voting on them, and we must stop pretending that casting them aside because an ideologue and his followers feel otherwise is ok, as Newt Gingrich insisted in his slimy defense of the fury-and-fear-mongering festival that was the 2016 Republican Convention.
We pay for our willful ignorance with lower economic growth, more disease, lower quality of life, paralyzing discord, and letting predatory actors run unchecked as our leaders chase phantom problems and refuse to consider solutions we know can work after some informed debates. There’s a reason why so few Norwegians are rushing to come to the United States much to The Donald’s dismay. They’d have to give up their healthcare, take a cut in pay, lose labor rights, and deal with uneven public infrastructure quality. And it’s hard to believe that our alarmingly fact-averse public discourse really has nothing to do with this state of affairs…