Immigration and Economic Migrants. A Historic Prospective With Prof. Stephanie Mitchell

[Below is a transcription of an interview with Prof. Stephanie MItchell. Words added by me are in brackets.]

In terms of history, it is a simple point I would like people to understand. This country has had waves of immigration before from different parts of the world and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that we are seeing now is virtually identical to anti-immigrant rhetoric that we’ve seen in the country’s past; [specifically] 19th century nationalist rhetoric.  


[A mid-19thy Century anti-immigrant cartoon showing two men labeled “Irish Whiskey” and “Lager Bier,” carrying a ballot box.]

Some cognitive scientists hypothesize that there is a biological root to this xenophobia. It is rooted in a tribal fear of contagion. You get this very similar rhetoric of the intruder contaminating something that ought to be protected and is pure. It is a very deep-seated psychological response that people have that people are not necessarily aware of. That means if a political figure is able to tap into that psychological response then it can be quite powerful; suggesting that people are bringing violence or disease or some kind of contagion into the country. 

It is well established in the literature that that narrative around contagion is imaginary and counterfactual. It is obviously a political ploy. Unfortunately, it worked very well in the 19th century against Jews, against the Irish, against the Italians. It doesn’t matter what group is the other. If it was rational it wouldn’t work. It has to be emotional. I would like for people to be aware that that same emotional appeal has been used repeatedly in our country’s past with the same results we are experiencing now. What is happening right now is nothing special and has nothing to do with the individuals who are being otherized.

[In fact] Immigrant neighborhoods are going to be substantially more safe [than “native born” neighborhoods].

Graph 1

Graph 2

Two [immigration] issues are getting conflated in America in 2019. One has to do with Mexico and the other is Central America. Mexican immigration has been a negative number for years. Mexicans are not immigrating to the United States. There is a net negative migration. More are leaving then coming in; especially after the Great Recession of 2008.

This strongly suggests that immigration for economic reasons is a market-driven phenomenon. You could create a rational immigration policy based on those market forces. However many jobs the economy needs, you issue that many work visas. You would solve a whole lot of problems in our workforce if you would rationalize around economic concerns. [As it is now] You end up with a series of problems in the labor market because so many people are forced to work without documentation; wages are being depressed; an increase in reported and unreported violations of labor codes. You see all kinds of abuse because there is no recourse for someone who is undocumented. Imagine a woman who is raped on the job by a supervisor, who is she going to report that kind of abuse to? And what happens when people are allowed to commit those kinds of abuses with impunity? Do you think that supervisor is going to only rape one woman? It seems unlikely. But she is unable to report that kind of abuse. The number of problems that are generated by people who are forced to work without legal documentation is a lot and there is no compelling rational reason for that to take place.


Migrants are people just like any other people and there is no amount of punitive restriction that is going to stop a parent from taking risks in order to ensure the well-being of their children. I know individuals who have taken this very difficult decision to leave everything and risked their lives in order to ensure the well-being of their family. And I know that is involved in breaking laws. I think the fault lies with the law rather than the lawbreaker if the law is not only irrational but immoral.

What the United States has gained? There is a litany of things the United States has gained. When a family makes a decision to send a migrant to the United States for economic reasons you do not pick someone who is infirm or not very bright or not very studious or industrious. Talk about entrepreneurial drive! And this has been true throughout the history of the United States. If a family takes that incredibly difficult decision to send a family member away, possibly for a long time, you pick your very best person. It is the opposite of what is being said about these people.

And so what happened during the height of Mexican immigration? Mexico lost a lot of its best and brightest and the United States gained those people and they contributed here. It is false migrants don’t pay taxes, they pay all kinds of taxes. What is tragic-comic is this accusation of identity theft. It is true they grabbed people’s social security numbers but if it is being used, it is being used so that those people can pay taxes into that social security number account.

The only person being robbed is the migrant who is paying into a social security account from which they will never receive anything. So somewhere in the United States is somebody with that social security number and that immigrant is making donations into that person’s social security number. Obviously the benefit in the system goes to the American and not the migrant. The benefit the migrant is obtaining is the employment. This drives me crazy. We should be able to create a rational system with work visas were people don’t have to pay into somebody else’s social security account.

Generally this narrative about stealing jobs is not true. When you remove the migrants for the meatpacking industry or the agricultural sector what happens is the meat doesn’t get packed and the fruit doesn’t get picked. For that reason those business owners are strong proponents of migration reform because they actually know. They do not jump on this bandwagon of xenophobia and racism. They know this is nonsense about immigrants stealing our jobs. In the present economy we are dependent on immigrant labor because there is a shortage of labor. The economy needs, and will need in the future, more immigration in order for us to thrive.

So, there has been a number of positive things the United States has gained. This is also not a single country phenomenon. A lot of the money economic migrant migrants earn goes to Mexico. We are talking about remittances. These people [migrants] will live on a ridiculous shoestring in order to send most of their check home at the end of every month. At first glance that might seem negative. We are shipping dollars south. But in fact, this is been an incredibly stabilizing force in an economy and in a country that the United States economy is completely integrated with. If Mexico were to erupt in revolution again as it did in 1910, the United States will experience an enormous impact. That violence nearly did spill over the border during the 1910 Revolution. There is every reason to believe that US national security would be threatened if Mexico is destabilized. You could not plan a program of stabilization that would be more precisely targeted.  It goes direct to the people who need it. There’s no bureaucracy or NGOs who need to figure out where it should go. And the people who receive that money use it rationally. When you drive to a community in Mexico where there have been a lot of migrants you notice it. The school is shiny and new and the roads are new. People have second stories on their houses. You can tell the impact. Show me a government program that is that efficient at delivering aid where just needed.

Migration is not a zero-sum equation. There is no way to make America First without harming America. There may be circumstances where a zero sum outlook is accurate but migration is not one of them. All of that is to say that the policy around migration from Mexico has been irrational for a long time. The last adjustment was in 1986 under Reagan. Ronald Reagan thought that years in this country was enough for someone to be granted a path to citizenship and a way to legalize their status and move forward. And now we have people who have been here, on average, decades. That is typical.

Almost all the migrant families that we are looking at today are of mixed status. Children and grandchildren will be US citizens and parents and grandparents are not and still undocumented. And often the children do not know the status of their parents. It is dangerous to tell children and it is also embarrassing. And children don’t have to know. Our child has been frightened by ICE and she knows everyone in her family is a US citizen but she does speak Spanish. Does that make her vulnerable? She has asked me straight up “Is mom going to be deported? The point is there is absolutely zero way to harm undocumented migrants without also harming US citizens. From a racist xenophobic perspective that is okay because the US citizens were going to be harmed are largely brown and Spanish-speaking. But I reject that kind of thinking.

Psychologists tell us what will happen [trauma to the children] and we’ll all pay the costs together for this harm. So if you are not moved by the immorality or human compassion be moved by self-interest. This kind of stuff is going to be expensive financially and culturally and socially for a long, long time.

[The debate is not theoretical to the people of Racine]

What went on in Racine last summer was ICE Vehicles patrolling our neighborhoods and grabbing our neighbors off of the streets and out of their places of work and out of their cars. These people are typically breadwinners for their families so you are talking about family separation every time you take one of them. These are the Mexican families that have been here for a long time and are the targets of the raids.

Ricardo Fierro copy

The case of Ricardo Fierro [is an example]. It is taking a breadwinner who has been supporting seven children, a couple of aging parents, and a disabled brother. And now the wife has to manage the child care. And how is she to support this enormous family?He is a business owner. He’s involved in the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He is a real community leader. He has been in Kankakee for a year.

Fierro Protest copy

It is so expensive to have a family member inside the prison system because everything costs money. Just talking to them costs an enormous amount of money. You can easily go through $50 a month if you want to talk to your loved one. You pay per minute. It depends on what facility they are in but private companies run the phones. The one that runs our detention center [Kenosha County Detention Center (KCDC)] is GTL. The person can call collect but then it is astronomically expensive. Or you can set up an account but you have to have a credit card to do that and every time you put money on the account it is $4.95. That is the charge just to give them money. Of course, the poorer you are the more you pay because if you only have $20 to put on, then you have to pay that $5 charge more often. The max you can pay is $50. That ensures that you have to keep coming back and put more money on the account.

If the person is in a detention center nearby you you’re lucky. Our detention center [KCDC] allows only one visit for 30 minutes per week. It is too bad if grandma wants to visit you after your wife has visited you because you only get one visit a week. That doesn’t count minors. If you go during visitation it is mostly families and small children blowing kisses through the glass to their daddies.

[In the next blog, Prof. Mitchell will talk about the asylum system and the Central American asylum seekers.]

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