MALDEF

Ignorance is Costlier Than Immigrants

Houston Chronicle
By Lisa Falkenberg
April 29, 2008


We're under siege. They're swamping our schools and hospitals. They're compounding the crime rate. They're declaring a cultural war by refusing to learn English and otherwise assimilate into American culture.

Those are some of the public perceptions, anyway, of illegal immigrants, as reflected in Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg's latest annual Houston Area Survey.

On some level, it's easy to see how well-founded concerns over immigration could have devolved into widespread hysteria after three years of constant politicization and media hype.

Those who consider illegal immigrants a "very serious" problem totaled 61 percent, up from 43 percent in 2006.

That's the perception. What are the facts?

Debt paid

Let's take the issue of illegal immigrants straining tax-funded services like schools and hospitals, which was the main reason 2008 survey respondents said they saw illegal immigration as a problem.

Indeed, the children of illegal immigrants are filling desks in Texas schools. A December 2006 report by the Texas Comptroller's Office estimated that there were 135,000 of them, costing the state slightly less than $957 million a year. Another 3,792 were in state colleges, costing about $11.2 million.

Illegal immigrants' total cost for state services was $1.15 billion, a whopping figure worthy of outrage, unless you consider the fact that illegal immigrants are taxpayers, too.

The sales and property taxes paid by as many as 1.6 million illegal immigrants in Texas provided $1.58 billion for the state. They seem to have paid back what they took, plus $424.7 million.

Media fuels fear

The picture was different for local governments, however. Immigrants, like any group of people, include those who get sick, have babies and commit crimes. The biggest local bill was for indigent health care. In 2005, care for illegal immigrants cost the Harris County Hospital District $97.3 million, or 14 percent of the system's total operating cost.
That portion of the hospital district's $1 billion budget is now about 10 percent, David Lopez, president and CEO, said last week during a town hall on immigration aired live on Houston PBS Channel 8. He said that because immigrants tend to be healthier than the average U.S. population, most of the care was given in the emergency room and maternity wards — not for "tummy tucks and face lifts."

Still, the comptroller concluded in the 2006 study that illegal immigrants were not a drain, but a boost on the state's overall economy, to the tune of $17.7 billion.

Crime was the second most popular reason why survey respondents believe immigration is a problem locally. And why not? We in the media are constantly playing up the "illegal immigrant" angle in crimes such as drunken driving or robbery.

On Monday, the Chronicle's Web site displayed a headline on the main story declaring, "Prosecution: 'Cold-blooded' illegal immigrant killed HPD officer."

Juan Leonard Quintero may indeed be a "cold-blooded killer," as a Harris County prosecutor claimed during his murder trial in the execution-style death of Houston police officer Rodney Johnson.

And while it's clear that the officer would almost certainly still be alive if Quintero hadn't entered the country illegally, his immigration status has nothing to do with whether he pulled the trigger.

The reference only reinforces the stereotype of the violent illegal immigrant.

Study after study has proved that stereotype wrong. Cities with concentrated immigration are some of the safest places around, according to a Chicago study published a few months ago by Robert J. Sampson, chairman of Harvard University's sociology department.

It found that first-generation immigrants were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than third-generation Americans.

And what of the cultural fears, that illegal immigrants refuse to learn English and are doomed to dwell in poverty?

According to years of data from Latino immigrants interviewed in the Houston Area Survey, Latino immigrants are learning English and assimilating as fast as immigrant groups in the past.

The proportion of Latinos who conducted interviews in English rather than Spanish grows from 17 percent among recent immigrants to 49 percent for those who have been here at least 20 years, to 98 percent of the third generation.

They're also moving up and out of poverty. The percent of households with incomes above $35,000 grows from 16 percent among the most recent immigrants, to 42 percent among immigrants who have lived here more than 19 years. By the third generation, the number is 57 percent.

Perceptions aren't always reality.

Immigration isn't all bad, or all good. Immigrants themselves are a drain and a boon, but seemingly more of a boon in Houston.
Focusing only on the negative perpetuates a climate in which illegal immigrants are demonized for breaking immigration law in a broken immigration system, rendering the topic too politically toxic for congressional leaders to touch.

Acknowledging the complexities of the issue is the only hope for a solution.

Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund