An Apology to an Immigrant

In college I took a course in Mexican Folk Healing (don’t ask how this happened). Aside from learning that garlic will do in a pinch as an antiseptic, I can’t say I’ve ever really used a lot of the course material. I’ve yet to use a spider web as a band-aid, break a chicken egg in a cup under my bed to diagnose my illness, or use mass quantities of cinnamon as a contraceptive.

That said, I took something valuable from that class. It had nothing to do with the subject at hand, and I didn’t appreciate the lesson until nearly two years later.

As part of the course, the professor brought in a guest speaker. I cannot remember exactly where he was from, but he was an immigrant. He was warm, spoke with a thick accent, and beamed with pride about the restaurant he had opened in the city. He spoke to us about his experience with folk medicine and traditions, and how his business not only drew in other immigrants, but also introduced others in the community to different kinds of food and customs.

Several weeks later our professor came to class and announced with great sadness that the speaker from a few weeks before had been deported for being in the country illegally.

At the time I remember feeling shock at the reactions of some of my classmates. They were upset, perhaps even angry at the news. I couldn’t understand. After all, he was illegal. I thought, “If he is here illegally he should be deported.” You want to come to the U.S.? Get in line.

It wasn’t until studying immigration from an economic perspective that I discovered how so many of my ideas about immigration were just plain wrong. All of the things I took as fact, the notions that immigrants “steal” jobs, funnel away valuable resources, and are largely criminals weren’t just a little off—they were positively backward.

I’ve discussed on this blog before the difficulties immigrants face when coming to the United States. For those with high skills, the process is long, drawn out, and complicated. For those considered “unskilled,” it’s nearly impossible to get a visa or a green card, much less citizenship.

Last week, the Center for Immigration studies (CIS) published a report claiming that immigrants use substantially more welfare than natives. Alex Nowrasteh with the Cato Institute wrote a positively elegant critique of the study. The problems he pointed out should be enough to cause the authors to blush with embarrassment and lead people to be highly skeptical of their conclusions. Over the summer, the murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant with multiple deportations under his belt brought out the anti-immigrant contingent in droves. While absolutely tragic, many used this heinous crime as a springboard to criticize immigrants as a whole. For days the news discussed the supposed crime wave created by illegal immigrants. This is despite the fact that time and again studies have found that immigrants of all stripes–legal and illegal–are less likely to commit crimes or be put in jail than their native counterparts.

While claims that immigrants “leech off the system” and are more inclined to criminal activities are bad enough, there is another error yet to consider. It’s one I made years ago in my college class. That is, so many people fail to see the benefits that all immigrants, regardless of their legal status, bring to the table. Immigrants boost the economy substantially, spark job creation, and bring new people and ideas together.

For those concerned with humanitarian issues, immigration provides one of the most effective ways to shield people from violence and lift them out of poverty. Just by moving from a poorer country to the United States, for example, a man doing the exact same job can improve the quality of life for his family by leaps and bounds.

So while I may not have learned many practical medical skills from my folk healing class, it taught me a valuable lesson. I’ll probably never know what became of the man who spoke to our class. Sadly, he’s probably not as well off today as he was then. Moreover, the community lost his business, and his customers lost a place they enjoyed. Perhaps most tragically of all, this same scenario plays out again and again every day. When it does, we all lose.

So, to that man from my class, let me take this opportunity to say, “lo siento.”

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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