Blaming Others: What’s Behind the Talk About Immigrants

Our greatest threat is not immigrants. It is ourselves.

Posted Jan 11, 2019

By Amina Rahimi and J. Wesley Boyd

President Trump's continual diatribe against immigrants is disheartening: The caravan at our southern border is replete with gang members, rapists, followers of ISIS, and drug dealers. (Interestingly, Trump remains strangely silent on immigrants from certain European countries.) Fox News pundits generally play lap dog and pile on, rarely questioning the President’s claims, recently by saying immigrants make the U.S. “dirtier.” 

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that many Americans blame immigrants for everything from stealing American jobs to freeloading on our health care system or our high crime rates.  

The data about immigrants, however, refute these assumptions. Immigrants do not lower employment rates for US born individuals nor do they cause wages to be lower in the US. In fact, undocumented immigrants are vitally important for the well-being of a number of US industries, most notably farming but also construction, the restaurant industry, cleaning services and numerous others.

Additionally, immigrants are actually far less likely than native born Americans to commit crimes or be incarcerated than native born Americans.  Immigrants are also far less likely than native born Americans to commit murder.  For example, the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack that was committed by a foreigner (from 1975 to 2015, including 9/11) are 1 in 3.6 million per year, and the chance of being murdered by an undocumented immigrant are 1 in 10.9 billion per year.  By contrast, the chances of being murdered by an American are approximately 1 in 16,000.

And when it comes to health care, the amount of money spent on health care for immigrants is 40–50 percent less than that for U.S. born individuals, and health care expenditures for undocumented immigrants are even lower than for other immigrants.  In fact, immigrants actually subsidize Medicare for Americans because immigrants often pay into Medicare and then never receive its services.   (This is even more true for undocumented immigrants than for other immigrants.)  Immigrants also subsidize the private health insurance market in the U.S. because immigrants are generally younger and healthier than native born Americans.

If immigrants don’t actually pose a risk to our health and well-being, then what does?

We do. Consider these statistics:  Cigarette smoking kills 480,000 Americans every year. Poor diet and poor health habits kill over 300,000 people every year. And alcohol consumption kills 88,000 people a year. These deaths result from choices people make for themselves (excepting those, of course, who die from secondhand smoke or those who are killed by drunk drivers), often knowing the risks involved.  

In fact, recent reports from the CDC show that the life expectancy in the US has actually declined for the second time in three years. Life expectancy at birth decreased from 78.7 years in 2016 to 78.6 years in 2017—for reasons having nothing to do with immigrants. For a nation that spent $3.5 trillion on healthcare in 2017, this trend is troubling. The biggest factors driving mortality rates upwards were deaths from drug overdose, suicide and firearms—conditions that are largely preventable with appropriate public health and policy measures. The opioid crisis accounted for 67.8 percent of all deaths from drug overdoses. Between 1999 and 2016, almost 9,000 children and teens died from prescription and illicit opioid poisonings, a 268.2 percent mortality rate increase.  

Given these numbers, the reality is abundantly clear: The things that are likely to kill us have nothing to do with immigrants but instead are things we do to ourselves or inaction on the part of our government to take reasonable public health measures to protect us.

Given these data, it is abundantly clear that immigrants don’t pose a threat to us but in fact make the U.S. safer overall and also strengthen our insurance markets.

Why then, all the focus on immigrants? Because psychologically it is much easier to look outside of ourselves for a source of our malaise and misery.  Blaming immigrants allows us to transfer responsibility for our country’s problems from bad governmental and personal decisions to individuals who were born outside our country.

Instead of heaping blame on immigrants and proposing one rule after another meant to keep immigrants from entering our country, the Trump administration ought to be proposing reforms that most Americans would actually benefit from, such as increasing access to affordable housing, enacting legislation that will actually reduce the chances of being shot and killed while at school or at work, increasing access to quality healthcare and education, and protecting workers from losing their jobs from automation, among many other things.

Sound public policy ought to be based on what is in our best interest and rest on robust data. Blaming immigrants for all manner of ills does neither.

Amina Rahimi, BS is a medical student at Harvard Medical School.

References

Flavin, L., Zallman, L., McCormick, D., & Wesley Boyd, J. (2018). Medical Expenditures on and by Immigrant Populations in the United States: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Health Services, 48(4), 601-621.

Zallman, L., Woolhandler, S., Himmelstein, D., Bor, D., & McCormick, D. (2013). Immigrants contributed an estimated $115.2 billion more to the Medicare Trust Fund than they took out in 2002–09. Health Affairs, 32(6), 1153-1160.