Live-Blogging Immigration: A Civil Conversation About A Heated Topic

I've been following the Sutherland Institute much more closely lately, in large part because Sutherland places a high premium on civil dialog. The topic Sutherland is hosting today is one that desperately needs such courteous conversation. The topic is entitled "Undocumented Immigrants in Utah: A Civil Conversation About the Facts".  You can watch the live broadcast here, or check back later at the same site for the archived presentation.

Sutherland's panel of experts today includes Pamela S Perlich from the University of Utah and Charlie V Morgan of Brigham Young University.

Ms. Perlich pointed out that gathering immigration statistics is fraught with problems involved in the language barrier and as well as the fear of coming forward to answer statistical surveys. Often people of other ethnicities answer "White" on census forms.

New cultures, as they become part of our community, add a richness to the community and to such things as our housing, labor, and cuisine markets.

Mr. Morgan thinks it is imperative to push away our own personal views on illegal immigration so that we can portray the data behind the people as accurately as possible rather than twisting it to fit our own personal views. Data provided to the attendees of today's conversation showed that, as the numbers of Hispanics increase in the United States over the past 15 or so years (by more than 50%), the numbers of crimes that they commit have actually gone down slightly.

Contrary to what many people think, our legal system is not being overrun by illegal aliens. The percentage of Hispanics, for example, in Utah prisons is somewhere around 6%, according to Mr. Morgan, which is reflective of their overall proportion in the population. The news reports of crime seem to skew toward identifying Hispanics as overly represented in crime statistics, and there are some categories in which they are slightly overrepresented (Mr. Morgan cited murder and sex offenses), but overall, they do not commit crimes in larger proportion than their representation in society.  Unfortunately, however, Sutherland Institute President Paul Mero, pointed out, a Dan Jones Poll found that 62% of Utahns inaccurately think that Hispanics commit more than their share of crimes.

The Utah County  Jail contains 25-30% of inmates that are undocumented immigrants. This may seem like a shock until you come to know that these inmates are shipped to the Utah County facility from all over the state of Utah. Utah County is one of only two "federal facilities" in Utah (Weber County is the other) that are allowed to house such inmates. Thus, stated Mr. Mero--and Mr. Morgan wholeheartedly agreed--it would be very inaccurate to look at the Utah County Jail as an indication of the undocumented immigrant crime rate in Utah.

Ms. Perlich said that just as first-generation immigrants are more healthy than subsequent generations, first-generation immigrants are also slightly--but not significantly--more law-abiding. This is due to a phenomenon called "Mean Reversion", where, as people become more comfortable with their new country, then tend to become more like the average American.

Undocumented immigrants aren't much more well off than the average Hispanic, but they are somewhat more well off, because it does require somewhat significant resources to successfully migrate to the United States.  This is a pattern that is not new; it has held true for decades.

Before 1965, there had never been a quota on immigrants from Mexico. That rate was established at 20,000 in 1965, and that rate still stands.

Sutherland appreciates what it has found through its research about undocumented immigrants: they tend to have stronger families, be hard workers, and divorce less. Ms Perlich stated that the people who are willing to take such large risks in uprooting their families and moving to a new country are special people.

"One of the great ironies is that the Mormon pioneers originally settled illegally in Mexican terrority," quipped Perlich. "They were the first undocumented immigrants. They are us; we are them."

Prior to the 20th century, immigration rates into the United States were relatively high, and fertility rates among immigrants were high as well.  In mid-20th century, immigration declined due to newly established quotas and the disruption caused by two World Wars. Then at the end of the 20th century, immigration started significantly upward, causing immigration in the 1900's to graph out as a U-shaped curve.

The common man and woman, said Paul Mero, fears that undocumented immigrants are causing unemployment.  Perlich disagrees. The current recession,, contrary to being caused by immigrants, was actually very economically damaging to immigrants, as well as the rest of us. "There is some wage compression; we know that, [but] immigrants contribute to the wealth generation and productivity of our nation. Period," said Perlich.

One of the problems with larger numbers of undocumented immigrants are the fears of coming forward and the inability of the law to protect them as it would others. This leads to and encourages exploitation of undocumented workers.

Mr Mero described the milk production in Millard County, at 2 million pounds per month, which would dry to nearly a trickle--according to dairy farmers in that county--if undocumented workers were required to leave the county.

Imagine, said Perlich, what would happen to just the housing market, if masses of undocumented workers simply picked up and went back to their countries of origin.

'Is Utah under reporting the number of undocumented immigrants?' Mero asked.  Some indicators imply that maybe this is so, said Mr. Morgan, but other indicators say that this is not happening. For example, certain cases of doubling counting occur, as in the case of the reported 300 undocumented Beaver County inmates, only one of which is really from Beaver county; the rest have been brought in from other parts of the state.

The citation that '81% of murders where the ethnicity was reported are hispanic' is especially an egregiously erroneous report, Mr. Morgan observed, because besides the very tiny population sample the statistic represented (1) only one year, (2) only Salt Lake County, and (3) only for arrest records and not conviction records.

Another problem with statistics, said Morgan, is that currently each jail keeps its own statistics.  Even in the two cases of federal undocumented immigrant detention facilities (Utah and Weber Counties), the statistics are kept differently.

"There is never enough data," observed Perlich. "No matter what data you have, in one way or another you have to contextualize it. If you casually cherry pick the data you can make whatever point you want. It is very difficult to do good social science research. If you find people who come in with an agenda..and they give you one number, that should set off alarm bells."  We humans leave footprints in a lot of different data, and one set of data is very often not accurate if taken by itself (i.e. out of context).

Perlich pointed out that historically, with every wave of immigration, there has been national or regional uproar in the United States, whether its Germans, Lutherans, or Hispanics.  Perlich described this phenomenon as "Nativism". Newer, younger generations are much more likely to have grown up with immigrants and wonder "what are our parents all torqued out about here?" smiled Perlich. 

Morgan observed that the forces of assimiliation are very strong. Second generations are losing their native language, and third generations completely lose the language, even in an environment of immigrant replenishment, such as Southern California. There is much that is unhealthy about assimilation that is too fast or too complete.

Ironically, Hispanic children are often more loyal to the American flag than are their white counterparts.

Morgan has visited with several Utahns who are frustrated by the feeling of being racially profiled by being pulled over while driving far to often by law enforcement officials.

Michael Clara, of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly, cited a report by National Public Radio, which seems to indicate that the Arizona law against illegal immigration was not a grassroots effort. Clara is wary of legislation being proposed in Utah by Representative Stephen Sandstrom that would be similar to Arizona law. Perlich agreed that the impetus behind the Arizona law is national but not necessarily popular in a grassroots sense.  In answer to the same question, Morgan opined, and Perlich agreed, that when the economic situation improves, illegal immigration will cease to be such a sensitive and heated subject.

Senator Howard Stephenson, also in attendance, felt that Clara's characterization of Steve Sandstrom's legislative proposal was unfair, and that it would be better to get "everyone in the same room and we'll probably find that we're a lot closer to agreement than we think we are."  The criticism should not be of Sandstrom and others who are attempting to deal with the problem in Utah, but rather at our federal Congressional delegation and others in the Federal Government who keep in place such inane limits as that only 20,000 people can immigrate to the United States from Mexico each year.

In response, Paul Mero expressed his dismay that certain legislators in Utah seem to only see the negative in illegal immigration and that strengthening enforcement is their first and only solution. Senator Stephenson tended to agree with Mero's statement.

The solution, says Morgan, is to issue far more visas for undocumented workers than are currently being granted. The problem with citing inaccurate statistics regarding Hispanics and crime is that, if it is not checked, these false notions will become ammunition for keeping legal immigration at its already low levels.

A questioner in the audience wondered as to the lack of reporting of crimes by undocumented immigrants, because they themselves are considered criminals and live in fear of being deported.  Morgan agreed that this is a correct characterization a problem that is not often considered in the immigration debate.

Perlich feels that too much emphasis seems to be placed on the economic impacts of immigration, legal and illegal, because "people are so much more than just money."  Morgan stated that a large percentage of illegal immigrants are involved in the 'normal' economy, which means that they are paying taxes. Remittances of their wages back to their home country is only about 10%, meaning that 90% of their income is spent in the United States. Perlich illustrated the misplaced concern over remittances by posing the absurdity of making it illegal for someone in Utah to send money to their ailing mother in the Oklahoma.


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