Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Anti-Immigrant Propaganda in Hazleton and Elsewhere

Recent news reports about Hazleton, Pennsylvania have repeated the erroneous claim that Hazleton has suffered an increase in crime that can be attributed to a sudden influx of illegal immigrants. As I pointed out in a previous blog post, that ain't the case. To wit, the total amount of crime in Hazleton decreased significantly between the year 2000 and the year 2005 notwithstanding a signicant increase in the Latino population.

Even if the total amount of crime in Hazleton had remained more or less the same during that five year period when the population increased some 30 percent, that would have been remarkable. But it didn't increase. It went down. Some people have a hard time understanding that. And while there's no question that crime is down in Hazleton, I think this assertion begs the question of what actually constitutes crime.

The standard banal canard of xenophobes is that illegal immigration is a crime, but it's not, at least not at the present time. Illegal immigration is not a felony (like murder), nor is it a misdemeanor (like drunk driving usually is). Rather, "Improper Entry By Alien" is covered by Title 8, Section 1325 of the United States Code and "Civil Penalties for Failure to Depart" are covered by Section 1324d. While these code sections provide for penalties such as fines and incarceration, the maximum jail time for a first offense is six months, which would make these offenses comparable to a speeding ticket, what is commonly known in the law as "an infraction."

Under federal law, an infraction is not a crime; it is a civil offense. And in practice, very few people who are arrested for illegal immigration are ever convicted. They are usually booked and released. If and when they show up for their court proceedings, they are almost always able to choose to remove themselves from the United States voluntarily rather than being convicted of improper entry or failure to depart. A rough equivalent would be the choice to attend traffic school rather than have a traffic ticket appear on your driving record.

There are probably some 11 million people in the United States who are subject to arrest for improper entry or failure to depart. As a practical matter, it would be nigh on impossible to apprehend these people, so the federal government spends very little time doing so. Rather, there are token and selective enforcement efforts by the federal government that give the illusion that something is being done, much like the War on Drugs. And then there's the misguided enforcement efforts of towns like Hazleton. To wit, the penalties for improper entry and/or failure to depart the United States are the sole province of the federal government. As such, Hazleton will almost certainly find itself on the wrong end of a lawsuit in federal court any day now.

One of the other oft-repeated canards of xenophobes is that illegal immigrants place a burden on public services in the United States. That ain't true. As a group, illegal immigrants tend to be very poor, but they are much less likely to be living on the dole and/or using public services than American citizens of a similar socioeconomic status. To wit, according to an article appearing in the San Diego Union Tribune written by Douglas S. Massey of the Mexican Migration Project:
"Among some 2,100 undocumented migrants surveyed. . . , only 4 percent said they used food stamps on their last U.S. trip and just 3 percent said they received government welfare payments. In contrast, 60 percent said they had federal taxes withheld from their pay. Moreover, even though undocumented migrants are legally entitled to send children to U.S. public schools, only 11 percent reported doing so. Immigrants also are entitled to emergency medical care in the United States, but only 26 percent said they used a hospital on their last trip.

"[ . . . ]

"The usage rate for food stamps and welfare among illegal migrants has remained low at just 3 percent to 4 percent over the past two decades; but the percentage sending children to public schools fell from 12 percent during 1987-92 to just 7 percent between 1997 and 2002. Over the same period, the share using a hospital dropped from 30 percent to 20 percent. On the revenue side of the ledger, however, federal tax withholding rose from 60 percent to 67 percent.

"[ . . . ]

". . . From 1987 to 1992, . . . 60 percent of legal immigrants (emphasis added) surveyed . . . used a hospital but between 1997 and 2002 the share had fallen to 42 percent. Over the same period the percentage with children in U.S. schools fell from 35 percent to 19 percent, and food stamp usage dropped from 15 percent to 5 percent. Welfare usage remained roughly constant at 8 percent to 10 percent. Tax payments, meanwhile, rose from the already high level of 90 percent to reach 95 percent between 1997 and 2002.

"Among both legal and illegal Mexican migrants, the likelihood of filing a tax return – and thus having any hope of receiving a refund – has fallen in recent years. Between 1997 and 2002, . . . just 67 percent of legal immigrants and only 5 percent of undocumented migrants reported filing a federal tax return. In other words, all Mexican immigrants, but especially the undocumented, are likely to contribute to U.S. public coffers rather than take from them."

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