Myth Versus Fact on the Impacts of High Immigration Levels

Norman Matloff
University of California at Davis

footnote: Dr. Matloff is a professor of computer science at UC Davis, and formerly was a statistics professor. He is a former chair of the UCD faculty committee on affirmative action, and writes frequently on minority and immigration issues. He has presented invited testimony to House and Senate committees on immigrant welfare usage, and on the adverse impacts of immigration on minorities. His father was an immigrant from Lithuania, and his wife is an immigrant from Hong Kong. A speaker of Chinese, he has been active in the Chinese immigrant communities for more than 20 years.

Presentation to the San Francisco Bar Association
March 10, 1996
(updated July 22, 1996)


It is quite difficult for the average citizen to develop an informed opinion on what has come to be one of the major contemporary social issues in the U.S.--immigration. It is a very complex subject which tends to be treated in a very shallow, simplistic manner in the press, leaving the public vulnerable to ``spin doctors'' and claims by special-interest groups. In this document we counter some of the myths being propagated by special interests who wish to maintain today's high levels of immigration. (Congress increased yearly immigration quotas by 40% in 1990. The reform bill introduced in the Senate in 1995, but ultimately rejected at the committee level, would have reduced those quotas back to their pre-1990 levels, which were already high.) At the end we will summarize the needs for immigration reduction, many of which are touched upon in the ``myths'' section.

Myths Vs. Fact

Myth: Illegal immigration is a problem, but legal immigration is fine, not in need of reduction.

The current high levels legal immigration actually comprise an even more serious problem than illegal immigration. For example:

Myth: Immigrant and minority communities support the current high levels of immigration.

Poll after poll has shown that immigrants do feel that yearly levels of immigration are too high and should be reduced. The rank-and-file do not share the opinions of self-appointed ``community leaders'' (many of whom the rank-and-file have never even heard of) who support continuance of those high yearly influxes. And even immigrant advocates, such as Po Wong of the Chinese Newcomers Service Center in San Francisco and Antonia Hernandez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), have admitted that current yearly quotas are higher than what their communities can absorb.

For instance, Wong has said:

The [Chinese] community is not ready even for the influx of legal immigrants looking for housing, looking for work, looking for other social services, health services...I don't think our community is equipped to welcome this large a number. It is especially difficult to find employment for those who speak only Chinese, who have very little education, or who have never acquired a skill to compete in this new market. It's very depressing to see so many people come here looking for work.
footnote: MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, July 7, 1993, and Sanford Ungar's Fresh Blood: the New American Immigrants, Simon and Schuster, 1995, p.49.

Polls have shown that most African-Americans also support reduced levels of immigration. In many senses, the attention given to the Model Minority Asian immigrants, as well as other immigrant groups, is leading to African-Americans becoming the Forgotten Minority in government and other institutions which have had a goal of improving conditions for the black underclass. With the increasing presence of immigrant minorities, blacks are receiving less attention and are seeing their political power dwindle.

The following excerpt from an article by UC Berkeley Asian-American Studies professor Elaine Kim, a Korean-American, might well be regarded as a ``smoking gun'' by African-Americans:

footnote: The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s, ed. by K. Aguilar-San Juan, South End Press, 1994.

``Someone from MALDEF (Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) pulled me aside during a meeting about re-districting to point out that due to demographic shifts, Asians and Latinos could work together because we never had very much to begin with. `We have little to lose and a lot to gain by working together,' he said, `while African-Americans stand to lose their hard-won civil rights gains from the 1960s, given their declining numbers.'''

This was not idle talk. Soon afterward in nearby Oakland, Latinos and Asians successfully proposed a re-districting plan which challenged the one proposed by blacks.

Myth: There is no immigrant welfare problem.

It is very easy to ``cook the books'' when making claims concerning immigrant use of welfare services, e.g. by including or excluding certain subgroups or programs. But here are the facts:

Myth: Immigrants as a group pay more in taxes than they receive in services.

This is extremely misleading. The problem is that studies making such claims only include a few types of ``services,'' mainly welfare and sometimes education. They do not include roads, hospitals, police and fire protection, and so on. The nation has a budget deficit as a whole, so the population in general is using more in services than it pays in taxes. For poor people, that imbalance is even worse, and since all sides agree that the immigrants are on average poorer than natives, it is clear that immigrants, taken as a group, are exacerbating our fiscal problems.

Myth: Immigrants do not displace Americans from jobs or reduce their wages. On the contrary, they create jobs via their consumer activity.

Immigrants do indeed create jobs via consumerism--but not enough to offset the number of jobs they take. Again, this is due to the fact that immigrants on average are poorer than natives. This means that immigrants create fewer jobs via consumerism per-capita than natives, and since immigrant work force participation is as high as natives, there is a net job loss for natives.

Even the Urban Institute, well known for its pro-immigration stance, concedes that there is notable job displacement and wage reduction in particular sectors of the American labor pool, such as:

(See the Urban Institute's Setting the Record Straight, 1994, and Immigrant Categories and the U.S. Job Market: Do They Make a Difference, 1992.)

When asked why most Latino Americans wish to see reduced immigration, Antonia Hernandez, president of MALDEF, explained:

Migration, [both] legal and undocumented, does have an impact on our economy...[particularly in] competition within the Latino community...There is an issue of wage depression, as in the garment industry, which is predominantly immigrant, of keeping wages down because of the flow of traffic of people.
footnote: Forum on Immigration, UC Davis, March 11, 1994.

Sociologist Peter Kwong of Hunter College has found the same problems among immigrant entrepreneurs:

In the 1980s, business in [New York's] Chinatown reached the point of saturation: too many immigrants, too many new businesses, and exhorbitant rents. Suicidal competition developed throughout the community.
footnote: The New Chinatown, Noonday Press, 1987, p.68.

Myth: Most immigrants come here to join their families.

Even Stanford University law professor Bill Ong Hing, a prominent immigrant advocate, admits in his book that most immigrants who come here under the family-reunification laws do so for economic goals, not because they miss their American brother or sister so much.

footnote: Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration, 1850-1990, by Bill Ong Hing, Stanford University Press, 1993, pp.106-107.
He notes that hyphenated Americans from rich countries such as Japan rarely sponsor their relatives to immigrate, whereas there are high rates of family-sponsored immigration from poor countries such as China and the Philippines. Hing says:

Japanese-Americans were in an excellent position to petition for relatives [to immigrate] under the 1965 [immigration law] amendment's kinship provisions, yet they did not take advantage of this opportunity as other Asian American groups did...Japan's relative economic and political stability appears to be the main reason...

There is nothing wrong with wanting to better oneself economically, but the cry of immigrant advocates in 1995 that ``The Simpson [Senate] and Smith [House] bills would break up families!'' is quite misleading.

Myth: The U.S. computer industry depends on immigrants for its technological edge.

The vast majority of technological advances in the computer field have been made by U.S. natives. For example, of the 56 awards given for American industrial advances in software and hardware by the Association for Computing Machinery, only one recipient has been an immigrant. Similarly, of 115 computer-related awards given to U.S. engineers by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, only nine recipients have been immigrants.

footnote: Computer Industry 1994-95 Almanac, by E. and K. Juliussen, Computer Industry Almanac, Inc., Glenbrook, NV.

Computer industry employers say that they need to scour the world for exceptional talent, a goal which I would strongly support, but the reality is that instead of being interested in finding the ``best and the brightest,'' they are often looking for the cheapest. Even Sun Microsystems, a major Silicon Valley company which has been urgently lobbying Congress against reform of laws regarding skilled immigration, boasted in 1993 that it had just hired 50 Russian computer programmers ``at bargain prices.''

footnote: See the Los Angeles Times, both November 15, 1993 and July 15, 1996.
A statistical analysis performed by the author on the 1990 Census data revealed that average salaries for foreign-born computer professionals in Silicon Valley were nearly $7,000 lower than among natives of the same age and level of education.
footnote: UCLA Asian American Studies professor Paul Ong, together with Evelyn Blumenberg, performed detailed studies on the 1990 Census data. After adjusting for a host of factors such as experience, education, English proficiency, and so on, they found that ``Recent immigrants in engineering earn about one-third less than their U.S.-born [Asian-American] counterparts...Foreign scientists and engineers may be willing to accept lower salaries in order to obtain full-time employment in the U.S., a prerequisite for permanent residency.'' (The State of Asian Pacific America, Paul Ong (ed.), LEAP Asian Pacific American Public Policy Institute and UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1994, p.179-180.) In the Electronic Engineering Times, July 18, 1994, Ong comments, ``Companies took advantage of immigrants.''

Myth: Immigrants are remedying a shortage of workers in the U.S. computer industry.

Analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics by Lawrence Richards of SoftPac (Austin, Texas) shows an oversupply of labor in the computer and engineering fields. Many employers, in an effort to save on salary expenses, are limiting their hiring to recent graduates. Employers who defend their hiring of foreign nationals (and sponsoring them for green cards) point to the many pages of job ads in Sunday newspapers. But Sharon Gadberry, president of Transitions Management/Outplacement National notes that the job ads will specify ``five years of experience--they usually mean no more than that.''

footnote: San Jose Mercury News, September 4, 1996.
This creates a ``revolving door'' system in which computer professionals find it difficult to find suitable work, at ages as young as 35.

Myth: The immigration-reform proposals introduced in Congress in 1995 were partisan efforts by the Republicans, intended to capitalize on California's passage of Proposition 187 in November 1994.

The Simpson and Smith bills, S 1394 and HR 2202, followed the June 1995 recommendations of the bipartisan congressional Commission on Immigration Reform, created in 1990, long before Prop. 187 was proposed. These recommendations were endorsed by President Clinton. California Senator Diane Feinstein has strongly supported reductions in both legal and illegal immigration, and even Senator Ted Kennedy, long an opponent of immigration reform, has begun to support reductions of certain kinds of legal immigration.

The problem of skyrocketing increases in elderly legal immigrant use of welfare first became a serious concern of Congress in the spring of 1993, again long before Proposition 187 was proposed. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich became concerned about the computer industry's importing of foreign nationals for cheap labor in that same year, once again long before Prop. 187.

Myth: Nationwide desires to reduce immigration levels is fundamentally a problem of racism.

Polls have shown repeatedly that immigrant minorities wish to see less immigration; they can hardly be accused of being racist against themselves.

Under the Simpson and Smith bills, most of the immigrants coming to the U.S. would have continued to be Asian and Latino, as they are today. The bills would have done nothing, direct or indirect, to change that.

Whenever a community is adversely impacted by a large influx of newcomers, there is concern, regardless of race. For example, there has been negative sentiment among whites in the Pacific Northwest against white Californians who move in, raise real estate prices, compete for jobs and so on.

Why It Needs Fixing

Immigration, under sensible policies and well-planned numbers, is a good thing. It invigorates our society, and makes life more interesting for us all.

Currently, though, the numbers are too high, and many individual policy facets are working poorly. The following are examples of the problem with the present numbers and policies:

No one is saying that immigration is the sole source of all of our troubles. However, immigration is certainly exacerbating many of our problems, and making them much harder to solve. At a time when governments at all levels are in serious fiscal crisis, immigration is adding to the gridlock. The modest reductions proposed by the Simpson and Smith bills are both justified and needed.

For More Information

The author has a World Wide Web site on all facets of immigration, featuring articles by authors of varying points of view. The Web address (``URL'') is

Norm Matloff
Mon Aug 26 22:23:57 PDT 1996