• by Abel Carmona, BA • IDRA Newsletter • May 1996 • 

One of the most controversial political and economic issues in the United States today is the impact immigrants entering the country will have on the population. Some people believe immigrants are an uneducated, unskilled burden on our economy and take advantage of many of the government funded programs established for the benefit of U.S. citizens. Opponents of the US policy on immigration believe that “drastic steps” must be taken to curb the number of immigrants entering the United States. Politicians are expressing their willingness to support measures that would close the borders and deny children of undocumented workers an education. There continues to be a movement to make English the official language of the country known throughout the world as the “nation of immigrants.” In California, for example, the citizens passed legislation restricting government funded programs from serving undocumented immigrants, and other states are attempting to implement similar measures.

Unfortunately, many of these xenophobic attitudes and false negative beliefs about immigrants are fueled more by media hype and people’s fears about the economy than by reality. History has shown us that as the economy declines, immigrants become less and less popular and to some degree are blamed for the economy’s sluggishness. How accurate and fair are these myths? Does the immigrant population of today differ that much from that of the past? Does it really constitute such a great burden on our economy? Are they as uneducated as they are perceived and do they unfairly benefit from government funded program established for “Americans?”

Economy and Jobs

It is true that the number of immigrants entering the United States is increasing. There are many people who believe that because our present economy does not appear to be able to support the current native US population, the added influx of immigrants would not only hurt our economy but would also create unemployment and financial hardships for many US citizens. What they fail to see is that as the immigrant population creates more demands on the economy, the economy adjusts accordingly and even spawns the creation of new industries to meet those demands.

As for those skeptics who claim the immigrant population will “steal” jobs from native workers, “there is no empirical evidence documenting that the displacement effect [of natives from jobs] is numerically important” (Borjas, 1990).

Studies show that immigrants contribute to the economy through tax payments, job creation, entrepreneurial activity, consumer spending and neighborhood revitalization. The Alexis de Toqueville Institute states that immigrants also create jobs by raising the productivity of US businesses (Wong, 1994). According to RAND and the US Department of Labor:

“The immigrant workforce keeps labor-intensive industries competitive and helps keep jobs in our country. Immigrants made crucial contributions to the California economy over the last 20 years and have saved the furniture, garment and shoe industries in Southern California and the textile industries in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco” (Wong, 1994).

The Urban Institute states that immigrants add twice as many jobs to the country as does the native-born population and contribute to local employment more than non-immigrants (Wong, 1994). According to Business Week, “By setting up businesses and buying homes, immigrants generate both taxes and employment opportunities while encouraging further investment in the inner city” (Wong, 1994).

Public Assistance

In terms of how immigrants benefit from and contribute to government-funded programs, the majority of immigrants, because of their age, make proportionately larger contributions to the public fund than they will ever receive in terms of benefits. The cost of government services received by immigrants is significantly less than their contributions (Simon, 1995). According to a report by Michael Fix and Jeffrey S. Passel, immigrants create a surplus of $25 billion to $30 billion annually. Most do not qualify for social security benefits, and those who do are not granted public assistance until three years after their entry into the United States. Other studies – including reports by the California Research Bureau, the California State Office of Research, the US Department of Labor, and the US Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service – show that, despite high poverty rates, immigrants use less public benefits than average and are less likely to become dependent on welfare (Wong, 1994).

Education Level and Labor

Another false perception many people have of immigrants is that they are uneducated and unskilled. The immigrant population is similar to the US population in that it includes people with varying degrees of education. Some have less than eight years of formal education and others have doctorates. The educational level of immigrants today is higher than those of the past and continues to improve. On average, the proportion of immigrants with post-graduate degrees is greater than the proportion of people with postgraduate degrees in the native population (Simon, 1995).

Just as the privileges that our society affords to its educated people serve as incentives for people to become educated, it also so serves as an incentive for some to emigrate here, even for those who are from countries as prosperous as this. As a consequence of this phenomenon, the United States has experienced a growth in our pool of people who excel in the technological fields such as engineering, mathematics and science (Stewart, 1993). With this growth, the United States has the potential of increasing its productivity and expanding into frontiers in many fields of study, particularly in technology and science.

Implications for Schools

In view of these facts, the negative myths of immigrants is unwarranted and unfair. Immigrants are educated, are skilled and do contribute positively to the US economy. Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economics professor and specialist on the economics of immigration, proclaims, “There’s no doubt that immigration has a positive effect overall [on the US economy]” (reference, date).

As the influx of immigrants continues and the number of immigrant children enrolling in the public education system grows, educators will need to grow along with them. Statistics show that, in spite of the many obstacles immigrant children must overcome as new students in a new country, they persevere and some do as well if not better than US natives. As they complete their public education, many choose to pursue their education further and enroll in colleges and universities. Interestingly, although immigrants are less likely to have graduated from high school, they are more likely to graduate from college when compared to the US native population.

Many in the education field believe that “the education system is poorly prepared to meet the special needs of linguistically and culturally diverse students, and problems are especially acute in the secondary level,” (Christian, 1994). The need for programs that are better able to educate children with varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds will require educators to create new and innovative means of educating these students.

In times like these it is especially important that organizations, such as IDRA, that are dedicated to improving the educational opportunities of all children, families and communities, to continue to serve as strong advocates of immigrant education and children, particularly those who are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own.

President Lamar of the Republic of Texas said in 1838, “It is admitted by all that a cultivated mind is the guardian of democracy and while controlled by virtue the noblest attribute of man.” Although some people may believe the present attitudes concerning immigration are justified or rational, we should keep in mind that the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution which affords us the right to an education also allows this protection to be “extended to all persons in the country, regardless of citizenship, residence or documented status” (Cárdenas, 1993).


Borjas, George J. Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the US Economy (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1990).

Cárdenas, José. “Undocumented Children: A Continuing Challenge for American Education,” IDRA Newsletter, August 1993.

Christian, Donna. “National Program in Immigration Education Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,” IDRA Newsletter, January 1994.

Fix, Michael and Jeffrey S. Passel. Immigration and Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 1994).

Simon. Julian. Immigration: The Demographics and Economic Facts. (Washington, D.C: Cato Institute and National Immigration Forum, 1995).

Stewart, David W. Immigration and Education: The Crisis and the Opportunities. (New York, NY: Lexington Books, 1993).

Wong, Ronald. “Eye on Politics: The Four Ugly Lies About Immigrants,” Asian Week (Stamford, Conn.: Ethnic NewsWatch, SoftLine Information Inc., February 11, 1994).

Abel Carmona was a research assistant in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]