9 Questions to Help Us Talk about Immigration’s Economic Impact

Hi Joel,

A favorite student of mine recently asked the question, How do you talk about immigration with people who don’t accept facts?

More specifically, she was interested in countering the claim that immigrants take jobs from Americans. She knows the data, but it’s not persuasive to people who dismiss every facts as “fake news.” Drawing from my work teaching this topic to often-resistant students, I suggested that, instead of piling on facts (easy enough to do since there is so much evidence that both documented and undocumented immigrants are good for the economy), she ask questions.

The goal isn’t to humiliate another person by exposing them as a racist (though I think that arguments that paint immigrants as threats are racist) or xenophobic or as hypocrites (because lots of people don’t like immigrants doing “American jobs,” but everyone loves cheap tomatoes on their cheap hamburger patties) but to ask questions that nudge them into thinking from new angles. Because you’re asking questions they may not have thought about before, you also make it harder for them to spit out answers they’ve rehearsed. It deepens the conversation, and, if you can keep them thinking along these lines (rather than falling back into the arguments they’ve heard from their preferred media sources), you can make headway.



Image result for haitians working in tobacco fields

Above, a 17-year-old girl works in a tobacco field in North Carolina. She has done this dangerous work since she was 13. Photograph by Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch. 

Here they are:

  1. What threatens your job security? Outsourcing? Automation? Union busting? Falling demand? Failure to keep up your skills? Casualization of labor? Immigration? Of all the things that threaten your job, how likely is it that immigration will be the thing that makes you unemployed?
  2. How many Americans do you know who have lost their jobs to immigrants? What did the process of job loss look like?
  3. Which industries do you think hire too many immigrants? If Americans won’t fill those jobs, what should we do? Should we let those industries die? Should we force unemployed Americans to work them? How, exactly, would we do that? What is the market-based solution to getting workers in those jobs?
  4. Which jobs do white immigrants take from Americans? If you can’t think of any, what does that tell us about which immigrants we don’t mind working and which we do?
  5. Who benefits when we keep our focus on immigration as an economic threat?
  6. What gets ignored when we focus on immigration as an economic threat? Who benefits from our ignoring those things?
  7. What evidence, other than their anti-immigration policies, do we see that anti-immigration advocates care about the economic well-being of the native-born poor? What policies do they support that would put more money into the pockets of people who are currently unemployed or underemployed?
  8. If we wanted to improve economic opportunity for native born people in the US, what would we be doing? Why are we focusing on curtailing immigration rather than those other endeavors?
  9. If politicians are both for anti-immigration and against policies that reduce poverty, (raising the minimum wage, progressive taxes rather than regressive taxes such as sale taxes, supporting unions, offering free higher education and job training, maternity and paternity leave, single-payer healthcare, mass incarceration, War on Drugs, etc.), do they really care about ending poverty or helping people find and get good jobs? What other motives might they have for fostering an anti-immigrant sentiment among voters?


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