The U.S. Election: Should We Fear Immigrants?

The recent election results in the United States have provoked great anxiety among many in the United States and around the world. Many are afraid and uncertain about a future under a president who has made racist, xenophobic, and sexist remarks.  Yet Mr. Trump’s supporters have also been afraid.  Mr. Trump ran largely on an anti-immigrant platform. The fact that he won reveals in part a fear of immigrants, change, and an uncertain future.

This fear is worth examining because the U.S. can’t be a nation that leads well if it is nation that is afraid.  One major fear is for citizens’ safety.  Another is jobs and costs. But it may be that we should remember the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, who said during another hard time in America’s history, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Fear of Violence and Terrorism

The mother of four children who asked me last week if we could reduce her $1 school fees per month because she can’t afford them is not interested in politics, she just wants a safe place to live and a way for her young children to learn to read and count. A young man in our program was a journalist who exposed some of Iran’s corrupt and illegal anti-environmental practices in a city newspaper.  His co-writer was put in jail.  He fled for Indonesia and was recently resettled to a third country, where he continues to have no love for his government, to say the least.  Another young, man named Farhad, 24, had to abruptly gave up his career as a national professional soccer player because his brother was killed by the Taliban.  He is devastated that his prime athletic years are being wasted here in Indonesia.

These are not people interested in being violent.  They are the people who fled violence. Like most Americans, the refugees we work with (among the 14,000 in Indonesia waiting to be resettled to a third country) are dedicated to their families and improving their future through jobs, good health, education, and finding a comfortable or at least safe place to live.

My experience with Roshan Learning Center refugee students in Jakarta is they hope to land in places that are safe, orderly and peaceful.  Despite the violence and upheaval many have experienced, once resettled these refugees too want to model and encourage this peaceful order.  This perspective is backed up by study after study.  Research from the University of Texas, the University of Alberta, the American Immigration Council, and the Cato Institute, among other places, shows that immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to commit serious crimes or end up behind bars.  In fact, high rates of education are associated with low rates of violent crime and property crime.  In the U.S., this is true of first-generation and second-generation immigrants.

“You’re more likely to be killed by your own clothes than an immigrant terrorist,” heads one article by Vox, presenting research conducted by Alex Nowrasteh.  This is funny headline but it underscores a serious point.  Thanks to intense vetting, a process that no one wants to diminish, the odds of being killed by an immigrant terrorist are 1 in 3.6 billion.  The odds of having your clothes catch on fire are considerably higher.

Fear of Lost Jobs and High Costs

Another deep-seated fear is that immigrants take jobs and suck up social services that cost us money.  This seems like a rational fear—how could people from other places speaking a foreign language readily benefit places where they have been resettled?

But there is no indication that immigrants have any negative impact on the wages or employment status of native-born workers, based on a new report, Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration, from researchers at Princeton, Cornell, Harvard and other premier academic institutions. Highly-skilled immigrants—those with special expertise or higher levels of education—actually spur innovation and create jobs for working class Americans. Further, once settled, immigrant families contribute billions of dollars to local and national tax bases and help sustain vital public services such as public schools and police.

Here’s another look at the fiscal bottom line based on that report:

* First-generation immigrants cost the U.S. $57 billion.
* Second-generation immigrants add $30 billion to U.S. government revenue.
* Third-generation immigrants add $223 billion to U.S. government revenue.

The overall financial benefits in the long run are quite clear.  Immigrants contribute billions to national economies—far more than they cost us.

Beyond the fiscal contributions, consider also the other contributions of immigrants, such as diversified world views, flavorful cuisines, willingness to take jobs others do not want, language skills, and so on. In short, immigrants are people who seek a peaceful place to live and a way to support their families and community, who also enrich the U.S. and other resettlement countries culturally and, with some patience, economically.

When I look at the American election from the eyes of refugees, what is remarkable is not the fact that they seem scary to some Americans—something unimaginable to the refugees themselves, who are at the receiving end of so much poverty, discrimination and neglect.

What is remarkable to them is that America just had an election with a massive change in leadership, the balance of power and ideology, yet there were no imprisonments, violent riots or deaths.  Every single person, man and woman, regardless of ethnicity or religion, got to have an opinion and no one threatened them for it or silenced them.  We had a safe and peaceful transition of power, and ordinary citizens had a big role in making that transition happen.

This power of the common person expressed through voting is something that makes America great and has been a bedrock of the American idea since the 18th century, when Thomas Paine and others fought for the democratic principles of our American republic.  I’m sure our founding fathers never imagined we would be a country afraid of people who need a hand up, who seek religious freedom, safety for their families, or the right to participate in a peaceful democracy.