The Immigration Policy Center just came out with a new report on the demographics, achievements, and economic contributions of immigrants in Kansas. It’s a great organization that puts out good research relating to the realities of immigrant families and communities, and I think they even “get” the politics of influencing attitudes on immigration reform better than most organizations; their blog and reports include such values-based items as What the Bible Really Says About Immigration and focus on the impact of anti-immigrant policies on immigrant children.
And this report itself has very positive data: “If all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Kansas, the state would lose $1.8 billion in expenditures, $807.2 million in economic output, and approximately 11,879 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time.”
So my argument is NOT that there’s anything wrong with producing these kinds of reports, or with organizations dedicating themselves to publicizing them. At all.
The problem is that, alone, they won’t do much at all to move us towards our goal of good, progressive, workable, pro-immigrant reform. Our opinion polling on Americans’ attitudes towards immigration tell us that, overwhelming, it is an appeal to common values that moves them towards pro-immigrant positions, not a barrage of facts seeking to irrefutably demonstrate immigrants’ importance to our economy or society. There are two main reasons for this, and we need to understand the nature of these limitations in order to reduce our reliance on this kind of data in favor of the laborious, exhilarating, very hard work of building a social movement that will demand policy change, rather than expecting politicians to have a sudden epiphany that, “hey, immigrants are really contributing to our country and doing great things–we should be nicer to them!”
Reason 1: People just aren’t moved by facts the way that they are by stories and values. Think about it: what are YOU more likely to pay attention to and remember–a list of impressive economic data, or a really compelling story that resonates with something central about how you see the world? Yeah, me too.
Reason 2: Unfortunately, people know that data can be manipulated, and, in this particular area, for every study highlighting the significant contributions of immigrants to our nation, there is at least one put out by the anti-immigrant ideologues arguing exactly the opposite (plus, thrown in for good measure, some allegations that they’re all criminal child molesters and welfare cheats, too). I’ve looked at the methodology and I think it’s pretty clear that the evidence asserting a net positive impact of immigrants, including those undocumented, on the country is overwhelming, and there is even some (albeit slightly less strong) evidence of net positive impact on the state, too, AND, of course, that these positive impacts would only increase with immigration reform that gave people legal status to work in the U.S. (which would raise wages and education levels and bring people out of the underground economy). But, the point is, of course I’d come to that conclusion, because those facts support my worldview. It doesn’t happen the other way around.
So, what to do when a report like this comes out? We should absolutely use it with our allies, to add to our talking points, share with legislators inclined towards supporting our cause but in search of ammunition with which to support it, and use with media who are tempted to run as ‘fact’ the reports that the anti-immigrant groups parade out.
But, then, we have to get back to the work of building relationships, tying immigration reform to how people see this nation of immigrants moving forward into the future, registering citizen children of immigrant parents to vote, organizing immigrant communities to engage in collective action, building solidarity with workers and progressives…in other words, building a movement.
Women didn’t win the right to vote because men were suddenly convinced of their (um, obvious) economic and social import. Much of the U.S. would have collapsed without the labor and consumption of African Americans, yet it wasn’t their economic impact that won their freedom, from slavery or from apartheid rule.
Movements won those struggles, and it will take a movement again.