The United States must foster policies and practices that welcome international students to our institutions of higher education. Misstating the facts about immigrants in this country not only distorts the policy debate, but also makes those who are born outside our borders less likely to feel they are welcome here and that their contributions are appreciated.
In his much anticipated immigration policy speech, Presidential candidate Donald Trump distorted facts about immigrants. By stating that, “62 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants used some form of cash or non-cash welfare programs, like food stamps or housing assistance,” Trump implies that undocumented immigrants receive federal government assistance. In fact, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, commonly known as welfare reform, effectively barred undocumented immigrants from receiving any federal benefits. (It also severely curtailed access to federal benefits programs by legal immigrants.) Similarly, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as the food stamp program until 2008.
Since undocumented immigrants are prohibited from receiving federal assistance, Trump relies on the phrase “households headed by illegal immigrants” to infer undocumented immigrants are profiting from federal benefits in ways that aren’t supported by the facts. There are many “mixed status” families in which members of the same family have different citizenships or immigration statuses, including undocumented heads of household. According to Pew Hispanic estimates, some 45% of unauthorized immigrants live with a spouse, partner, or child who are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants. It does not violate “law designed to protect the U.S. Treasury”—as Trump stated in his speech—for eligible family members of undocumented immigrants to receive federal benefits.
In his speech, Trump makes it clear he is proposing an “impenetrable physical wall” at the southern border. What is not clear is why he claims as fact that there is a “crisis of illegal crossings” on the southern border. Border metrics show a steep decline in the number of people seeking to illegally cross the southern border. Fox News reported that more Mexicans are leaving the United States than are coming into the country. In December 2015, DHS Customs and Border Protection announced that “long-term investment in border security continued to produce significant and positive results in FY 2015.” Apprehensions declined by almost 80 percent from their peak in FY 2000. What has increased are the number of people fleeing civil unrest and terror who are seeking asylum and protection. The summer of 2014 saw a surge in unaccompanied children arriving at the southwest border fleeing gangs and violence in Central America. The numbers dropped in the fall, not because conditions improved, but because the Mexican government deported larger numbers of Central American children and the United States launched public information campaigns warning children not to travel north. The numbers increased again in October 2015 according to the Pew Research Center, but children arriving alone were outnumbered by families who fled together, more than doubling the number who were identified in the prior year. These were people not trying to sneak across the border, but instead affirmatively presenting themselves to border patrol asking for help. The crisis here is a lack of policy – globally – to address the vast number of people seeking asylum or refugee status.
There is a part of Trump’s speech that is a fact on which we should all double down: “We will treat everyone living or residing in our country with dignity. We will be fair, just and compassionate to all. But our greatest compassion must be for American citizens.” We agree with Trump that we must treat everyone with dignity and compassion. We must treat with dignity and compassion American children—U.S. citizens—who live in fear that they will be separated from their mothers and fathers. We must treat with dignity and compassion sisters and brothers who have unequal access to higher education because one was born in the United States while the other was brought to the United States without status as an infant. We must welcome refugees and asylum seekers with dignity and compassion, as the United States accepted so many of us, our parents, and our grandparents, when we needed it to.
Facts matter. And the fact is that America will be best served by policies that honestly assess the contributions of immigrants and make them feel welcome.
Lisa Rosenberg is senior director of public policy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators.