DREAM on: setting the record straight
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, August 29, 2018
“Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.” — John Lennon
False narratives. Fanciful claims. These are the labels Jeffrey Murphy used to describe the evidence on DACA that is commonly cited by liberal politicians, news networks and citizens. As a debater, advocate and supporter of immigrant rights, I hope to entertain Murphy’s request for a fair debate, grounded in evidence and truth, with a point-by-point response to the contentions outlined in his column, “The statistics on Dreamers are a nightmare.”
Murphy cites the theoretically correct statistic that only 0.1 percent of DACA recipients are currently serving in the military; however, the evidence is missing some sorely-needed context. To qualify the aforementioned statistic, it is worth noting that DACA recipients are currently unable to join the U.S. military. Though DREAMers could previously enlist through a program called Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI, the program was suspended in 2017 while officials implement stricter security standards. Until a memorandum from July of this year halted the practice, the Army forcibly discharged dozens of MAVNI recruits. Hence, while the statistic may seem appalling on its face, the disproportionately low number of DREAMers who serve in our military is not a product of a paucity of patriotism but rather a series of politically-induced roadblocks.
DREAMers and education
Murphy cites the statistic that 4 percent of DACA recipients have obtained a college degree, a number dramatically lower than the 18 percent of native-born Americans who have accomplished the same. Here, Murphy cherry-picks the data, excluding evidence that is favorable for DACA advocates. According to the data set from the Migration Policy Institute that Murphy cited, 20 percent of DREAMers are enrolled in college. Likewise, 20 percent of the total U.S. college-aged population is enrolled in college. The true disparity arises in the rates of college completion. Only 11 percent of DREAMers complete some college and, as Murphy cited, only 5 percent graduate.
The trend is both disturbing and surprising, especially in light of research from sociologists Holly Reed and Amy Hsin which suggests that undocumented college students are “more motivated and academically prepared” relative to their native-born counterparts.
Notably, DREAMers face a multitude of barriers to post-secondary education. Indiana is one of at least seven states that prohibits undocumented students from accessing in-state tuition rates. DACA recipients cannot receive federally funded financial aid, which blocks their access to loans, grants and work-study funding. Moreover, according to the Atlantic, private loans for undocumented students are more difficult to obtain and charge higher interest rates. Harvard professor Roberto G. Gonzales, whom Murphy cited as well, further emphasizes the financial difficulties faced by DREAMers, stating, “42 percent [of DREAMers] report not completing their plan of study within the normal time schedule, as limited finances and family responsibilities forced them to leave school for significant chunks of time.”
Again, with regard to education, the major factors that give rise to superficially unfavorable statistics are born out of anti-immigration policies rather than the character of DACA recipients.
DREAMers and crime
Murphy’s statistics on DREAMers and crime are limited to so-called evidence conducted under John R. Lott, Jr. of the Crime Prevention Research Center (CRPC). The statistics presented are damning yet deceptive. Lott runs the CRPC out of his home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. None of his studies have ever been published by peer-reviewed journals, he has been accused of fabricating one of his surveys and it was revealed that a blogger who had repeatedly praised Lott was, in fact, Lott himself. His studies have been criticized as “garbage” by Gary Kleck, a leading criminologist from Florida State University, and Dr. David Hemenway of Harvard University decried Lott’s analyses as “faulty,” stating, “his findings are not ‘facts’ but are erroneous.”
Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute suggests that Lott simply miscategorized the data, which fails to distinguish the documentation status of incarcerated immigrants. When legal immigrants are removed from Lott’s equation, Nowrasteh finds that the incarceration rate for undocumented immigrants falls to between 3.7 percent and 4.3 percent of the total prison population (undocumented immigrants comprise 4.9 percent of Arizona’s total population). This evidence suggests that they are incarcerated at a disproportionately low rate, rather than at a rate four times the magnitude of their relative population fraction, as Lott suggests.
The statistical trend observed in Arizona holds true on a national scale as well. Per the Cato Institute, DREAMers have an estimated incarceration rate of 0.98 percent compared to a native-born incarceration rate of 1.12 percent.
DREAMers and the Economic impact
Murphy’s argument revolves around the misconception that DREAMers displace American workers. He also writes, “Dreamers are not unlike the rest of the illegal alien population — they are low skilled, low wage, uneducated workers that create a net fiscal deficit.”
To address the contention that DREAMers are “low skilled” and “low wage,” one should first note that without work permits, employment opportunities for undocumented, non-DACA youth are dramatically reduced. Subsequently, these individuals fill positions for which they are overqualified. Ultimately, this mismatch between skill set and job responsibilities leads to 20 percent lower wages compared to native-born workers with similar backgrounds. Thus, the generalization that undocumented immigrants are “low skilled” and “low wage” is a misconception that can be at least partially attributed to the fact that high-skilled immigrants often hold low-skilled jobs.
DACA actually improves this discrepancy. After being granted DACA-status, over 50 percent of recipients held jobs that were more closely aligned with their skill sets and education. As Douglas Holtz-Eakin, chief economic policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign explained to the Washington Post, “DACA … allows [undocumented immigrants] to move to jobs that better match their background, freeing up low-skilled positions.” Native-born workers can then fill these jobs, meaning that DACA recipients do not compete with low-income Americans, as Murphy suggests.
The misinterpretation that DREAMers “steal” jobs is rooted in the economic idea known as the “lump of labor fallacy,” or the concept that there is a fixed amount of work. A brief (though oversimplified) explanation reveals that the population increase spurred by DACA also creates demand, which in turn, creates jobs.
Lastly, though DREAMers may contribute to a “net fiscal deficit,” this point is non-unique. According to a 2012 analysis by the Tax Foundation, only 1 in 5 American households pay significantly more in taxes than they receive in government benefits.
Finally, to respond to Murphy’s “sneaking suspicion” that GDP per capita would increase with the deportation of DACA recipients, many economic experts disagree. According to an analysis conducted by the National Academies of Sciences (qtd. in Forbes), there is strong evidence that immigration boosts innovation, very likely raising per capita GDP growth. Moreover, the Center for American Progress’ found that passing the DREAM act would increase the average annual income of all Americans by between $82 and $273.
DREAMers and English Literacy
The evidence that Murphy presents for his final point is legitimate, though corroborating studies have yet to surface. But any statistic is no more than a number, and the only power it wields is the weight which we attach to it. My response to the observation that many DREAMers have limited English proficiency is to question the significance of the observation itself. The United States has no national language. Though the vast majority of native-born Americans speak English, ours is a nation founded on diversity and freedom. Perhaps the greatest burden of language barriers is the obstacle we face in learning from one another.
Instead of lamenting the “functional illiteracy” of immigrants, we ought to both teach them and learn from them. When many programs for English Language Learners are either of poor quality or non-existent, limited English proficiency among immigrants is unsurprising. But if we dedicate resources to helping rather than disapproving, we can unlock the means to communicate across cultures. When we share our stories, we generate discourse, solidarity and empathy.
Though this letter is written and intended as an evidence-based response, I nonetheless feel it is imperative to include a qualifier to this letter. Debates are often centered around the quantitative and the empirical. Though I have implored you throughout this piece to dig deeper, I now encourage you to take a step back. DREAMers are people, not pie charts. They cannot be captured in numbers or statistics. Their lives are more than meta-analyses and economic models.
DREAMers are hard-working, ambitious young people. Any exception to this characterization is just that — an exception. The racist, xenophobic hostilities that they face are not only unfair but also un-American. We are a nation of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty’s base does not read: “Give me your CEOs, your wealthy, your valedictorians.” No, it is inscribed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
I urge you to consider not just empirical evidence, but also empathy and ethics. We must speak with compassion rather than criticism, and allow both pathos and pragmatism to be present in our words and in our actions.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.