A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Jan Hillard: Immigrants, fact and fiction in Kentucky, U.S.; policy should not be based on misconceptions

Throughout our country’s history, we have questioned the pace and character of immigration to the U.S. Persistent suspicions include whether immigrants they contribute to the economy, commit crimes, are a drain on the welfare and health care systems, and resist assimilation.

At times, our relationship with immigrants has included prejudice, and at times, violence.

Virtually every successive wave of immigrants has been accompanied by resistance: western, southern, and eastern Europeans in the late 1800s and early 1900’s, Asians, and most recently, Hispanics.

Each newly arriving group of immigrants has been met with greater and greater prejudice and misconception. The Irish and Italians serve as examples. They were shut out of employment and relegated to the worst housing of the day. Anti-immigrant groups were formed out of wide-spread fear of immigrant groups, most of whom were considered lawless, dirty and dangerous. Many prevalent beliefs about immigration are not supported by the facts. These current beliefs are often the same ones heard as early as the late 1800s.

The most often heard beliefs are discussed below. Data comes from the U.S. Census “American Community Survey, 2017, the Pew Research Center, and the American Immigration Council, July, 2020. It should be noted that immigrants represent many countries of origin including, China (3%), India (2.6%), Korea, Central America (1.4%), the Middle East, and Mexico (11.2%). These immigrants come from differing cultural, political, and educational systems. The commonality is their experiences in the U.S. and the suspicions that follow them. This report looks at trends for the group of immigrants as a whole, both for the U.S. and Kentucky, and does not focus on immigrants from specific countries.

Beliefs about the size of the immigrant population

The most frequently heard belief involves the number of immigrants in the country. This belief typically overestimates the number of persons. Today in the U.S. 13.6% of the population are immigrants or roughly 44 million (Pew Research, June 17, 2019). In Kentucky, 4% of residents are immigrants: 78,640 men, 75,440 women, and 15,267 children (American Immigration Council, July 7, 2020). Jefferson County has the largest immigrant population at 50,100, while Franklin and Calloway counties are home to 2.000 immigrants each.

Beliefs that most immigrants are here illegally

Immigration myth holds that immigrants are here illegally. Unauthorized immigrants represent 23% of the total immigrant population or 10.5 million. In Kentucky, lawful immigrants outnumber unauthorized immigrants by over 3:1. Some 60% of the unauthorized population reside in 4 states, California, Texas, Florida, and New York. The pace of legal immigration has been roughly 120,000 persons per year. The majority of legal immigrants have come from Mexico. However, this number is changing as increasing numbers of legal immigrants come from Asia and India.

Beliefs that DACA will result in an explosion in the number of immigrants

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is an immigration policy that allows some immigrants brought to the country as children, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit. DACA only applies to immigrants who offer significant value to the U.S. as “productive” citizens. Achieving DACA status is typically a long process with many checks and balances. Contrary to common belief, DACA does not provide a path to citizenship for all recipients. In Kentucky, there are currently 2,700 DACA recipients. Some 62% of DACA eligible immigrants had actually applied for DACA, and fewer than 2,000 residents would satisfy the educational requirements needed to receive DACA status.

Beliefs that immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens

Most Americans (77%) believe that immigrants do jobs that Americans do not want to do (Pew Research, June, 2020). Interestingly, 88% of Hispanic respondents hold this same opinion. According to Pew Research, 6 out of 10 Americans believe that immigrants strengthen the country through hard work and talents. 83% of Democrats hold this view while only 38% of Republicans do.

Beliefs that immigrants in Kentucky and the U.S. make up a large percent of the labor force, primarily agricultural jobs

In the U.S., legal and unauthorized immigrants represent 17% of the labor force. Unauthorized immigrants represent 7.6%. In Kentucky, legal and unauthorized immigrants make up only 5% of the overall labor force. Recent data is unavailable on the number of unauthorized immigrants in Kentucky. In terms of occupational sectors, nationally 38% of jobs in agriculture are held by immigrants. In Kentucky, only 10% of the agricultural workforce are immigrants. Nationally, immigrants represent 28% of construction jobs while in Kentucky this percent stands at 5.2% or 10.657 jobs. In the manufacturing sector, immigrants (legal and unauthorized) make up 19% of jobs nationally, and 7% in Kentucky.

Beliefs about immigrants’ educational attainment

Nationally, immigrant educational levels have risen significantly over the last 40 years, primarily as a result of better educational systems in home countries, especially in Asia. For example, nationally the number of immigrants with a bachelor’s degree has risen from 3.8% in 1970 to 17.2% in 2016. Immigrants with graduate degrees have risen from 2.3% in 1970 to 12.8% in 2016. In Kentucky, 33% of immigrants hold bachelor’s degrees. In both the U.S. and Kentucky, the immigrants and non-immigrants are at near parity when it comes to educational attainment. In Kentucky, the percent of immigrants with less than a high school degree stands at 25% compared to 13% of non-immigrants.

Beliefs about immigrants’ contribution to the economy

Often heard is the mistaken belief that immigrants make little contribution to the economy. This opinion doesn’t stand up to the data, particularly in the technology sector where immigrants make up 28% of technical workers nationally. Immigrants from China, India and the former Soviet Union have helped start some 60% of the most valuable tech companies in the U.S. Immigrants account for 25% of all STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree and 52% with doctoral degrees. According to a recent finding, immigrants account for 28% of U.S. patents. In Kentucky, immigrants generated $321 billion in business income. Immigrant households spent $3.6 billion in 2018.

Immigration policy is one of the most hotly contested topics in American politics today and in the past. Unfortunately, debates about immigration are littered with misconceptions and devoid of facts. There is no question that our economic future depends upon fact-based economic policy where the role of immigration is understood and embraced. Our technology sector depends to a great extent on welcoming highly educated immigrants. Highly educated immigrants in the STEM fields provide a remedy to the ongoing, poor performance in math and science by American born students. Continuing to lead the world in innovation depends to a great extent on embracing immigration. Closing down immigration would be a prescription for rapid economic decline.

We must continue to hold up beliefs about immigrants to the light of real data. Forging policy on misconception or prejudice is inherently dangerous for our prosperity.

Jan Hillard, Ph.D., is data editor of the NKyTribune and retired Emeriti Faculty of Nothern Kentucky University.

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