How to Respond to Demagoguery on Immigration


As a proud progressive Democrat, I find myself called upon to counter right-wing demagoguery on immigration on the regular. You probably do too. We can never let these views go unchallenged because they have intuitive power and popular appeal. Here’s how to respond effectively and, somewhat, briefly to such demagogic assertions.

Demagoguery 1:

“There is an immigration crisis at the border! The illegals are pouring over the border and we’re out of places to keep them. Facilities are over capacity. We need funding to expand bed spaces to meet this unprecedented emergency.”


These are largely asylum seekers, not illegal immigrants. Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a “refugee.” The United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol define a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Congress incorporated this definition into U.S. immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.

As a signatory to the 1967 Protocol, and through U.S. immigration law, the United States has legal obligations to provide protection to those who qualify as refugees. The Refugee Act established two paths to obtain refugee status—either from abroad as a resettled refugee or in the United States as an asylum seeker.

Most of those seeking asylum in the U.S. are coming from failed states in Central America. These nations are on the forefront of climate change, with crop failures and famine, as well as skyrocketing violence from gangs and police alike as the social order breaks down.

There is not an unprecedented high level of asylum seekers coming to the United States for asylum. The reason facilities are overflowing is that this Administration is seeking not to release asylum seekers from custody. Instead of processing their claims and releasing them pending their hearings, they are keeping thousands of women and children and families interned in camps and overstretched, overcrowded facilities where they sicken and sometimes die, or get raped or exploited by staff.

Let the asylum seekers out; 90% of them show up for their hearings. We must stop violating these peoples’ human rights.

The only reason why GOP are calling it a crisis is because their President has declared a national emergency at the border to get the funds to build his wall, and they are trying to create facts on the ground to justify it. There is no emergency that the Admin has not created for itself. The GOP is merely using, and to a great degree, causing, these people’s misery to advance their goal to build a wall.

Remember: The demagogue will try to elide asylum seekers with illegal immigrants: they are not the same thing. Don’t accept the ellison and point it out, every time.


If it isn’t the border “crisis,” the demagogues are all about the stupid idea of a wall:

Demagoguery 2:

“We have to build a wall to keep the illegals out! Walls work. They keep people out. Sectors of the border were we build barriers see drops in illegal crossings of 90-95%. It only stands to reason that if we complete the wall, we will have an overall drop in immigration of 90-95% overall.”


Immigration takes the path of least resistance. Of course it flows around any walls we build to more perilous, but largely undefended, open desert. That carries moral costs in itself. By building the walls you are encouraging people to risk, and often lose, their live in the desert to exposure and victimization by coyotes.

If you build your great impenetrable wall from sea to shining sea, it will only force immigration to a new path of least resistance: overstaying visas, and entering through a different border. Most immigration violations are the result of overstaying legal visas; more people will choose this route to enter through a legal port of entry and just overstay. The other alternative is to fly over the border wall: buy a plane ticket to Canada and walk across the largely undefended northern border.

The wall will not stop much, if any, illegal immigration. It will merely move it around. It will cost an astronomical amount of money, and degrade our economic, ecological, and cultural partnership with Mexico. It will cost billions a year to man, maintain, and mortgage, yet it will do nothing but increase the cost of crossing by, at most, the price of a plane ticket, or the bribe of the hungriest coyote with a ladder.


A perennial complaint of the populist right is that immigration is costing taxpayers billions of unearned and illegitimate claims on public services:

Demagoguery 3:

“Illegal immigrants are coming here and using public goods. They are costing taxpayers billions a year (the President claims between $200 – $275 billion a year) for those benefits to which they are not entitled. We have to stop them coming, or cut off all access to those public goods to discourage further illegal immigration.”


This is an assertion of fact that can be verified or falsified. However, it’s difficult to actually ascertain a cost-benefit analysis because so much of the financial life of illegal immigrants happens in grey and black markets.  But, we know that the actual cost, if any, is much less than the President asserts. The conservative Heritage Foundation estimates the cost to be closer to $50 billion a year, whereas a meta-study for Congress by GAO finds the cost to be between $2 and $19 billion a year. There is even a partially suppressed Trump study that indicates that the overall benefits outweigh the costs, leaving a positive impact on the public fisc.

The more objective and less ideologically driven the study, the less the cost is found to be, generally. Any and every objective study finds that illegal immigration has both costs and benefits for the taxpayer, and that ultimately the cost of immigrants on our system are largely paid by immigrants through payroll taxes, as well as state and local sales and income taxes. Finally, they all also conclude that immigration provides a great deal of benefit to the labor market of the host country.

There rightfully should be a complex and evolving discussion about the costs and benefits of illegal immigration. It is not a simple issue. It is not clear-cut. It’s messy and it’s the sort of complex balancing act that democratic governance can be good at. There is no easy or “final” solution, nor should we seek one. We should continue to challenge the most baseless of assertions, such as the President’s, and continue to insist on careful study and management of the issue, seeking to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of immigration.


Demagoguery 4:

“Illegal immigrants are coming here to take jobs Americans could be doing. They steal our jobs and push down wages for everyone else because they will work cheaper than an American can afford to.”


Again, the reality of this issue is much more complex than the demagogue would suggest.

Yes, illegal immigrants do take jobs that most Americans find too dangerous, difficult, or low paid. And that’s a good thing, Our economy needs that flexibility at the low end of the labor pool that immigrants provide.

One might in good faith argue that the corporate interests who employ a great deal of immigrant labor want their immigrant workers burdened with the disability of undocumented status: it makes them easier to control and defraud. If we really were concerned about the effects of illegal immigration on the labor market, we would give legal status to all immigrants, so they enforce their full legal rights to work in the U.S themselves in the Courts and Administrative Agencies. That would end the exploitation of immigrant workers and the wage gap between them and native workers.

We can and should closely match our green card allotment to the actual labor market, so that we don’t have a class of black market, exploited labor in the U.S., which is exactly what we have now and why we need to give the roughly 11 million undocumented in this country a legal labor status.

If you want the real causes of American job loss, look to the highest ramparts of the American economy for the causes: automation, moving facilities and jobs overseas to arbitrage their labor markets, lack of aggregate demand due to stagnant wages. These are the real cause of loss of American jobs. Fix these issues before looking to illegal immigration to explain people’s economic pain.


Demagoguery 5:

“Illegal immigrants are bringing crime to our streets. They bring disease. They come here with their gangs and drugs; they are rapists. Some, I assume are good people. But the cost of letting in the bad with the good is too much to bear.”


While not a direct quote, this is close to the words that actually propelled Trump to the White House. These are common fears about foreigners that many people share, having never been exposed to immigrants. This is also, not germane to the topic: asylum seekers, not illegal immigrants.

There are always bad people in just about any group of sufficient size. That is a good reason to effectively and zealously prosecute our criminal laws, not good reason to set immigration policy.

It is just a fact that recent immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the native population. To claim otherwise is merely a blood libel. The sort of lie that is told about outsiders to gin up violence against them. It should be treated as the scurrolous lie it is. Its only purpose is to attempt to destroy the people in the targeted group.

They are not a source of epidemic disease, although the conditions they are being kept in by our government is encouraging communicable disease outbreaks among the refugees in captivity.

Finally, the refugees are largely women and children, not the prime age males from 16-35 who account for most violent crime in any population. Are you really going to be scared by a bunch of women and children fleeing for their lives?


Well, that’s it. If you have suggestions about how to respond to these instances of demagoguery, please leave comments with suggestions. Thanks for reading.