Debunking the Lies Politicians Say About Immigrants

Rebuilding the U.S. immigration system to be both functional and humane requires dismissing harmful myths and inflammatory rhetoric in favor of truth and facts.
Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Mar 21, 2024

As critical elections approach, voters are being bombarded with harmful myths, misrepresentations, and outright lies about people who are immigrants. More than 45 million people living in the United States were born elsewhere. Despite their proven contributions to communities nationwide, people seeking office call them “invaders” and make campaign promises for the “largest domestic deportation operation in history.” Inflammatory talking points about “border security” and the “migrant crisis” come from candidates across the political spectrum.

What is missing from this rhetoric is simple: the truth. The United States has failed to align its immigration laws and practices with 21st-century realities, leaving a system that is cruel, dysfunctional, and widely criticized. Bringing the country’s approach to immigration in line with the needs of the moment and building an immigration system that is both functional and humane will require serious effort. False information distracts from the solutions that we know work.

Here’s the truth.

It is perfectly legal to request asylum. People who come to the United States border to ask for help are not breaking the law.

Asylum is a form of protection that allows people to remain in the United States and avoid deportation back to a country where they fear persecution or harm because of their identity, religion, or political beliefs. Under both U.S. and international law, people who face danger in their homelands have the right to go to other nations to seek safety and to have their requests for asylum considered.

Asking for asylum is not a “free ticket” into the United States.

Applying for asylum is a long and complex process. Asylum cases completed in fiscal year 2019 or later took an average of 5.2 years to resolve, according to unpublished analysis of government data conducted by Vera. Currently-pending removal cases have been on the docket for an average of 1.9 years. Dangerous conditions around the world have forced record numbers of people to flee their homes and seek safety. This increase in need, exacerbated by a decades-long lack of investment in infrastructure and capacity to humanely process asylum claims, has created an enormous backlog in processing requests. Vera’s unpublished analysis of government data showed that, as of January 31, 2024, there were 3,353,199 cases pending removal proceedings in the United States.

Undocumented people have far lower crime rates than U.S. citizens.

Political candidates often falsely link undocumented people to crime in the United States. Yet an extensive study of crimes in all 50 states and Washington, DC, from 1990 to 2014, found that undocumented immigration does not increase violent crime. A study of arrests in Texas found that, relative to undocumented people, U.S.-born citizens are more than twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and more than four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes. Another study in Texas found that the criminal conviction rate for undocumented immigrants was 45 percent below that of native-born Texans. Immigrants of any legal status are typically found to be less involved in violence than native-born Americans.

Undocumented people pay taxes and help prop up social security by paying into the system—without receiving benefits.

Undocumented people pay an estimated $31 billion dollars in federal, state, and local taxes each year, including billions of dollars into a social security system from which they can draw very few, if any, benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) itself estimated that it collected $13 billion in payroll taxes in 2010 from workers without documentation, while only disbursing about $1 billion in payment attributable to unauthorized work. In a 2013 report, SSA estimated that “earnings by unauthorized immigrants result in a net positive effect on Social Security financial status generally. . . . We estimate that future years will experience a continuation of this positive impact on the trust funds.”

Virtually no fentanyl has been seized from people seeking asylum.

Fentanyl overdoses are increasing in the United States, and real solutions will require investments in treatment and preventative health care infrastructure. Instead, far too many politicians seek cheap political points by falsely blaming people seeking asylum at the southern border for this serious problem. In fact, virtually no fentanyl has been seized from people seeking asylum. In 2023, 93 percent of fentanyl seizures occurred at official border crossings or legal checkpoints. Nearly all of these seizures involved people permitted to cross the border, and more than 70 percent were U.S. citizens.

People with pending immigration cases show up to their court hearings.

Evidence clearly shows that, over the past two decades, most immigrants have shown up for the immigration court hearings that determine whether they have legal standing to remain in the United States. They do not slip into the country and disappear, as some political leaders claim. In fact, those who attend immigration court outside detention, on what are known as “non-detained” dockets, almost always continue to appear for their hearings when they are able to secure legal representation. There is no need to confine people in costly and inhumane immigration prisons.

Not all people at risk of deportation cross the border without documentation. Visa holders, long-term permanent residents, and even U.S. citizens are at risk.

While the spotlight often shines on people who cross the southern border without documentation, there are many ways that people can face the threat of deportation in the United States. Indeed, there are 22 million people in the United States who are at risk of being separated from their families and sent to countries where they may face danger. Tens of thousands of children who were adopted from outside the United States, for example, do not have documentation and are vulnerable to deportation because their complex citizenship paperwork was improperly filed. Additionally, more than one million people were brought to the United States as children by parents who entered the country without documentation or overstayed their visas. And, in 2022, more than 850,000 people from countries around the world overstayed their visas, making their continued presence in the United States unauthorized. Lawful permanent residents, current visa holders, and even U.S. citizens have been subjected to the risk of deportation and forced to defend their right to remain home with their families and in their communities.

Many people at risk of deportation actually have a legal right to remain in the United States—but are deported anyway.

Unlike in criminal court, people facing deportation in immigration court are not entitled to an attorney if they cannot afford one. Immigration attorneys can cost thousands of dollars, making them unaffordable for many. As a result, people seeking asylum, longtime legal residents, parents of U.S. citizens, and even small children are forced to appear in immigration court without an attorney to protect their rights. This makes it much more likely that they will be deported, even if they could have established a legal right to stay in the United States. The Fairness to Freedom Act, which was introduced in Congress last year and would establish a right to federally funded attorneys for all people facing deportation, would help fix this injustice.

Immigrants participate in the labor force and start businesses at higher rates than the native-born population.

One in six people in the United States workforce are immigrants. In fact, immigrants participate in the labor force at a higher rate than the U.S.-born population. Immigrants are also more likely to start businesses than native-born U.S. citizens. Furthermore, millions of people in the United States are employed by immigrant-founded and immigrant-owned companies.

People in the United States view immigration as a positive that benefits the country, and they support protections for people fleeing danger.

The majority of the public believes that immigration brings benefits to the United States, including economic growth and enriching culture and values. Nearly three-quarters of people polled said that people immigrate to the United States for jobs and to improve their lives, and more than half say that the ability to immigrate is a “human right.” Multiple polls show that the majority of people in the United States support protections for people who are trying to escape persecution and torture in their homelands. According to one Pew Research Center poll, 72 percent believe that accepting civilians trying to escape war and violence should be an important goal of U.S. immigration policy.

The United States has much work ahead to reform its dysfunctional and often cruel immigration system. This November, and beyond, voters need to reject lies that demonize immigrants and demand policies that treat each person with dignity and fairness, no matter where they were born.