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Myths and Realities

Many myths about immigration affect the nation's perceptions. Try to determine whether each of the following statements is fact or fiction.

Immigration to the United States is greater than ever before.


myth or reality? MYTH: In 1910, immigrants made up nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population whereas in 1997, immigrants made up less than 10 percent of the population. Immigration was at its peak during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Europeans arrived to work in the factories of the industrializing cities and the Western territories taken from the Native American tribes.


Immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in public services in their lifetime.

myth or reality? REALITY: Welfare use among nonrefugee immigrants is lower than among U.S. native-born citizens in the same age group (15-64). The 1990 census reported that 20.4 percent of immigrants were on welfare, compared with 26.2 percent of U.S. native-born citizens. In 1997, immigrants paid an estimated $133 billion in federal, state and local taxes. A typical immigrant and his or her offspring pay an estimated $80,000 more in taxes than they will receive in federal, state and local benefits over the course of their lifetimes.


The percentage of immigrants living in poverty is growing faster than the percentage of native-born citizens.

myth or reality? REALITY: From 1980 to 1990, the number of native household in poverty grew by 11 percent, while the number of poor immigrant households grew by 42 percent.


Most immigrants come to the United States from Asia and Latin America.

myth or reality? REALITY: From 1900 to 1990, the proportion of immigrants from Asia and Latin America increased from less then 1.5 percent to 25 percent and 43 percent, respectively.


Most immigrants come into the United States illegally.

myth or reality? MYTH: Of the 20 million immigrants tallied in the 1990 census, only 15 percent were in the U.S. illegally. Although these figures do not account for some homeless immigrants and undocumented migrant workers, who return to their native countries when their seasonal work is over, the proportion of illegal immigrants to legal immigrants is still quite small.


Recent immigrants tend to speak a language other than English in the home.

myth or reality? REALITY: About 80 percent of newly arrived immigrants do not speak English when they are with their families. However, recent immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries become proficient in English at a faster rate than those from other countries where English is not the dominant language. About half of recent immigrants report speaking English "very well" or "well," despite the fact that some may not speak English in the home.


Most undocumented immigrants enter the country across its southern border.

myth or reality? MYTH: Most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. arrive legally on commercial carriers and then overstay their visas, or they come across the Canadian border. Despite this fact, the U.S. spends a disproportionate amount of money and resources enforcing the Mexican border. Most Mexican nationals in the United States are migrants, who take seasonal jobs and then return to their families in Mexico.


Undocumented immigrant workers take jobs away from native workers.

myth or reality? MYTH: Studies show that undocumented immigration either has no effect on native workers or actually increases their labor market opportunities by boosting the industries that create new jobs. Undocumented immigrants often take jobs that others in the community refuse to perform. For example, the railroads across the West were largely built by Chinese immigrants, and large-scale agricultural production still relies on Mexican workers, many of whom are migrants, not immigrants.


Mexican workers have been intermittently welcomed in the U.S.

myth or reality? REALITY: During World War I, Mexican workers were welcomed to the U.S. to help offset the wartime labor shortages. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, approximately a half million people were deported to Mexico, most of whom were U.S. citizens. This pattern has been repeated throughout history: immigrant labor is sought-after in times of expansion and condemned during economic instability.

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