Of America and immigration, the myths are many but the truths are deep

Dalton Delan
4 min readOct 13, 2023

At the kindergarten food-fight of a GOP debate last month at the Ronald Reagan Library, the consensus of the candidates was a rote conflation of immigration at the Mexican border with fentanyl smuggling. We knew something other than our own economic and societal failures was responsible for the opioid epidemic!

In the word-pictures conjured by these aspirants swamped by the wake of Donald Trump’s Titanic, it was as if each migrant carried ampules of opioids strapped to their person as they braved the waters and concertina wire. It was oddly fitting, as Reagan himself was a dog-whistler who more subtly invoked a heritage of racist cant that has eaten like a cancer at the once-grand party ever since it discovered that it could eat the Democrats’ lunch south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The facts don’t bear out the fury. A meta-analysis of more than 50 studies from 1994 to 2014 found if anything a negative correlation between immigration and crime. A more counterintuitive reality has even suggested itself of late, in that the border towns of El Paso and Eagle Pass have been so overwhelmed by the migrant surge that federal officers have been wholly diverted from processing commercial vehicles in order to handle immigrants. At several international bridges, trucks roll on uninspected. Maybe the fentanyl fell off the truck.

The border situation is alarming and unsustainable. The U.S. already takes in the largest number of international migrants of any country — 19 percent of the world total, which amounted to 2.2 million in 2022 alone. September saw 200,000 or more. Venezuelan families tent on windy Chicago streets. In New York City, there are more than 200 hotels, tents and other overwhelmed accommodations. Further north, in Massachusetts, 20,000 crowd the shelter system.

Pundits lament illegal immigrants “taking our jobs,” but that is more vile mythology. Risky jobs, jobs Americans scorn: yes. The picture is upside-down. According to a 2007 Congressional Budget Office review, “In aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — exceeded the cost of the services they use.” Ten years later, a National Bureau of Economic Research report found that refugees to the U.S. pay “$21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their first 20 years in the U.S.” Further, a 2018 study in the American Sociological Review revealed that most had fully assimilated over that 20-year period.

It’s the getting here that has been the issue.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” By these words, Emma Lazarus sought to raise funding for the Statue of Liberty. But legislation trumped sentiment. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, banned immigrants from China for 10 years and denied them citizenship — the only such law targeting a specific nation. Come World War II, our doors to German Jews slammed shut. A ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees was turned away from our unwelcoming shores.

Our understanding of the very concept of migrants or immigrants is confused. The words themselves date back to the 17th century, derivative of the Latin “migrare”: wanderer. Yet most emigrants are not wandering at all but determined in their oftentimes hazardous journeys to reach safe haven. Two-thirds of legal migration to the U.S. has been on behalf of family reunification. That is less true of migrants from Venezuela, now being deported by the planeload as walls go up near McAllen, Texas. America represents a candle of hope for emigrants from a collapsed economy such as Venezuela’s.

But politics and exigency rule, and American cities find no solace in reassuring statistics of long-term economic benefits. At ground level, we have seen an inability of a succession of presidents to strike a balance between criminal cruelty — “I really don’t care, do you?” in the fashionable words on Melania Trump’s coat on her way to see migrant children at the border — and the untenable influx of a half-million Venezuelan immigrants over the last year. At either extreme, overburdened cities pay the price for federal dithering.

We are all immigrants to these shores. My family’s American story extends over a century. Yours may span two or more, or only months and years. For Native Americans, it is a hidden history erased when Europeans “discovered” territories others had long inhabited. As early as 1842, a century before the aphorism was attributed to Winston Churchill, French writings note that history is inevitably “written by the victors.” In that sense, those of us who are already here are victorious.

Ellis Island is at best a distant scrap of family lore. But for those wading the Rio Grande, enduring hardship and possible deportation, victory represents survival. A chance to become an American. They do not struggle, anywhere, to enter Russia or China.



Dalton Delan

Winner of three Emmy Awards, Dalton Delan pens biweekly The Unspin Room, which began August 7, 2016 in The Berkshire Eagle; it has appeared in 50+ newspapers.