Misconceptions About Immigrants and Refugees in the United States

Recent political discussions in the United States have centered on whether we should allow refugees and immigrants from different parts of the world to enter the country. In this blog, I would like to review some of the facts about immigration that are ignored by politicians.

Why, you may wonder, am I writing this for TESOL when my blog is about pre-K-5 English learners? It is my feeling that the anti-immigration rhetoric, including the ban on Muslims from entering the United States and the building of a wall between Mexico and the United States severely affects the learning environment that English learners (ELs) encounter in our schools. They need a supportive community to succeed in school, and anti-immigration sentiments may undermine the supportive atmosphere. It is our job as ESL teachers to learn the facts about immigration and defuse some of these misconceptions in our schools. In this political climate, ELs need the support of adults in their schools, and ESL and bilingual teachers are the first line of defense for these children.

We can easily understand the effect of the Executive Orders that target specific groups of immigrants and refugees and their families. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 17 million children under the age of 18 live with one or more immigrant parents and 25 percent of children in the United States have ties to another country. These are the students who sit in our classrooms and may need our help.

Here are a few of the misconceptions that have been touted by politicians and media over the past few years.

Misconception 1. Immigrants are responsible for high crime rates in the United States.

Fact: According to a special July 2015 report by the American Immigration Council, immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born citizens. Incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population, according to the Justice Department. The American Immigration Council presents statistics in its 2015 report to show that high immigration rates are, in fact, associated with lower crime rates.

Misconception 2. Refugees coming into the United States from the Middle East serve as a pipeline for terrorists to enter the country.

Fact: Refugees are painstakingly vetted for possible terrorist activities before they enter the United States. Vetting is conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the FBI, and the process takes up to two years to complete. According to Teaching Tolerance Magazine, “Of the 748,000 refugees who came to the U.S. since September 11, 2001, three persons have been arrested for planning terrorist activities. “ According to records compiled in the United States, refugees are not a threat.

Misconception 3. Immigrants and refugees take jobs from American citizens.

Fact: According to the Urban Institute, there is little connection between immigrant jobs and unemployment rates of native-born workers. Better education and an aging U.S. population have resulted in a decrease in the number of Americans willing or available to take low-paying jobs. Immigrants and native-born workers often do not compete for the same jobs. They are more likely to be employed by the service industry, whereas native-born workers are more likely to hold jobs in management, sales, and office occupations.

Misconception 4. Immigrants and refugees come to the United States for welfare benefits.

Fact: According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal benefits programs. They cannot receive Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, Medicare, or food stamps. Even most legal immigrants cannot receive these benefits until they have been in the United States for 5 years or longer, regardless of how much they have worked or paid in taxes.

The case is different for refugees who are supported by both federal and private funds when they first arrive in the United States. By definition, refugees are people who have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster and arrive in this country without resources to help themselves. The United States has a long history of supplying humanitarian aid to refugees.

Misconception 5. Children of undocumented immigrants shouldn’t have the right to a free public education.

Fact: Children between the ages of 5 and 21 have the legal right to be in school no matter what the status of their documentation.  In June 1982, the Supreme Court issued Plyler v. Doe, a landmark decision that determined  that states cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education because of their immigration status.

One of the most important jobs teachers have at this time is to teach students how to determine what information about immigrants that they hear or read is false or simply opinion. We don’t want our school community to engage in the spreading of the many misconceptions about immigrants that are being disseminated recently in the media and by politicians.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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3 Responses to Misconceptions About Immigrants and Refugees in the United States

  1. Julia Mahoney says:

    Important information for all educators to know about. Thank you

  2. Byrne Brewerton says:

    Thank you, Judie, for the informative and straightforward article. I hope many outside of the TESOL community read this.

  3. Thanks for sharing this helpful factual information

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