COD Professor Addresses Immigration Misconceptions

Sociology professor Robert Moorehead discusses the fact and fiction of immigration.


Graphic by Zainab Imam

Noah McBrien, Staff Writer

Robert Moorehead, an associate professor of sociology at COD, dispelled long standing falsehoods about people who immigrate to the United States.

As part of a presentation Moorehead gave last Wednesday, he read from a joint online survey taken this August by NPR and Ipsos of more than 1,100 Americans.

“Immigrants are more likely to commit crime or be incarcerated than the U.S.-born population,” was the first statement. 24% of respondents said yes. “Immigrants are more likely to use public assistance benefits than the U.S.-born population,” read the second statement to which 38% of respondents answered yes. “Each of these statements is false,” Moorehead explained. The statements, as well as the issues they touch on, have a long history in the United States.

“After the U.S. Civil War, starting around the 1880s, we started getting new restrictions on who we were letting in,” Moorehead said.

A belief that arose at the time, and persists to this day, is that immigrants are stealing the jobs of Americans. Moorehead was introduced to this idea when he was young.

“As a kid, we talked about the Chinese Exclusion Act in terms of American workers complaining that Chinese workers would work for such low wages, so low that American workers couldn’t live on them,” Moorehead said.

Moorehead explained this wasn’t true. Workers from foreign countries would strike, demanding safer working conditions and higher wages and, in response, the business would stop hiring workers from those countries.

Nonetheless, policies enacted in 1917 and 1924, followed by the Great Depression and WWII, caused the United States to experience a steep drop in immigration. But, at the same time, immigration from Mexico remained stable. This relationship, by that time, had been solidified in a cycle: Businesses recruited labor from Mexico, especially in the agriculture industry, and at the end of the season the laborers returned to Mexico. Mexico had become a reliable labor pool for U.S. industries.

A radical change occurred in 1965 with a new immigration act.

According to Moorehead, the act created equal immigrant quotas for every country and dramatically increased the number of visas available. One of its effects was significantly diversifying the U.S. population while, on the other hand, limiting immigration as it had never been before, effectively creating undocumented immigration. 

Jumping to now, citing the Pew Research Center, Moorehead said the top two visas are family-sponsored (69%) and employment-based (14%). Just getting a family-sponsored visa is no guarantee of a reunion in the near future, Moorehead said. “There’s a wait time. You might be waiting decades to bring your parents in.” 

Moorhead also touched on the often discussed complaint that immigrants never adapt to U.S. culture because they fail to learn the language.

“There’s the claim that immigrants today don’t learn English the way the previous generations of immigrants did,” he said.

Moorehead explained the first generation learns what they can, depending on their education and occupation. The second generation, born in the United States, has English as their dominant language, and they know some of their parents’ language, but odds are they’ve never studied it. The third generation almost exclusively speaks English.

Another commonly accepted idea othering immigrants is that they commit more crime than the native-born population. Moorehead said this isn’t true, either.

“We have crime data that have clearly shown, for decades, the same consistent pattern: Immigrants are less likely to commit crime than the native born,” Moorehead said. Going on, “First generation is less likely to commit crime than the native born; second generation, born in the United States, is slightly more likely to commit crime; third generation, kids of those born in the United States, slightly more likely to commit crime. What that tells us is that criminality is a function of being an American, not a function of being an immigrant.”

But, of all assumptions about immigrants, there’s no one less ubiquitous than the idea that a majority of them are from Mexico. So, Moorehead asked, “Who is coming to the United States?”

“If you look at new arrivals to the United States, most are from Latin America or Asia. We see, from about 2006, Asians outpacing Hispanics in new arrivals. That’s not what we see in the news,” Moorehead answered. He explained that what is happening is a restructuring of migration from Mexico to the United States, specifically the continued decline of labor migrants. A reason for this, according to him, has been the birth rate in Mexico now being roughly the same as ours. So, with fewer people born every year, there’s less competition in Mexico’s job market and thus young people have an easier time finding a job. Overall, there’s less pressure to migrate. 

Furthermore, Moorehead said it “used to be when the U.S. economy was doing well, more people would come from Mexico. When the U.S. economy was doing poorly, that would drop. But, even as our economy improved, migration from Mexico remained low.”

The presentation was advertised as being in accordance with COD’s 2022 and 2023 global education theme of migrations and sponsored by multiple student organizations.