There is a popular video floating around Facebook called “Immigration Simplified Using Only Gumballs.” Each gumball represents one million people, and a man shows thousands of gumballs living on less than two dollars a day in jars labeled “China,” “India” and “Africa,” among others.
He explains that the one gumball of legal migrants the United States takes in each year does little to change the bleak picture of global poverty. Leaving young, talented potential immigrants to develop their native countries rather than admitting them to America is the more humanitarian decision in his view.
Even admitting two gumballs instead of one — the radical proposition from “Washington elites,” insulated from the harms inflicted by immigrants according to the man in the video — only manages to remove two drops instead of one from a bottomless bucket of third-world misery. He plucks two gumballs from “Africa” and places them in a wine glass representing the United States before adding 80 gumballs to “Africa” to account for the continent’s rapid population growth.
The process continues, two gumballs to “America,” 80 to “Africa,” over and over until the jar overflows and gumballs spill all over the stage floor. The audience murmurs in appreciation.
He concludes that mass immigration does no humanitarian good and needlessly drains our country’s resources.
Two demonstrably wrong premises support this presentation: that the humanitarian goal of immigration is to relieve world poverty, and that immigrants take more than they give back.
No serious immigration advocate argues that we can end poverty by moving every poor person to the United States.
Insofar as America has a humanitarian goal for its immigration policy, it is to unite families. According to the State Department, more than half of immigrant visas issued in 2016 went to the immediate family of an American citizen, with another third going to immigrants sponsored by green card-holding family members in the United States.
The rest of the visas go to skilled workers, asylum-seekers and special cases, such as Iraqi and Afghani translators who work with the military.
The second point, that immigrants unfairly siphon resources from America, is entirely wrong. The center-right Cato Institute reports, “the economic effects of immigration are unambiguous and large.” The center-left Brookings Institute reports, “the total lifetime taxes (immigrants) and their descendants contribute exceed the benefits they receive.”
My family had little when we immigrated to the United States, but my parents were educated. They worked hard, paid taxes, sent their children to college and became important members of their church and community. This country is a better country for them having moved here — and they are not alone. The system prioritizes skilled, educated immigrants in a way that generally leads to success.
Despite immigrants’ massive boon to America, immigration policy is in desperate need of reform. Millions of undocumented immigrants participate in a massive, untaxed economy. Certain communities bear the brunt of strained schools and social services without benefiting from the additional tax revenue.
Solutions to these kinds of problems are dry, technocratic and more complicated than gumballs. In addition, they are impossible in the toxic anti-immigrant culture the Tea Party, and more recently President Trump, has unleashed on the right.
The immigration debate has devolved into two questions: how tragic is the refugee crisis? How scary is ISIS? These questions cannot inform policy any more than how hungry one feels can inform a grocery list.
Determining how to exclude the scourge of international terror, how America can leverage its resources to ease the largest refugee crisis since World War II and how to enact law and order with kindness and decency is complex and difficult.
It is much easier to be rash and frightened and call for bans or walls. But so long as these questions are simplified to gumballs, we will continue to get them wrong.
Danny Bugingo can be reached at email@example.com