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Perception vs. Reality: How Psychology Debunks Myths about Immigrants in America

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By Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, ABPP (2011 Past-President of the American Psychological Association)

Stop me if you’ve heard these statements before. “Immigrants take away jobs from American citizens.” “Immigrants come over to live off our social services.” “They refuse to learn English.”

Not only are these statements oftentimes false, they create unnecessary confusion about and antipathy towards immigrants. As the immigration reform debate rages on, data is essential. Science is a powerful tool for crafting effective public policy.

This is precisely why during my year as APA President two of my initiatives were the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration and APA Presidential Task Force on Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity. In particular, the immigration task force report was created precisely to bridge the “disconnect” between research and public policy in order to help others understand the psychological factors related to the immigrant experience and improve decision making with regard to immigration.

Whereas, the Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity report examines “how psychological research confirms and illuminates the enormous toll that systematic biases, stereotypes, and discrimination have exacted and continue to impose on human capital.” (p. 2)

My hope is that these reports help to prepare psychologists to better serve the immigrant-origin population, which has created dramatic demographic shifts nationwide. Further, that the widespread negative views of immigrants and their children will be challenged by the increasing data available, rather than continue to be shaped by ideology.

The immigration task force report and other recently emerging social science and economic studies debunk a number of negative misperceptions and myths about immigrants. For example:

  1. Immigrants are not reluctant to learn English. Immigrants today are highly motivated to learn English and do so more quickly than in previous generations (p. 10).

  2. Immigrants do not take jobs from native-born Americans. The preponderance of evidence suggests that immigrants complement native workers with the mixed sets of skills and competencies they bring with them.

  3. Immigrants do not add to the crime problem. There is strong evidence that immigrants demonstrate lower levels of criminal involvement than comparable non-immigrant populations.

  4. Immigrants do not contribute less to tax revenue relative to what they use. Undocumented immigrants are unable to access a host of services, and taxes and social security payments are automatically deducted from wages (p. 10).

  5. They contribute significantly to U. S. society. Economists generally conclude that immigration benefits the U. S. economy. Especially on the high end of the educational spectrum:

  6. About three quarters of the foreign-born have become naturalized citizens or are authorized non-citizens (Congressional Budget Office [CBO], 2011).

  7. They comprise a quarter of all U. S. physicians, 24 percent of the nation’s science and engineering workers with a bachelor’s degree, and 47 percent of scientists with doctorates (p.18).

And, on the other end of the educational spectrum:

  1. Approximately 75% of all hired farm workers in the United States, and nearly all of those involved in the production of fresh fruits and vegetables, are legal or undocumented immigrant adults (p.19).

Armed with the psychological research outlined in the report, policy makers can pass immigration reform that:

  1. Takes into account the mental and behavioral health effects of detention and deportation processes on immigrant adults and their families.

  2. Acknowledges the psychological implications of racism, discrimination, and racial profiling on individuals, families, communities, and society.

  3. Promotes the full equality of LGBT persons and families in federal immigration laws and policies.

  4. Provides fair access to educational opportunities for immigrant-origin children and adolescents.

We want to hear from you. Tell us in the comments:

  1. What other myths about immigrants can social science help to debunk?

  2. What other sensible immigration policy solutions can psychologists offer to policy makers?


American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2012). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century. Retrieved from

American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity. (2012). Dual pathways to a better America: Preventing discrimination and promoting diversity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from

Congressional Budget Office. (2011). A description of the foreign-born population: An update. Washington, DC: Author.

This is Part Two in a series of blog posts on the topic of immigration. Part One of the series examines how good immigration reform policy keeps families together. Part Three of the series by Dr. Carola Suarez-Orozco looks at the implications of unauthorized status for immigrant children and youth.

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