CHICAGO -- The fight over what to do about illegal immigration is not entirely a matter of people coming to the United States in violation of the law. It's also about what they allegedly bring with them: social pathologies. Many American think illegal immigrants are prone to all sorts of destructive behavior: committing crime, having children out of wedlock, dropping out of school and refusing to learn English.
This is not a full and fair portrayal. Still, there is some truth to the charge that when we import foreigners, we also import social problems. Even immigration rights groups acknowledge a problem and the urgent need to address it. But you can't fix a problem until you understand what it is.
Towns that pass measures against illegal immigrants portray the laws as a way to combat crime. In reality, the belief that this group is prone to felonious habits is largely unfounded. Crime rates plummeted in the 1990s even as illegal immigration surged, and Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has documented that "living in a neighborhood of concentrated immigration is directly associated with lower violence."
The evidence is surprising but clear: Foreign-born Hispanics are far less likely to end up in prison than native-born whites. They also have low divorce rates.
As for learning English, the truth is also more appealing than the myth. Many of the people who have immigrated here don't speak the language well, if at all. But that's a transient phenomenon with a time-tested treatment: reproduction.
Surveys indicate that the majority of U.S.-born children of Latino immigrants mainly speak English, and by the third generation, more than 90 percent prefer English. What happened with past immigrant groups is also happening with this one.
Education is a mixed picture. Some 42 percent of Hispanics in this country never finished high school. But many immigrants dropped out before even coming here, and others do so once they arrive. Fortunately, their children and grandchildren do far better, with high school completion rates rising to 89 percent by the third generation.
But some indicators provide ample cause for worry. Latino men born in this country are seven times more likely to end up in prison than those who came here from abroad. Unwed mothers account for nearly half of all Hispanic births.
If this leads you to think we are creating a permanent new underclass, though, don't be so sure.
High crime rates were common among previous immigrant groups when they were still newcomers. Yet those groups are now as safe, sane and successful as you can get. It would be unwise to assume Hispanic immigrants who have arrived in recent years will automatically repeat the pattern, but there is no reason to think they are doomed to dysfunction.
Opponents of immigration see such concerns as grounds for a vigorous crackdown to keep people from coming here without permission. But most of their remedies are irrelevant at best. If we're alarmed about illegitimacy or crime among the children of immigrants, we won't cure the maladies by putting a wall along the Mexican border, fining companies that hire undocumented workers, or carrying out mass deportations.
Why not? Because those second- and third-generation Latinos are already legally in this country, and they have as much right to be here as anyone else. Banishing them is not an option. So we had better look for ways to foster behavior that is healthier for them and the rest of us.
How to do that? Putting illegal immigrants on a path to legalization can only help: It's hard to tell U.S.-born kids to assimilate while you're treating their parents like outlaws.
Allowing parents to work legally would improve their economic fortunes and foster participation in the larger society, which would also be good for their families and communities. Government policies that reward responsible conduct and discourage dependence are good for immigrants and natives alike.
If you want Latino immigrants and their children to embrace mainstream culture rather than anti-social attitudes, widening the divide between them and the rest of society is not the answer. Anyone who wants to promote assimilation has to start with inclusion.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.