Book & Article Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Killing the American Dream: How Anti-Immigration Extremists are Destroying the Nation by Pilar Marrero

The overarching thesis of Marrero’s book is that anti-immigrant extremists’ ideologies are rooted in hate and misinformation.  She argues that if this group succeeds in closing America’s doors of opportunity to immigrants by failing to normalize immigrants and recognize their contributions, our nation will suffer from both economic and cultural loss.

Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed reading this book, but it was clear to me that it was written by a journalist.  She is not a novelist that asks, “Does the entirety of the story lead to the conclusion?  Is the narrative consistent in its details?”  She is not an economist that looks at all the numbers and asks, “Does this all make sense?”  She is not a statistician who asks, “Are there confounding variables here? Are there other possible – even likely – explanations that I need to consider, even if they do not support my own thoughts on the matter?”

As a journalist, Marrero has written articles – snapshots on a particular theme or view – without necessarily feeling beholden to achieving consistency in the details that make up the whole image.  I see this book as a 1,000 piece puzzle.  Most of the pieces are there and I get the bigger picture, but I fear that the missing pieces are important, so my mind’s eye cannot be set at ease.

Marrero’s book does deserve a place in the discussion of immigration.  In true journalistic fashion she attacks lies, exposes conspiracy and controversy, and serves as a counter-balance to the sensationalized, under-researched, sound-bite happy voices found in the restrictionist camp.  She fights back with both passion and data, but at times is guilty of some of the same missteps she finds in her accused.

The statistician may note:

On page 64, Marrero quotes Doris Meissner, Director of the U.S. Immigration and Policy Program at the Migratory Policy Institute, and former INS Commissioner in the Clinton Administration.  Meissner asserts that the laws passed since 9/11 have been branded as necessary to protect the national security, when in reality they have been related primarily to immigration control.

Marrero corroborates this claim by pointing to data obtained from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) research project at Syracuse University.  Millions of deportation cases were analyzed in the decade before and after 9/11.  Prior to 9/11 there were 88 deportation cases processed on terrorism grounds.  Post 9/11 only 37 cases were processed on these grounds.   The problem here is an issue of methodology.  Marrero does not consider the impact of confounding variables.  U.S. immigration processing is handled by many agencies.  At consulates abroad, consular officers are charged with screening visa applicants and, as appropriate, denying visas (and entry to the U.S.).  Within the United States, USCIS is charged with reviewing petitions and applications and screening for problems prior to immigration petitions being sent the consulates abroad.  This occurs before a foreign national ever sets foot on U.S. soil.  It is quite possible that DHS and USCIS were more efficient at their jobs post 9/11, resulting in less need for deportation (removal) on terrorism grounds.

The statements by Doris Meissner are very likely true, but in her exuberance Marrero failed to consider the whole immigration system when selecting her illustrative example.   Perhaps a more convincing narrative would have been the role of FBI name checks in I-485 Adjustment of Status Adjudications.  Many green card applications were held-up in the post 9/11 era when individuals with suspicious sounding [read Arab or generic other, like Chavez] names had their cases placed on hold while the FBI conducted a background check.  The disconcerting element here is that the applicant waited in the United States during this process.  A terrorist would have had plenty of time to plot an attack in the months (sometimes years) it took the FBI to check a name.  This is convincing evidence to me that the U.S. Government was not seriously concerned about immigrants present in the U.S. turning out to be terrorists; but they certainly did not mind making immigrants from certain countries wait longer to get their applications approved.

The economist may note:

In chapter 15, Marrero does a good job explaining the economics of immigration stating, “Drawing a purely negative conclusion [as to the impact of immigrants on the economy] would be just as inaccurate as coming to a purely positive one” (192).   Most of the credible studies I have seen on the matter which consider both longitudinal data, cross-sector data, and complimentary employment (as opposed to a shamefully simple Supply and Demand curve) find a minimal (though sometimes negative) impact of immigration on wages, and a generally positive impact on economic growth.  Marrero also points out how a gap between economic need and the number of visas (and difficulty of obtaining visas) has created the current state of affairs.  “The US economy has for decades demonstrated an insatiable appetite for immigrant labor especially at the lowest skill levels, and yet has not provided adequate avenues for legal immigration for these workers.  The result of this asymmetry between demand for labor and the legal means of satisfying that demand has been the disproportionate growth in illegal immigration” (193).  Marrero hits the nail on the head in this chapter.

Unfortunately, Marrero tip-toes around the inherent conflict between immigrant rights and economic expectations.  On page 157 she notes that the simple act of legalization, according to the DOL, raised income for individuals legalized in the 1986 ‘amnesty’ by 15% over five years (ostensibly because they were coming out of the shadows and had bargaining latitude as legal workers).  She notes that these workers moved up the “labor-scale,” which perhaps implies that old positions were vacated.

Legalization leads to better opportunities in terms of pay, jobs and education – education which begets better jobs and better pay for different higher-skill positions.  Marrero points to the higher income taxes collected as a result, and astutely points out that more educated individuals are needed to fill the many jobs that will be vacated and created when the baby-boomers all retire; however, she neglects to adequately address the issue of vacated positions and the consumer impact of higher wages for low-skill jobs.

Here are the points of tension:  Americans do not want dirty or tedious jobs, and illegal immigrants are willing to take them.  When illegal immigrants become legal, their salaries rise.  There seem to be two possible reasons for a rise in salary resulting from legalization.  Either (a) immigrants are finally being paid a fair wage for the same job, or (b) they are vacating the undesirable jobs and moving into more desirable jobs.   The result is either (c) higher costs of consumer products or (d) creating the same economic magnet that first attracted the undocumented immigrants – open “vacated” jobs that legal workers are unwilling to take because the work is hard and the pay is bad.

Other than one rather isolated sentence in chapter 15 where she acknowledges that the inevitable rise in price of consumer goods is the price we pay for doing the right thing by undocumented immigrants, Marrero does not fully engage the reader in an honest discussion about the tension between immigrant rights and economics.  She argues both sides, fiercely advocates for amnesty, and tips her hat to temporary visas.   She makes one conceding statement about the necessity of better controlling the border (perhaps in an attempt to lure in skeptics) in chapter 1.  However, she never again broaches the subject in favor of better border security (though she does point out the ridiculous expense of attempting to do so).  She commiserates with the employer that needs labor without good avenues to obtain it; but does not provide a convincing argument that employers ought to be held accountable as part of better migration control.

Other thoughts:

I particularly enjoyed Marrero’s discussion of the revolving-door that politicians and private sector lobbyists pass through in chapter 10 “The Booming Business of Immigrant Detention.”  She exposes the uncomfortably cozy relationship between two private detention/prison companies CCA and GEO group and Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s professional confidants.

Chapters 1 through 10 provide a good description of how and from where the oft-heard anti-immigrant voices have arisen.  For individuals unfamiliar with the alliances and underlying aims of various immigration policy groups and politicians active in the immigration debate, these chapters provide a useful web of connections.  It also explains how the contemporary dialogue (and particularly the Republican Primaries) has been dominated by anti-immigrant ideologues while “little or no attention has been paid to the carefully thought out views of academics and business leaders who are sounding the alarm on the overly complex immigration system and the urgent necessity to reform it” (185).

In the last chapter of her book, Marrero predicted the pressure the Latino vote would have.  Her book was published in October 2012 – before the November election.  In this last chapter she writes,

“The largest segment of the immigrant population in recent years – Latinos – is now the fastest growing segment of the population overall.  Most of the growth is attributed to the number of Latinos born in the United States [read eligible voters]. . .

“Shifting demographics and the integration of new Latino voters into US politics will result in an overall change in attitude toward immigrants in the near future. . .”

The frantic response of the Republican Party after the November 2012 election is evidence that Marrero was right about the role Latinos will play in electoral politics and party-maneuvering in the years to come.

Marrero tries to appear even-handed but frequently uses turns of phrase and selected quotes and stories that show just how passionate and partial she is about the matter.  I guess the title should have given that away.  While most right and center/right partisans will likely not be convinced by this book, I think it is a good book to read as an introduction to the pro-amnesty camp.

+Kelly Thompson (

One thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Killing the American Dream: How Anti-Immigration Extremists are Destroying the Nation by Pilar Marrero

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