What the Right Gets Wrong About Immigration

Immigration has been so important to the development of the United States that our national motto — E Pluribus Unum — refers to it. Out of many, one. But these days right wing fear-mongers led by Donald Trump have caused many of us to oppose robust immigration. Tightening immigration, especially for counter-factual or racist reasons, is contrary to this country’s long-term economic interests. But it is fair to question how well immigrants integrate into existing society and to consider what costs we incur along with the benefits.

Integration is the process by which immigrant groups and the host population come to resemble one another. Integration depends on the participation by immigrants and their descendants in the major social institutions of the country, such as schools and the workforce, and their social acceptance by other Americans.

In some developed countries, such as France, integration has been a problem. But not here. First and second generation immigrants represent one out of four members of the U.S. population.

These immigrants have become Americans, embracing American identity and citizenship, serving in the military, working hard in jobs up and down the economic spectrum, and enriching American art, music, and cuisine. Immigrants are home owners, taxpayers, college students, and contributors to American society across the board.

Many of the following statistics and comparisons come from The Integration of Immigrants Into American Society, published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2016.

Education. Despite large differences in starting points of their parents, most second generation immigrants — men and women — meet or exceed the schooling level of  third+ generation native born Americans. This is, in part, because many immigrants are already highly skilled when they arrive.

More than a quarter of our foreign-born now have a college degree or more. Educational integration is more challenging for Mexican and Central American immigrants and their children, who start with lower levels of education and English proficiency.

Labor Force Participation. First-generation immigrant men have high employment rates. This is especially pronounced among the least educated, who are more likely to be employed even than comparably educated native-born men. Obviously, they are filling a need in the U.S. economy. Immigrant women begin with lower employment levels than natives but reach parity by the third generation.

Competition with Native Americans.  Unskilled immigrants (both lawful and unlawful) compete with those most similar to themselves in the U.S. economy – immigrants who arrived just before them and unskilled, undereducated natives. Unskilled immigrants may reduce employment opportunities and slightly lower wage rates for these competing groups in the short run. But they have no effect on the overall longer-term availability of jobs or the wage rates in the U.S. economy.

Political Ideology and Party Identification. Immigrants tend to be less committed to one political party than native born Americans. The largest percentage of foreign-born (44%) consider their views to be moderate, while 31% consider their views to be conservative and 25% to be liberal. When it comes to political parties, the foreign born are much more likely than native-born to consider themselves  “independent.”

Crime. Increased prevalence of immigrants is associated with lower crime rates — the opposite of the common right-wing trope. Among men ages 18-39, immigrants are incarcerated at one-fourth the rate of the native born. Cities and neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants have much lower levels of crime and violence. This is born out by a Cato Institute study which looked at crime conviction statistics in Texas for 2019.

Still you hear that immigrants, especially illegal immigrants crossing our southern border, harbor large numbers of drug-related criminals. Donald Trump, playing on racist fears, claimed that Mexican immigrants were drug dealers and rapists. Others now claim that the Biden Administration’s border policy is allowing large quantities of fentanyl to enter the country. That is baloney. Here are the facts.

Most of the people convicted of fentanyl trafficking between 2018 and 2021 were American citizens, not Mexicans or asylum-seekers. In FY 2021 American citizens were 86.2% of those convicted. Still, Mexican drug cartels are responsible for the bulk of fentanyl entering the U.S. The drug is transported by land, sea, air and even tunnels to safe houses in Los Angeles, Phoenix and El Paso, to be distributed across America. No absurd border wall will be effective in stopping fentanyl because the traffickers don’t wade across the Rio Grande.

While We Dither on Immigration Policy, Other Countries Take Advantage. Recently, The Wall Street Journal published an article detailing how Canada has opened up its immigration system to foreign-born workers in America on H-1 temporary visas in a clear bid to lure away highly-educated foreigners frustrated by the restrictive U.S. immigration process. H-1 visa holders have advanced degrees and are eagerly sought by tech companies who are unable to find similar U.S. workers.

Canada’s proposed work permit would allow H-1B visa holders to move to Canada without a job and look for one once they arrive. The types of immigrants who would qualify for the program could also quickly become permanent residents under that country’s merit-based points immigration system.

So while we suffer from political fear-mongering and Republican opposition to immigration that has no factual support, we will continue to lose ground to other countries and put our long-term economic security in jeopardy. This is insane.



We Need More Immigration, Not Less

Thanks to Donald Trump, many at the right-wing fringe of the Republican party peddle fear about immigration. To hear them tell it, we are in jeopardy of being overrun by benefit-stealing, swarthy criminals from south of the border. But this is a false narrative designed only to reap political advantage among an older, conservative political base. Scratch the surface of this anti-immigration narrative and you will find racism.

Fortunately, this nativism is not broadly shared in America —  surveys by the Pew Research Center found that 59% of Americans believe that immigrants make our country stronger. And the pro-immigration sentiment is even higher in communities where immigrants live. To understand why we need only consider the facts. Immigration is not only helpful to the nation in the short run, it will be essential for our economic future. We need more immigration.

Today, the U.S. population is roughly 330 million, although the rate of increase has declined. New data from the Census Bureau show that our population has basically flatlined, growing only .12% in the year ending July 1, 2021. Eighteen states showed actual population losses during the same period. West Virginia has either tread water or lost population for decades running. The U.S. has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman since 1970.

Our population is growing older. Among six age groups — 0 to 4, 5 to 19, 20 to 34, 35 to 49, 50 to 64, and 65 and older — the 65+ group was the fastest growing between 2010 and 2021 with its population increasing 38%. The 0 to 4 age group declined the most, dropping 6.7% between 2010 and 2021.

The harm from these population trends is real. As older workers age out of the workforce, there will be too few younger workers to replace them. This will disrupt the labor market, reduce economic activity and wealth in general, and reduce income tax revenues. And here is a dirty secret about social security. Your benefits aren’t paid for by your own contributions, they are paid for by the contributions of workers who come after you. If there are fewer of them, the insolvency date for the social security system looms closer.

So maybe we should stop being afraid of immigration and begin seeing it as a tool to solve some of our problems. Adding immigrants can quickly improve the ratio of working to nonworking people. Immigration also helps with fertility rates. Foreign born people make up 13% of the U.S. population, but account for 23% of the births. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that without immigration and births to foreign-born mothers, the U.S. population would decline about 6 million between 2014 and 2060. With them it is forecast to grow by 98 million.

Increasing immigration doesn’t mean opening the borders to undocumented multitudes. We have an immigration system and it needs to be reformed so that it advances all our goals — border security as well as greater immigration of the right kind.

Trump’s absurd policy sought to reduce immigration of all kinds, even lawful immigration by highly skilled people. This runs counter to the approach of the smarter developed countries like Canada and New Zealand, whose policies promote immigration of skilled workers and will allow them to compete economically for decades to come.

But even the immigration of unskilled workers can help us. Despite increased automation, our farm economy needs farm workers. And unskilled immigrants fill positions throughout the economy that native workers can’t or won’t.

As for all these people lined up at our southern border? They want to work. Finding a fair way to accommodate that would not snatch jobs from native Americans or reduce wages. We are at full employment of native workers as it is. Ask any business owner how difficult it is to find people willing to work these days.

Recently a comprehensive bill addressing immigration was introduced in the House of Representatives by a bi-partisan group. The bill offers a solution for the asylum crisis at the southern border, funding several U.S. asylum campuses where hundreds of new asylum officers would rule on applications within a short time. Those whose applications are denied would be removed from the country.

The bill also involves increased funding for border security and the creation of regional processing centers in key Latin American countries to deal with asylum seekers and economic migrants before they arrive at our border.

But significantly, the bill addresses our need for additional workers. It creates “dignity status”  for undocumented people already in the U.S. with no criminal record, allowing them to work anywhere and have a path to citizenship after ten years. It would also create a renewable legal status for undocumented farm workers and increase the visas available for skilled workers. The bill is called The Dignity Act of 2023. I encourage you to read the summary online. There is a lot to like.

Immigration and Our Prosperity

With so much heated rhetoric about building a wall at our Southern border and the cruel separation of families who seek asylum, it is easy to overlook what is perhaps the fundamental question in the immigration debate. That is whether immigration has a positive or negative effect on our collective prosperity.  Are we are better off with more immigration or less?

No foreign national has a right to enter the United States. The law and policy in effect at the time determine who will be permitted to enter for visits and who will be permitted to immigrate. That law and policy has changed over the years, but always in line with what is regarded as the national interest at the time.  Now the Trump Administration proposes to scale back immigration in a dramatic way. If the overall effect of immigration on our economy at current levels is negative, then there may be merit to Trump’s immigration policy, if not his inhumane implementation of it. If the effect is positive then more immigration is the answer.

There are several categories of lawful entry into the U.S., for example visitors who seek to immigrate, temporary non-immigrant visitors, and asylum seekers. Temporary non-immigrant visitors are people like tourists, business visitors, students, and temporary workers. One category of non-immigrant is called H-1B and is used for highly skilled technical or professional workers frequently in short supply. Part of the admission process for all non-immigrants is that they declare their intention to depart the U.S. at the end of their temporary stay.

Visitors who intend to immigrate are subject to a much more rigorous evaluation than non-immigrants. Some seek immigrant status, signified by the “green card,” on the basis of a relationship to a close family member already here. This has recently been referred to as “chain migration.” Roughly 850,000 people enter lawfully each year in this category.  Others apply based on a sponsorship by a U.S. employer that can demonstrate a need for the person’s skills and an inability to find that skill in the U.S. labor market. Roughly 140,000 people enter each year in this category.  Most of these are highly trained scientists, technicians or professionals.

Unlawful, or “undocumented,” foreigners are mostly people who come here as non-immigrant visitors and who simply fail to leave when their temporary stay runs out. But most of the publicity about illegal immigration centers on those who cross the border without papers and melt into our society. People who are unlawfully in the U.S. are not entitled to work but frequently do. It is unlawful for a U.S. employer to hire a foreigner who is not authorized to work, but this rule is largely ignored in many industries, such as landscaping and restaurants.

The Trump Administration is determined to reduce the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. under any circumstances, lawful or unlawful. Last year Trump announced his support for legislation to reduce legal immigration by half over ten years. The reductions would come from migrants entering on the basis of family connection.  The number entering on the basis of job skills would remain the same. The legislation would institute a merit-based system to determine who is admitted to the country similar to those in effect in Canada and Australia. President Trump also plans to admit no more than 45,000 refugees from around the world in fiscal year 2018, a significant drop from the cap of 110,000 set for 2017 by President Obama.

What is the rationale for these policies?  In his original immigration plan, Trump declared that the influx of foreign workers “holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans – including immigrants themselves and their children – to earn a middle class wage.” But as we have seen over the last two years, this country is at close to full employment.  Our unemployment rates are at historic lows. Some industries, like the Maryland seafood industry on the Eastern Shore, can’t operate for lack of workers, native or immigrant. The level of employment in this country seems to rise and fall in response to larger forces than the relatively small number of immigrants coming to the country.

But what about the effect of immigration on employment opportunities and wage rates for native Americans?  Here the answer is mixed and there is some evidence that immigrants do create a negative effect on some segments of the economy. In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences published a 300,000 word report on the economic consequences of immigration. It found that unskilled immigrants (both lawful and unlawful) compete with those most similar to themselves in the U.S. economy – immigrants who arrived just before them and unskilled, undereducated natives. Immigrants may reduce employment opportunities and slightly lower wage rates for these groups. But the report says “When measured over a period of 10 years or more, the impact of immigration on the overall native wage may be small and close to zero.”

Foreigners who lawfully enter the U.S. pay taxes. Lawful permanent residents — those who hold a green card and intend to stay here permanently — are subject to Social Security/Medicare taxes and income taxes just as U.S. citizens. Lawful temporary non-immigrants who are authorized to work here for temporary periods also pay these taxes, although there are some exceptions. But there are costs of providing public services to immigrants and the NAS report concluded that in the first generation or two after immigration the costs for immigrants are somewhat higher than the taxes they pay. This negative effect is reversed in the longer term when the children of immigrants become productive citizens. Immigration then becomes a net positive for the American economy.

But the NAS report also showed that the negative effects of immigration are not present with respect to highly educated immigrants.  Those with a college degree who emigrate to the U.S. at age 25 pay $500,000 more in taxes than they collect in benefits over a lifetime.  Those with a graduate degree create a surplus of over $1,000,000.

The net positive long-term effect of immigration is likely to become more pronounced. The working age population of the U.S. is declining, reflecting the retirement of the baby-boomer generation. As there will be fewer workers in the future to support the Social Security benefits of retirees, the solvency of the Social Security system is in jeopardy.  In 1960, there were five workers for every person receiving Social Security benefits.  Now the worker-to-beneficiary ratio is 2.8 and projected to fall even lower. Increased immigration is clearly called for on this basis alone. Lawful immigrants to the U.S. tend to be younger than their U.S. counterparts and are more inclined to participate in the labor force.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an opinion piece by Sol Trujillo, President of the Latino Donor Collective, in which he enumerated the contributions of Latino immigrants to the economy. He noted that

Latinos are the new face of the U.S. workforce, making up 70% of the recent growth in the labor market, and accounting for a whopping $2.13 trillion in gross domestic product as of the end of 2015. Today, this single demographic cohort would be the eighth-largest economy in the world—larger than Brazil, Italy or Canada.

There is also considerable anecdotal evidence that immigration is beneficial for prosperity in the U.S. Individuals who are prepared to leave their home countries and their family support systems for better opportunities are very likely to take advantage of those opportunities.  Inc. Magazine called immigrants “the most entrepreneurial group in America.” It said that “from 1996 to 2011, the business startup rate of immigrants increased by more than 50 percent, while the native-born startup rate declined by 10 percent, to a 30-year low.” Despite accounting for only about 13 percent of the population, immigrants now start more than a quarter of new businesses in this country.

Those of us in West Virginia and other states with rural populations must have noticed the very substantial number of foreign-born physicians who are happy to staff rural hospitals and clinics. Take, for example, the staff at Grant Memorial Hospital in Petersburg, West Virginia here in the Eastern Panhandle. When we assess the effects of immigration on our prosperity, these immigrants cannot be overlooked.

The Washington Post just reported that for the third time in four years the U.S. has won the International Math Olympiad. The Math Olympiad is the hardest and most prestigious math competition for high school students in the world. Many on the U.S. team were second or third generation Americans.  Their surnames were Lin, Gu, Huang, Ren, Singhal and Ardeishar. Immigrants are often high achievers in challenging fields, such as mathematics, physics and computer science.

If we can put aside the nativist impulses that fuel President Trump’s “base” and much of his immigration policy, the picture becomes clearer. Overall higher rates of immigration are healthy for our country on many levels. But higher overall immigration should consist of increases in skilled workers and decreases in unskilled workers. To that extent, reducing family-based immigration where low skills are involved is appropriate.  Furthermore, the number of unlawful low-skilled workers who come here seeking employment should be reduced, not by building an expensive and ineffective wall, but by actually enforcing or strengthening the law now on the books that prohibits hiring them. As Francis Fukuyama recently wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs

What is needed is a better system of sanctioning companies and people who hire illegal immigrants, which would require a national identification system that could help employers figure out who can legally work for them. Such a system has not been established because too many employers benefit from the cheap labor that illegal immigrants provide.

American businesses were recently handed a $1.5 trillion tax break thanks to President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  But handing business lots of cash with no strings attached is not smart policy. Making it easier for them to find and employ talented workers is. So the number of H-1B and other temporary work visas should be at least doubled.  Ensuring that U.S. workers are not displaced is already a part of the application process for these visas. And a method should be found to admit increased numbers of seasonal agricultural workers in situations where no U.S. workers can be found and the wage rates can be kept high enough not to undermine the larger labor market.

In the final analysis, immigration can be a tremendous boon to our prosperity. In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Sol Trujillo proposed a basic IQ test for America. We flunk if we do not recognize that radically limiting immigration would be like shooting ourselves in the foot.