President Trump has shut down the government to get money for a border wall that he says will stop illegal immigration. But the fact of the matter is that that’s not all he wants to stop. During the three-day shutdown last January, he demanded a 40 percent reduction in legal immigration, arguing that America has been swamped by immigrants.
“There’s a limit to how many people a nation can responsibly absorb into their societies, ” he has declared.
He is not alone in invoking this boogeyman. That America is being overwhelmed by a flood of immigrants has become conventional wisdom across the political spectrum, presented in books from, on the right, Reihan Salam of National Review, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants; in the center, Francis Fukuyama of Stanford, whose mother immigrated from Japan; and on the left, Jefferson Cowie of Vanderbilt University, who actually counsels his fellow progressive not to fear more immigration.
But by any reasonable metric, the idea that America is experiencing mass immigration is a myth. The reality is that we desperately need to pick up the pace of immigration to maintain our work force and economic health.
You could argue that mass immigration — a vague term with no set definition — is happening in Lebanon and Jordan, primary destinations for refugees escaping Syria’s civil war. Lebanon, which had about 4.4 million people in 2010, has admitted in just a few years around one million Syrian refugees, which works out to around 23 percent increase in its population.
In America, by contrast, there are about 44 million foreign-born people who now constitute about 13.7 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Foundation. This is close to the historic high of 15 percent at the turn of the 20th century. Why is that considered a meaningful benchmark? Because at that time the United States, responding to nativist and union pressure, embraced strict border controls, essentially ending what had until then been an open borders policy.
Literacy tests were instituted in 1917, and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act imposed national-origins quotas limiting visas to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 census. The purpose of this legislation was to cut back immigration overall, especially from Eastern Europe and Asia — and it succeeded spectacularly.
Congress finally eliminated these quotas, which had widely come to be regarded as racist, in 1965, and immigration subsequently picked up. But immigration opponents have made the 15 percent foreign-born figure a tipping point, as if it were based on science instead of being an arbitrary historical event.
If it were indeed a tipping point, countries would regularly experience a backlash once the immigrant population approached that level. That is far from the case.
America’s share of the foreign born ranks 34th among 50 wealthy countries with a per capita gross domestic product of over $20,000. The United States netted five new immigrants — authorized and unauthorized — per 1,000 people from 2015 to 2017, United Nations figures show. Compare that to the figures in two other English-speaking liberal democracies: Canada let in eight (and just announced that it’s going to admit over a million new immigrants over three years), and Australia 14. All in all, the foreign-born are now over 20 percent of Canada’s population and 28.2 percent of Australia’s (more than double America’s figure). And yet they haven’t inspired the sort of public condemnation of immigration that often occurs in the United States.
America has also taken in a relatively modest numbers of immigrants over the last half-century. In 1965, when Congress got rid of national-origin quotas, America’s foreign-born made up around 5 percent of the population. Over two decades from 1980 to 2000, this proportion rose to 11.1 percent, from 6.2 percent, not insignificant but not particularly noteworthy.
But then the rate of increase slowed to a crawl, rising from 11.1 percent in 2000 to 12.9 percent in 2010 and then barely inching to 13.5 percent in 2016. In other words, in six years, America’s foreign-born population inched up 0.6 percent. Yet the more America’s (modest) immigration decelerates, the more the mass immigration trope accelerates.
A good yardstick for whether a country is admitting too many or too few immigrants — beyond the political mood of the moment — is its economic needs. If America were admitting too many immigrants, the economy would have trouble absorbing them. In fact, the unemployment rate among immigrants, including the 11 million undocumented, in 2016, when the economy was considered to be at full employment, was almost three-quarters of a point lower than that of natives. How can that be evidence of mass immigration?
The truth is that America is a low-immigration nation. Demographic trends in America point to a severe labor crunch that’ll become a huge bottleneck for growth unless the country opens its doors wider.
It has long been clear that the dropping fertility rates of native-born white Americans meant that the generations coming after the millennials were on track to be much smaller. From 2015 to 2035, the number of working-age Americans with domestic-born parents is expected to fall by eight million. Furthermore, the Census Bureau in 2017 quietly revised downward its population forecast for 2050 by a whopping 50 million people from its 2008 estimates, as Jack Goldstone, a political demographer at George Mason University, pointed out.
Why? Because immigration from Mexico dwindled after the Great Recession at the same time that Hispanic fertility rates dropped by a quarter as well. At the current rate that America is admitting immigrants, this means that the total work force will grow only 0.3 percent per year.
Unless American birthrates pick up suddenly and expand the work force — an unrealistic assumption given that the country just set a record for low fertility — or the productivity of its dwindling work force quickly doubled, only slightly less unrealistic, says Mr. Goldstone, the United States will be staring at real G.D.P. growth of less than 1.6 percent per year in less than a decade, all else remaining equal.
America should be admitting a million more immigrants per year — more than double the current number from now until 2050. This still won’t add up to mass immigration because it would put America’s foreign-born population that year at around 26 percent, less than Australia’s is today.
Fifteen years ago when I was writing about immigration for the conservative editorial page of The Detroit News, the myth that America was being overwhelmed by immigrants had retreated mostly to nativist activist circles. Just because it has spread now does not mean it’s true. It’s a myth that should be killed before it kills the American dream.
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