I. The Wave That’s Still Building
Through much of the 20th century, the United States received comparatively few immigrants. In the 60 years from 1915 until 1975, nearly a human lifetime, the United States admitted fewer immigrants than arrived, legally and illegally, in the single decade of the 1990s.
If you grew up in the 1950s, the 1960s, or even the 1970s, heavy immigration seemed mostly a chapter from the American past, narrated to the nostalgic strains of The Godfather or Fiddler on the Roof. The Ellis Island immigrant-inspection station—through which flowed the ancestors of so many of today’s Americans—closed in 1954. It reopened as a museum in 1990.
Yet rather than fading into history, immigration has only been accelerating. From 1990 to 2015, 44 million people left the global South to find new homes in the global North. They came from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
They came to the United States above all, but to the nations of Europe too. The United Kingdom has received nearly as many immigrants, relative to its population, as the United States has. Germany and Sweden have received more. Some 45 million foreign-born people now make their home in the United States. About 11 million to 12 million live here illegally.
As with climate change, separating annual fluctuations from long-term trends is important. Illegal immigration into the United States by Mexicans is now declining. Border crossings by Central Americans are steeply rising. Year by year, immigration numbers may shift up or down. But decade by decade, immigration is remaking nations on a world-altering scale.
By 2027, the foreign-born proportion of the U.S. population is projected to equal its previous all-time peak, in 1890: 14.8 percent. Under present policy, that percentage will keep rising to new records thereafter.
This massive new wave of immigration has brought many benefits to the United States. Of the 122 Americans who won a Nobel Prize from 2000 to 2018, 34 were immigrants. Four of the five Americans who won Nobels in 2016 were born outside the country. Of the 41 Fortune 500 companies created since 1985, eight had an immigrant founder. In many ways, the United States is a stronger, richer, and more dynamic country because of international migration. I am an immigrant myself. Born in Canada, I attended college in the United States, became a permanent resident, raised a family here, and was naturalized in 2007.
But large-scale immigration also comes with considerable social and political costs, and those must be accounted for. In November 2018, Hillary Clinton delivered a warning to Europeans that mass immigration was weakening democracy. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration, because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said, referring to the upsurge of far-right populism destabilizing countries such as France and Hungary. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken, particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.”
Clinton’s assessment of the European political situation is accurate. According to recent poll numbers, 63 percent of French people believe too many immigrants are living in their country. One-third of the British people who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union cited immigration as their primary reason. In Germany, 38 percent rate immigration as the most important issue facing their country. Thanks in great part to their anti-immigration messages, populist parties now govern Italy, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
And of course, anti-immigration sentiment was crucial to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
Immigration on a very large scale is politically stressful. Yet acknowledging that fact can be hazardous to mainstream politicians. The New York Times story on Clinton’s remarks quoted four scathing reactions from liberal interest groups and academics—and then for icy good measure balanced them with a single approving quote from an Italian politician who had hosted Trump’s former campaign chair, Steve Bannon, in Rome.
It wasn’t always this way, even on the left. As recently as 2015, the senator and presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders defended at least some immigration restrictions in language drawn from the immigration-skeptical tradition of organized labor. “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy,” Sanders said in an interview with Vox. “Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.” Even the famously cosmopolitan Barack Obama, in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, lamented, “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”
But the political rise of Donald Trump has radicalized many of his opponents on immigration. Some mainstream liberal commentators, such as Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, have called for completely open borders. While not many Democrats have gone that far publicly, some—including most prominently the 2020 presidential hopefuls—have expressed ever greater unease about removing people who cross borders unauthorized. Julián Castro, the secretary of housing and urban development under Obama, has endorsed a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Senator Kamala Harris pledged not to vote to reopen the federal government in January unless the financing bill confirmed protection for Dreamers, young people who grew up in the United States without legal status. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have called for abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Gillibrand denounced the agency as a “deportation force”—as if it were possible to enforce immigration laws without deportation. While it would be destabilizing and impractical to remove all the people who have been living peaceably in this country for many years, it does not follow that any nonfelon who sets foot in the U.S. has a right to stay here.
In the fall of 2018, an unprecedentedly large caravan of would-be border crossers—peaking at 7,000 people—headed toward the United States from Central America. Trump demagogically seized on the caravan as a voting issue before the November midterm elections—and goaded many of his critics to equally inflammatory responses. “This whole caravan in the last week of the election is a giant lie. This is Trump’s Reichstag fire. It is a lie,” said a guest on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes. But however manipulatively oversold, the caravan existed; it was not a lie. Thousands of people were indeed approaching the U.S. border, many hoping to force their way across by weight of numbers.
Demagogues don’t rise by talking about irrelevant issues. Demagogues rise by talking about issues that matter to people, and that more conventional leaders appear unwilling or unable to address: unemployment in the 1930s, crime in the 1960s, mass immigration now. Voters get to decide what the country’s problems are. Political elites have to devise solutions to those problems. If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.
Across the developed world, very high levels of immigration have coincided with widening class divisions, the discrediting of political and economic elites, and the rise of extremist politics. And immigration pressures will only intensify in the decades ahead, for reasons obscured by media coverage of immigrants as poor and desperate. That coverage isn’t entirely wrong. Many immigrants are poor and desperate, especially refugees fleeing war or famine. But immigration is accelerating so rapidly in the 21st century less because of pervading misery than because life on our planet is improving for so many people. It costs money to move—and more and more families can afford the investment to send a relative northward. “Every boat person I’ve met has been ambitious, urban, educated,” says Doug Saunders, a Canadian journalist who has reported extensively on global population movements. “They are very poor by European standards, but often comfortable by African and Middle Eastern ones.”
Since 1990, the number of human beings living in extreme poverty—defined as less than $2 a day—has declined by nearly two-thirds. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted into a new global striver class, living on $10 to $20 a day or more. That comparative affluence allows the strivers to buy things once impossibly out of reach: air conditioners, smartphones, motorized vehicles. But the thing those strivers want more than anything else—the great golden ticket into a whole new life—is exit from the less successful countries of the global South into the more successful countries of the global North.
One-quarter of young male Egyptians would work abroad if they could, according to the Egyptian government’s own statistical agency. More than half the populations of South Africa and Kenya wish to leave home, according to the Pew Research Center, as do three-quarters of Nigerians and Ghanaians. In all these countries, it is the best-educated who most yearn to leave.
We are talking here about astonishingly large numbers of potential immigrants—large and fast-growing. Egypt will add 50 million people to its population over the next three decades. Bangladesh will reach 200 million people; Pakistan, 300 million. The populations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, countries that have already sent so many people northward, will rise by 50 percent by 2050, to more than 47 million. Twenty-six African countries will double their population by the time today’s college seniors celebrate their 50th birthday. Altogether, the population of Africa in 2050 will almost equal the entire population of the world in 1950: 2.5 billion people.
Hundreds of millions of people will want to become Americans. Only a relatively small number realistically can. Who should choose which ones do? According to what rules? How will those rules be enforced? The Trump-era debate about a wall misses the point. The planet of tomorrow will be better educated, more mobile, more networked. Huddling behind a concrete barrier will not hold the world at bay when more and more of that world can afford a plane ticket. If Americans want to shape their own national destiny, rather than have it shaped by others, they have decisions to make now.
But at present, the most important immigration decisions are made through an ungainly and ill-considered patchwork of policies. Almost 70 percent of those who settle lawfully in the United States gained entry because they were close relatives of previously admitted immigrants. Many of those previously admitted immigrants were in their turn relatives of someone who had arrived even earlier.
Every year some 50,000 people are legally admitted by lottery. Others buy their way in, by investing a considerable sum. In almost every legal immigration category, the United States executes its policy less by conscious decision than by excruciating delay. The backlog of people whose immigration petitions have been approved for entry but who have not yet been admitted is now nearing 4 million. (Only spouses and children are exempted from annual numerical caps.)
This system just accreted, reaction upon reaction, yesterday’s crisis leading to today’s improvisation, in turn laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s crisis.
Under present immigration policies, the U.S. population will exceed 400 million by 2050. Nobody is seriously planning for such population growth—building the schools and hospitals these people will need, planning for the traffic they will generate. Nobody is thinking very hard about the environmental consequences, either. The average American causes the emission of almost 17 tons of carbon dioxide each year, quadruple the annual emissions of the average Mexican and 45 times the emissions of the average Bangladeshi.
The question before the United States and other advanced countries is not: Immigration, yes or no? In a mobile world, there will inevitably be quite a lot of movement of people. Immigration is not all or nothing. The questions to ask are: How much? What kind?
Too little immigration, and you freeze your country out of the modern world. Too much, or the wrong kind, and you overstress your social-insurance system—and possibly upend your democracy. Choose well, and you build a stronger, richer country for both newcomers and the long-settled. Choose badly, and you aggravate inequality and inflame intergroup hostility. How we choose will shape the future that will in its turn shape us.
II. A Recipe for Social Discord
If you were born in West Africa or Central America to a family not of the ruling elite, you would probably yearn to emigrate. And if your family and friends could stake you the travel costs, you would probably seize the chance. A young person enterprising enough to hazard such a trip would surely contribute in many ways to his or her eventual new home. Almost all of us in North America are descended from somebody who made such a decision, took that risk, and made those contributions.
But what happens when it’s not just one person or 1,000 people or even 1 million people who want to move? What happens when it’s tens or hundreds of millions knocking on the doors of the developed world?
And what happens when those vast numbers of newcomers arrive, not in mass-production economies whose factories and mills need every pair of hands they can hire, but in modern knowledge economies that struggle to achieve full employment and steady wage growth?
Some people look at migration pressures and see a solution. The 325 million Americans of 2017 gave birth to fewer babies than did the 160 million Americans of 1953. Without immigration, the U.S. population would age and then shrink. So would most European populations. Japan is leading the way to the dwindling future: In 2017, 1.34 million Japanese people died; only 946,000 were born.
Precisely because advanced societies have so few children of their own, immigration brings change at startling speed. Relative to the existing native-born population, the migration of 1880–1914 was larger than that of today. (The 75 million Americans of 1900 would receive 8 million immigrants, or almost 11 percent of their number, over the next decade. The 249 million Americans of 1990 would receive 15 million to 16 million immigrants, or 6 percent of their number, over the next decade—the peak of the current wave.) Yet from 1890 onward, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population actually declined, because so many children were born in the United States. Today, a relatively smaller amount of immigration is exerting larger population effects, because Americans are not replacing themselves.
When natives have lots of children of their own, immigrants look like reinforcements. When natives have few children, immigrants look like replacements. No wonder that, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, nearly half of white working-class Americans agree with this statement: “Things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.”
A classic 2005 study by the social scientist Karen Stenner predicted the consequences of such feelings. In any given population, according to Stenner, roughly one-third of people will have authoritarian tendencies. This habit of mind is just part of the way human beings are, in much the same way that a certain percentage will be born with depressive tendencies.
Happily, the authoritarian tendency does not necessarily lead to authoritarian politics. In secure and stable circumstances, it goes dormant. But perceived threats to social norms trigger the tendency. Rapid ethnic change figures prominently on the list of such apparent threats. “Authoritarian [personalities] are not especially inclined to perceive normative … threat,” Stenner writes. “They are just especially intolerant once they do.”
The extremism and authoritarianism that have surged within the developed world since 2005 draw strength from many social and economic causes. Immigration is only one of them—but it is typically the spark that ignites the larger conflagration. Immigration has done particular damage to political parties of the moderate left. From the 1970s until the 2010s, social-democratic parties dominated the politics of the European Union member states. As of last spring, among the 28 governments of the EU, only Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden were led by social democrats. The German Social Democrats have suffered a staggering series of defeats at the national and state levels. In the October 2018 state elections in Bavaria, they lost half their seats, finishing in fifth place behind the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party.
It’s sometimes suggested that the passage of time will salve these anxieties—that elderly Trump voters in America, or elderly Marine Le Pen voters in France, will eventually be replaced by younger voters more amenable to immigration. But young white Americans express nearly as much discomfort with demographic change as their elders do. Almost half of white Millennials say that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Whites under age 30 voted for Donald Trump in 2016 by a four-point majority, according to CNN exit polls. In European countries too, notably France, the parties of the far right are appealing more and more to the young.
Anti-immigrant feeling usually runs strongest in places that receive relatively few immigrants—stronger in eastern Germany than in Hamburg or Frankfurt; stronger in Hull and Stoke-on-Trent than in London; stronger in Laon than in Paris; stronger in rural America than in the multiethnic cities of the knowledge economy. Yet nonmetropolitan places are experiencing immigration in their own way. Mobility between countries appears to have the perverse effect of discouraging mobility within countries—in effect, moating off the most dynamic regions of national economies from their own depressed hinterlands.
Americans in the 2010s are only half as likely to move to a new state as their parents were in the 1980s. What has changed? Economic researchers have refuted some possible explanations—the aging of the population, for example. The most plausible alternative is directly immigration-related: Housing costs in the hottest job markets have grown much faster than the wages offered to displaced workers. Simply put, a laid-off Ohio manufacturing worker contemplating relocating to Colorado to seek a job in the hospitality industry is likely to discover that the move offers no higher pay, but much higher rent. An immigrant from Mexico or the Philippines faces a very different calculus. Her wage gains would be significant. And while her housing options may seem lousy to someone accustomed to an American standard of living, to her they likely represent a bearable sacrifice for all the other opportunities offered by life in the United States—and possibly a material improvement over living conditions back home.
III. The Wrong Debate
“We wanted workers, but we got people instead.” So quipped the Swiss writer Max Frisch about the guest workers who came to northern Europe seeking economic opportunity in the aftermath of World War II. Yet when immigration is the subject, policy makers tend to concede the microphone to the economists—precisely the profession that looks at people and sees workers instead.
From an economic point of view, immigration is good because it encourages specialization and thus efficiency. In a low-immigration world, an American accountant might have to pay $25 or $30 an hour for yard services by American-born landscapers. At that price, she might choose to do the yard work herself. If higher immigration lowers the price of landscaping work to $10 to $12 an hour, she may hire a landscaper and devote her newfound free time to extra accounting work. Instead of leaving the office at 5 p.m. to cook dinner for her family, she can stay until 6 o’clock and order from Postmates as she drives home. Or she can buy more services than she otherwise would. A lower bid from an immigrant-employing contractor might allow her to renovate her kitchen this year rather than postponing it to next year.
But all of this only happens because lower-earning immigrants displace the Americans who used to do the work at higher costs. You may ask, “So what happens to those displaced Americans?” The economist’s answer is that, pressed by immigrant competition, displaced American workers are driven to “upskill.” Perhaps a former landscaper learns some Spanish, and thus can act as the foreman of a crew of immigrants. Perhaps he shifts to sales or design work. Either way, the economic models say, everybody is better off.
You may further ask, “Does this really happen? Don’t at least some displaced American workers end up unemployed or underemployed, unable to find work at anything close to their old wage level? Aren’t both American-born men and American-born women of prime working age less likely to work today than in the 1990s?”
Yes, all of that is true. But when workers quit the workforce, they disappear from the statistical samples on which the economic models are built. Labor-force statistics count only those in the labor force. If an American-born landscaper successfully upskills to foreman, his higher pay is recorded and measured. If an American-born landscaper retires early on a disability benefit, his lower income is not recorded and not measured. From a labor economist’s perspective, he has ceased to exist. Immigration’s economic costs and benefits will be calculated without reference to him.
The battles over the accuracy of the models of immigration’s economic effects are as protracted and vicious as any in the social sciences. We can’t settle them here, and don’t need to. Instead, let’s focus on what economists generally do agree on.
First, adding millions of additional immigrant workers every decade makes the American economy in the aggregate much bigger than it would otherwise be.
Second, immigration contributes very little to making native-born Americans richer than they would otherwise be. In 2007, in the course of arguing the economic case for more immigration, George W. Bush’s White House tried to quantify the net economic benefits of immigration to native-born Americans. The advocates’ own calculation yielded a figure of $37 billion a year. That’s not nothing, but in the context of a then–$13 trillion economy, it’s not much.
Third, the gains from immigration are divided very unequally. Immigrants reap most of them. Wealthy Americans claim much of the rest, in the form of the lower prices they pay for immigrant-produced services. Low-income Americans receive comparatively little benefit, and may well be made worse off, depending on who’s counting and what method they use.
And finally, while the impact of immigration on what the typical American earns is quite small, its impact on government finances is big. Estimates from the National Academy of Sciences suggest that on average, each immigrant costs his or her state and local governments $1,600 more a year in expenditures than he or she contributes in revenues. In especially generous states, the cost is much higher still: $2,050 in California; $3,650 in Wisconsin; $5,100 in Minnesota.
Immigrants are expensive to taxpayers because the foreign-born population of the United States is more likely to be poor and stay poor. Even when immigrants themselves do not qualify for a government benefit—typically because they are in the country illegally—their low income ensures that their children do. About half of immigrant-headed households receive some form of social assistance in any given year.
Assertions that federal tax revenue from immigrants can stabilize the finances of programs such as Medicare and Social Security overlook the truth that immigrants will get old and sick—and that in most cases, the taxes they pay over their working life will not cover the costs of their eventual claims on these programs. No matter how many millions of immigrants we absorb, they can’t help shore up these programs if they’ll need more in benefits than they can ever possibly pay in taxes. If a goal of immigration policy is to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, it would be wise to accept fewer immigrants overall, but more high-earning ones, who will pay more in taxes over their working years than they will collect in benefits in retirement. Under the present policy favoring large numbers of low-wage earners, the United States is accumulating huge future social-insurance liabilities in exchange for relatively meager tax contributions now.
Yet the true bottom line is this: Neither the fiscal costs nor the economic benefits of immigration are large enough to force a decision one way or the other. Accept the most negative estimate of immigration’s dollar costs, and the United States could still afford a lot of immigration. Believe the most positive reckoning of the dollar benefits that mass immigration provides, and they are not so large that the United States would be crazy to refuse them.
For good or ill, immigration’s most important effects are social and cultural, not economic. What are these effects, then? Some are good, some are bad, and some depend on the eye of the beholder.
Immigrants are making America safer.
Generally, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans do. And although the children of immigrants commit crimes at much higher rates than their parents do, some evidence suggests that cities with higher percentages of immigrants have experienced steeper reductions in crime. President Trump speaks often about the victims of crime committed by undocumented immigrants, but the years of high immigration since 1990 have seen the steepest declines in crime since modern record-keeping began.
Immigrants are making America less self-destructive.
Asians, who comprise the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant group, are half as likely to abuse drugs or alcohol as other population groups are. Only one-fifth of Hispanic households own a firearm, as opposed to one-half of white households.
The severest self-harm, suicide, is very much a problem of the native-born. Suicide rates have surged since 1999. But white people commit suicide at nearly three times the rate of ethnic minorities. The states with the highest percentages of immigrants have suffered least from the suicide surge; the states with the lowest percentages have suffered most.
Immigrants are lowering America’s average skill level.
In 2007, ETS—the company that administers the SAT—warned of a gathering “perfect storm”: “Over the next 25 years or so,” it said, “as better-educated individuals leave the workforce they will be replaced by those who, on average, have lower levels of education and skill.” This warning shows every sign of being fulfilled. About 10 percent of the students in U.S. public schools are now non-native English speakers. Unsurprisingly, these students score consistently lower on national assessment tests than native speakers do. In 2017, nearly half of Hispanic fourth graders had not achieved even partial mastery of grade-level material. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, these children are at significant risk of dropping out of high school.
But here’s something more surprising: Evidence from North Carolina suggests that even a fairly small increase in the non-native-speaking presence in a classroom seriously depresses learning outcomes for all students. The nation has undertaken important educational reforms over the past generation. In many ways, that commitment has yielded heartening results. Yet since about 2007, progress has stalled, and in some cases even reversed. Cuts to state budgets during the Great Recession bear some of the responsibility. But so does immigration policy. The Hechinger Report, from Columbia University’s Teachers College, observes that the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress “was the first time that white students dropped below 50 percent of fourth-grade test takers. Hispanics now account for 26 percent of the fourth-grade population, up from 19 percent 10 years ago. Disproportionately poor, and sometimes not speaking English at home, Hispanics tend to score considerably lower than white students.”
Immigrants are enabling employers to behave badly.
Most jobs are becoming impressively safer, year by year. You may think of mining as a uniquely hazardous industry. Yet in 2006, after a tragic sequence of accidents, Congress enacted the most sweeping mine-safety legislation in a generation. In the decade since, mining fatalities have declined by two-thirds.
Mining, however, is an industry dominated by native-born workers. Industries that rely on the foreign-born are improving much more slowly. Forestry, fishing, and farming are three of the most dangerous industries in the United States. They are 46 percent reliant on immigrant laborers, half of them undocumented. (Documented and undocumented immigrants together make up only 17 percent of the U.S. workforce as a whole.) Building and grounds maintenance is surprisingly dangerous work: 326 people died in 2017. Some 35 percent of grounds workers are immigrants. About 25 percent of construction workers are immigrants, but immigrants supply almost half the workers in the most dangerous areas, notably roofing and drywalling. When so many workers in a job category toil outside the law, the law won’t offer much protection.
America was built on the revolutionary idea, never fully realized, that those who labor might also govern—that every worker should be a voter. The struggle toward this ideal has been slow, arduous, and sometimes violent. The immigration surge has had the effect of setting this ideal back. Half a century after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the United States has again habituated itself to employing workers who cannot vote and therefore cannot protect their interests or even their lives.
Immigrants are altering the relationship between Americans and their government, and making the country more hierarchical.
Visitors to the United States used to be startled by the casual egalitarianism of American manners. “Have you ever realized to yourself as a fact that the porter who carries your box has not made himself inferior to you by the very act of carrying that box?” Anthony Trollope asked readers back home in Victorian England. If not, brace yourself: “That is the very lesson which the man wishes to teach you.”
That lesson may no longer be getting taught. In 1970, almost every U.S. resident was a U.S. citizen, enjoying all the political and civil rights of citizenship. Today, in immigration-dense states such as California, Texas, New Jersey, and New York, at least 10 percent of residents are not citizens. These people occupy a wide array of subordinated legal statuses. Some are legal permanent residents, lacking only the right to vote. Some are legal temporary residents, allowed to work but requiring permission to change employers. Some hold student visas, allowing them to study here but not to work. Some, such as the Dreamers, and persons displaced by natural disasters in the Caribbean or Central America, may have entered the country illegally but are authorized to remain and work under a temporary status that can continue for years or decades.
America is not yet Dubai or Qatar or ancient Athens, where citizenship is almost an aristocratic status rather than the shared birthright of all residents. But more and more of the people who live among Americans are not on equal legal footing with Americans. They cannot vote. They cannot qualify as jurors. If they commit a crime, they are subject not only to prison but to deportation. And because these noncitizens are keenly aware of those things, they adjust their behavior. They keep a low profile. They do not complain to the authorities if, say, their boss cheats them out of some of their pay, or if they’ve been attacked on the street, or if they are abused by a parent or partner at home.
Heavy immigration has enabled the powerful—and the policy makers who disproportionately heed the powerful—to pay less attention to the disarray in so many segments of the U.S. population. Because the country imports so many workers, employers do not miss the labor of the millions of men consigned to long-term incarceration. Without the immigrant workers less prone to abuse drugs than the native-born, American elites might have noticed the opioid epidemic before it killed more Americans than died in the Vietnam, Korean, and Iraq Wars and the 9/11 attacks combined. The demand for universal health coverage might gain political force if so many of the uninsured were not noncitizens and nonvoters. None of this is immigrants’ fault, obviously. It is more true that America’s tendency to plutocracy explains immigration policies than that immigration policies explain the tendency to plutocracy. Managing immigration better is only one element of restoring equity to American life. But it is an essential element, without which it is hard to imagine how any other element can be achieved.
IV. What’s the Right Level of Immigration?
Immigration offers Americans access to a wider range of human talent. It offers immigrants a chance at a better life. It is grounded in American history and relied upon by the American economy. The birth rate among native-born Americans has generally been below the replacement level since the early 1970s—meaning that some amount of immigration is indispensable to simply keeping the population stable.
The gratuitous brutalities of the Trump administration shock the conscience, and fail even on their own terms. Intended as deterrents, they are not deterring. They are succeeding only in counterradicalizing liberal opinion to stigmatize almost all immigration enforcement against nonfelons as cruel, racist, and unacceptable.
Trump talks about a wall because he thinks about immigration in terms of symbols. Keep out, he wants to say, and what symbolizes that truculent message better than slabs of concrete arrayed like incisors in a line running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean?
But immigration needs to be thought of as a system, not a symbol. And the system is not working. No intentional policy has led the U.S. to accept more low-wage, low-skill laborers and fewer cancer researchers. Yet that is what the United States is doing. Virtually all the Central American families and unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in the summer of 2014 still remain in the United States. Meanwhile, the number of people coming to study in the United States on F-1 visas has sharply declined since 2015.
This happened because the first group is labeled “asylum seekers,” subject to one set of rules, and the second group is categorized as student-visa applicants, subject to another. The distinction derives from laws and treaties adopted in the aftermath of World War II, when the plight of refugees from Nazism and communism were at the forefront of consciousness. But these categorizations apply poorly to a world in which tens of millions of people are on the move in search of better lives. The young woman from Pakistan who finds refuge from a male-dominated society in an American cancer-research lab is an asylum seeker as well as an economic migrant; the Guatemalan who witnessed an uncle’s murder and so decided to seek safer streets and better wages in the United States is an economic migrant as well as an asylum seeker. The supposedly watertight legal categories blur, leaving a question: Who should be invited to join with the natives of the United States to build, together, a better life for the Americans of today and tomorrow?
The family-reunification bias of present U.S. immigration policy effectively delegates that decision to immigrant diasporas in the United States. On average, a settled immigrant will sponsor 3.5 relatives to follow him or her into the United States.
Family ties also help explain the dynamics of unauthorized immigration. Central American asylum seekers say they are fleeing crime in their home countries. Yet asylum-seeking has surged even as crime in Central America has subsided. El Salvador’s homicide rate has dropped by half since 2015; Honduras’s has plunged by 75 percent since 2013. As these asylum seekers have settled in the United States, they have beckoned their families to follow. U.S. adjudicators have rejected the vast majority of Central American asylum applications. But that has not diminished the flow from Central America. The process is slow, and a rejected application can be appealed. As the proceedings grind on, asylum seekers can vanish into diaspora communities where they can find housing, work, and welcome.
The asylum seekers are advancing their interests and those of their families as best they can. Americans have the same responsibility to do what is best for Americans. A smaller immigration intake would dramatically slow the growth in the foreign-born share of the population, better shielding democratic political systems from extremist authoritarian reactions. Cutting the legal annual intake in half—back to the 540,000 a year that prevailed before the Immigration Act of 1990—would still keep the U.S. population growing strongly even if native birth rates never recover from their present deeply depressed levels.
And shifting that intake sharply away from family reunification (by, for example, ending preferences for adult siblings) would enable the U.S. to emphasize acceptance of highly skilled, high-earning immigrants—more doctors from Nigeria, say, or software engineers from India. Fewer, but higher-earning, immigrants would contribute more to Medicare and Social Security, while requiring less assistance from state social-welfare programs for themselves and their children.
Even at lower immigration levels, America will continue to move rapidly toward greater ethnic diversity. Under today’s policies, the U.S. will become majority-minority in about 2044. Even cutting immigration by nearly half would postpone that historical juncture by only one to five years, according to computations by The Washington Post. The higher birth rates of the immigrants already living in this country have determined what the American future will look like demographically. The challenge for today’s Americans is to allow that new demography to develop in an environment of social equality and cultural cohesion.
Immigration cannot be reduced overnight. The 4-million-person backlog of approved admissions will have to be cleared. But as authorities process fewer legal immigrants, they will be able to concentrate resources more effectively to combat unlawful immigration.
The phrase border security seriously distorts our understanding of illegal immigration. By some tallies, more than half of the most recent immigrants in the country illegally arrived legally—typically as a student or tourist—then overstayed their visa. They obeyed the law when they entered. They broke it by failing to leave. They get away with this because the U.S. concentrates its immigration enforcement on the frontier—while slighting the workplace. President Trump seethes against illegal border crossings. Yet at least five of his golf resorts employed undocumented laborers for the first two years of his presidency. At one of his resorts, fully half the winter-season employees worked illegally.
The Trump Organization will almost certainly face no consequences for its lawbreaking. Scofflaw employers rarely do. To its credit, the Trump administration has stepped up workplace enforcement somewhat since 2017. But while immigration investigations and audits are increasing, they remain rare.
The massive deportation of people who have lived in the country for a long time would serve no one well. But employers of unauthorized labor should face and fear fines sufficient to deter lawbreaking. If employers stop hiring undocumented workers, those workers will not be induced to cross the border in the first place.
Even more urgently, employers who take advantage of immigration status—to cheat workers of their pay, or harass or abuse them sexually, or force them to work in unsafe conditions—should be prime targets for criminal prosecution. As states raise their minimum wages, the temptation to hire people of precarious immigration status will intensify. It is the workplace that most needs additional enforcement resources.
Americans also need to rethink asylum policy. If unemployment, poverty, or disorder in your home country qualifies you for asylum, then hundreds of millions of people qualify—even though virtually none of them has been targeted by the kind of state-sponsored persecution that asylum laws were originally written to redress.
The U.S. immigration system offers an even less practical response to the problems of displaced persons and refugees. In a mass population exodus like that from the Syrian civil war, plucking only a lucky handful to jet to a new land is a mostly empty palliative, since that leaves virtually every other victim of the war no better off. The immigration-skeptical Center for Immigration Studies estimates that it costs 12 times more to resettle a refugee in the United States than to house, feed, and provide work for that refugee in his or her safest neighboring country.
“How to help those displaced by conflict?” and “How should we select our future fellow Americans?” need to be seen as different questions requiring different sets of answers.
With immigration pressures bound to increase, it becomes more imperative than ever to restore the high value of national citizenship, not to denigrate or disparage others but because for many of your fellow citizens—perhaps less affluent, educated, and successful than you—the claim “I am a U.S. citizen” is the only claim they have to any resources or protection. Without immigration restrictions, there are no national borders. Without national borders, there are no nation-states. Without nation-states, there are no electorates. Without electorates, there is no democracy. If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.
Yes, borders are arbitrary. And, yes, more people are arguing that we should care as much about people in faraway lands as we do about our fellow Americans. But the practical effect of making this argument is to enable the powerful to care as little for their fellow Americans as they do for people in faraway lands.
A quarter of the 45 million foreign-born people currently living in the U.S. arrived here illegally. As of 2016, two-thirds of them had resided in the United States for 10 years or more. They cannot reasonably be expected to leave. Those who arrived as children know no other home. In a decade or two, millions of people without legal status will reach the age of 65. What happens to them? Under present law, they will receive no Social Security from the United States; they will not qualify for Medicare. Will we allow them to sink into illness and destitution in their old age? Many of the Democratic candidates for president want to expand Medicare to citizens under age 65. Will millions of people in the United States be left without care? Health care for all is not consistent with an immigration policy that does not police the boundaries of that “all.” If undocumented immigrants are to be included in the American “us” (as sooner or later many will have to be), then the country has to be assured that large-scale illegal immigration will never again be tacitly tolerated as it was over the past generation.
It will not be easy to make a success of the low-skill and often illegal immigration to the United States over the past three decades, to extend equal opportunity to all, to assimilate into a common nationality those who arrived speaking Mixtec or Bengali or Fula. It was hard enough to do this in the 19th century, when home was a three-week sea voyage away. Today, when immigrants can remain easily connected to their place of origin—and when the native majority has lost confidence in a unitary American identity—the task of assimilation is even harder.
Where once the nation’s cultural leaders condemned “hyphenated Americanism,” today the hyphen has become a tool of cultural power. Those white Americans who might not have a hyphen obviously at hand now scramble to invent one. They have become “hardworking Americans” or “everyday Americans” or “real Americans”—separating themselves from a shared destiny with other Americans.
No American more eloquently deplored hyphenation than Theodore Roosevelt. Read his words in full, and you see that Roosevelt’s insistence on a singular national identity was founded not on any sense of hereditary supremacy, but on his passionately patriotic egalitarianism.
The children and children’s children of all of us have to live here in this land together. Our children’s children will intermarry, one with another, your children’s children, friends, and mine. They will be the citizens of one country.
One country. How many Americans feel that way about their country now? Yet that is how it must be, how it can be.
More than any other area of government, U.S. immigration policy is driven by nostalgia—by ancestral memories of a world long gone. Give me your tired, your poor …
This is no way to think about the problems of today. These are new times, calling for new thinking. The wealth of 21st-century America is not found in farms and mines, but in the skill and productivity of its people. It has never been more important to invest in those people. When somebody seeks to join the American national community, that person is asking the United States to honor a multigenerational commitment to him or her and to each of his or her descendants.
Americans are entitled to consider carefully whom they will number among themselves. They would be irresponsible not to consider this carefully—because all of these expensive commitments must be built on a deep agreement that all who live inside the borders of the United States count as “ourselves.” The years of slow immigration, 1915 to 1975, were also years in which the United States became a more cohesive nation: the years of the civil-rights revolution, the building of a mass middle class, the construction of a national social-insurance system, the projection of U.S. power in two world wars. As immigration has accelerated, the country seems to have splintered apart.
Many Americans feel that the country is falling short of its promises of equal opportunity and equal respect. Levels of immigration that are too high only enhance the difficulty of living up to those promises. Reducing immigration, and selecting immigrants more carefully, will enable the country to more quickly and successfully absorb the people who come here, and to ensure equality of opportunity to both the newly arrived and the long-settled—to restore to Americans the feeling of belonging to one united nation, responsible for the care and flourishing of all its people.
This article appears in the April 2019 print edition with the headline “How Much Immigration Is Too Much?”