Webster’s Dictionary defines “emergency” as “a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence requiring immediate action.” By that standard, US President Donald Trump’s claim that the United States faces an immigration emergency is simply not credible. Immigrants have been coming to the US since its inception, and since 2007 their net numbers have actually been falling. Because this issue is so often framed in a misleading way, it is important to get the facts straight.
To be sure, the current system is broken. There are three major concerns: the US needs to improve how it treats immigrants, it needs better ways to curb illegal immigration, and it needs to reform the visa system in order to increase benefits and reduce costs.
The Trump administration’s increasingly inhumane treatment of migrants will not fix the system. On the contrary, it has become a source of national shame. Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was unconscionable. Some 800,000 people who were brought to the US as children (at age seven, on average) are now threatened with the prospect of being forced to return to countries they hardly know.
No less abhorrent has been the treatment of Central Americans applying for asylum at the US-Mexico border. Children have been separated from their parents, and the wait times for migrants locked in squalid conditions have grown ever longer. There is a severe shortage of qualified immigration judges, yet rather than allocating money to hire more, the administration is channeling resources to the construction of a border wall.
In addition to overwhelmed immigration courts, there are shockingly long delays for the issuance of green cards. Immigrants who initiated the green-card process in January 1998 were not notified of their eligibility until October 2018. The average wait time for green-card holders applying for citizenship is five years and eight months. Moreover, while a significant share of visas currently goes to family members of US citizens, everyone would benefit more if a higher share went to workers, particularly skilled ones, who contribute disproportionately more to productivity growth than do those with a high-school education or less.
Curbing illegal immigration is clearly a desirable goal. For years, legislative efforts to achieve it have failed, and policymakers now must recognize that no perfect solution exists. But the scale of the problem has been exaggerated. As of 2017, 77% of all foreign-born residents in the US – 44.4 million people, or 13.6% of the population – were documented. By comparison, undocumented workers numbered 10.5 million (down from 12.2 million before the 2008 financial crisis), or 3.2% of the population.
Contrary to the Trump administration’s claims, the crime rate for undocumented immigrants is below that for native-born Americans. Yet in 2018, more than $24 billion was allocated to immigration enforcement. As a Migration Policy Institute report points out, that is 34% “more than the $17.9 billion allocated for all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined.”
Moreover, around half of undocumented residents in the US entered originally on tourist or business visas, which means they would not have been stopped by a wall. Immigrants tend to be either economic migrants or refugees – drawn to wages far above what they can earn in their countries of origin or fleeing persecution. In 2018, 22,900 refugees arrived in the US along with 520,000 undocumented immigrants, indicating that the hope of economic opportunity is the predominant motive.
By the same token, in countries where living standards have risen rapidly, emigration rates have declined. After the North American Free Trade Agreement entered into force, the number of Mexican immigrants to the US eventually began falling. One way to drive stronger growth in poor countries is to open advanced economies to more trade. And yet, the Trump administration has been doing precisely the opposite.
Bearing these data in mind, it is important to remember that the working-age populations of most developed countries will shrink over the next 50 years, reducing the expected rates of economic growth. Yet, thanks to immigration, US growth projections are more favorable than those of other advanced economies. Immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for a full 88% of total US population growth between now and 2065.
With the US unemployment rate at a mere 3.5%, immigrants can find jobs quickly. And the higher their educational level, the more they will contribute to productivity and innovation. In 2016, 17.2% of immigrants had a bachelor’s degree, and another 12.8% had a postgraduate degree, which is about the same as the native-born population.
Finally, the oft-heard claim that immigrants are a fiscal drain is greatly exaggerated, if not downright wrong. According to the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, immigrants ultimately cost the federal government less than they contribute back in tax revenues. And at the state and local levels, government expenditures on immigrants are higher only when costs per child in the school system are included.
Trump’s hostility to immigration runs contrary to the facts. The system needs to be constructively overhauled, not destroyed. Shifting the money for a useless border wall toward improving the entire immigration application and sorting process would yield significant economic gains for the US and ensure more humane treatment of migrants and refugees. Far from an “emergency,” immigration could be a boon – as it has been throughout US history.
(Anne O. Krueger, a former World Bank chief economist and former first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, is Senior Research Professor of International Economics at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Development, Stanford University.)