“Through this Golden Door . . . [have] come millions of men and women . . . These families came here to work. They came to build . . . They didn’t ask what this country could do for them but what they could do to make this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history. They brought with them courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom . . . We can, and so help us God, we will, make America great again.”
– Ronald Reagan, September 1, 1980
Conservatives often laud the benefits of free markets. As goods and services flow freely from country to country, everyone prospers. Unfortunately, in today’s political environment, these same conservatives are likely to support severely curtailing immigration to the United States, thereby depriving businesses of the talent they need to compete in a global economy. Trump administration proposals would slash legal immigration rates by 44 percent, resulting in 22 million fewer immigrants over the next five decades. In 2018, applications submitted to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services were denied at a rate 37 percent higher than in 2016.
The Trump administration has also created legal and bureaucratic barriers that make the lives of legal immigrants in the United States considerably more cumbersome. The administration has tripled the length of immigration applications, making it harder for legal immigrants to obtain travel documents and work permits. The administration has cut back on work authorization for the 91,000 spouses of H-1B visa holders, thereby discouraging skilled professionals from staying in the United States. A sharp decline in student visas (down 23 percent from fiscal year 2016) suggests that the climate that President Trump has created is discouraging some of the world’s most talented students from moving to the United States.
A spokesman for the National Foundation for American Policy worries that President Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order will harm American competitiveness: “Employers report the time lost due to the increase in denials and Requests for Evidence has cost millions of dollars in project delays and contract penalties, while aiding competitors that operate exclusively outside the United States.”
Policies that discourage legal immigration are especially misguided at a time when domestic fertility rates are in sharp decline. American women in 2017 had 500,000 fewer babies than in 2007, despite the fact that there were 7 percent more women in their prime childbearing years. In 2017, birth rates in the United States hit an all-time low of 1.7 children per woman, well below the replacement level of 2.1. Latinos, with a fertility rate of 2.1, are the only ethnic group in America that have a naturally stable population.
Americans are also rapidly aging. Today, there are 46 million Americans over the age of sixty-five. By 2060, the number will be 98 million, or an estimated 25 percent of the population. By 2060, there are projected to be 2.5 working adults for every person aged sixty-five or older. In the next fifteen years, the number of working-age Americans who have U.S.-born parents will fall by eight million. If the United States closes its doors to immigration, the U.S. economy will lose its dynamism, as fewer and fewer young people work to support a burgeoning elderly population.
President Trump depicts the United States as a place where illegal immigrants are pouring into our country at unprecedented levels, taxing our social services and driving up crime rates.
The real picture is quite different. Seventy-six percent of immigrants in the United States have legal status, and the total number of new immigrants has leveled off in the last decade. From 1980 to 2000, the percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States rose from 6 percent to 11 percent. Since 2000, it has only risen from 11 percent to 13.7 percent. Since 2009, Mexicans living in the United States who have returned to Mexico have outnumbered new Mexican arrivals. This reverse migration has reduced the total number of illegal immigrants in the United States from 12 million to 11 million. Although migration from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras has risen, the percentage of immigrants arriving from Latin America has declined from 53 percent of all immigrants in 2001 to 31 percent in 2016.
Both legal and illegal immigrants are much less likely to be incarcerated for violent and property crimes than native-born Americans. In fact, in most cities, there is a direct correlation between increased immigration and declining crime rates. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute found that criminal conviction rates for undocumented immigrants in Texas were 50 percent below those of native-born Americans, and the homicide conviction rates were 16 percent lower for the undocumented.
Immigrants are also less likely to use means-tested welfare benefits than native-born Americans. Immigrants make larger net contributions to Medicare and Social Security than native-born Americans. The National Academy of Sciences’s 2016 report found that the average recent immigrant will pay at least $92,000 more in taxes than she receives in benefits over the course of her lifetime.
A large body of research indicates that immigrants in America are assimilating as well as or better than previous immigrant groups. Indicators of Immigrant Integration, published jointly by the European Commission and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), analyzed indicators of immigrants’ integration relating to employment, education, social inclusion, civic engagement and social cohesion. The document reports serious problems with immigrant assimilation in Europe but positive findings for the United States.
In Europe, immigrants are ghettoized, with high unemployment rates and low educational levels.
In the United States, immigrants are geographically and culturally integrated. American immigrants have higher levels of workforce participation than the general population, and American immigrants start businesses at twice the rate of non-immigrants. In 2016, immigrants founded half of all billion-dollar startups. American immigrants have higher levels of religiosity and lower levels of criminality and out-of-wedlock births than do non-immigrants.
University of Washington economist Jacob Vigdor compared modern immigrants’ civic and cultural assimilation to that of immigrants from the early twentieth century. He found that the descendants of Latin American immigrants demonstrate the same rapid and continuous process of assimilation over the years that characterized immigrants a century ago. Joel Perlmann’s book Italians Then, Mexicans Now makes a case that Mexican Americans are following a process of assimilation analogous to that of previous waves of Irish and Italian immigrants.
By almost every measure of success, foreign-born residents of the United States are outperforming native-born Americans. In 2016, 80 percent of the full-time graduate students in engineering and computer science were international students. The National Foundation for American Policy reports that “foreign nationals have filled the demand for high-level technical talent in the United States.” Without these foreign nationals, the United States would lose global competitiveness in nearly every technical field.
America is a Low Immigration Nation
America’s share of foreign-born residents ranks thirty-fourth among fifty wealthy countries with a per capita domestic product of over $20,000. Australia, Canada, and Israel all have substantially larger percentages of foreign-born residents than the United States. Jack Goldstone, professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, argues that unless the United States opens its doors wider, a severe shortage of labor will become a serious impediment to growth.
Restrictionists sometimes claim that Latin American immigrants harm the U.S. economy. In fact, the United States is in danger of losing Latin Americans as drivers of economic growth. Before the 2007 recession, the U.S. Census Bureau forecast that the country’s population would grow to 439 million by 2050. In 2017, the Census bureau reduced its population forecast by a staggering 51 million people. The latest forecast is that the U.S. population will reach only 388 million by 2050.
Most of the missing 51 million people are Latino immigrants and their children who would have joined the American workforce if immigration had not dropped off from its 2000 to 2007 rates. At the current rate that America is admitting immigrants, the workforce will grow only 0.3 percent per year.
If current demographic trends continue, the United States will deplete the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds by 2040. The best way to stimulate faster growth to prevent a fiscal crisis is to sharply increase the number of young people in the workforce. Professor Goldstone writes, “To simply restore the U.S. population in 2050 to where we expected it to be a decade ago, America would have to admit at least an additional 1 million immigrants per year from now until then.”
Some jobs may disappear in the next two decades, but we will continue to need skilled professionals, as well as carpenters, masons, landscapers, plumbers, welders, nurses, and service-sector employees. Even more important, however, are the contributions that the children of immigrants will make. In 2016, 83 percent of the finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search—the “Junior Nobel Prize”—were the children of foreign-born parents.
Moral Responsibility and Economic Benefits
In addition to the clear economic benefits to increased immigration, we must also consider the moral responsibility that a rich country has to help families in distress—especially those who are in imminent danger—by admitting refugees as legal immigrants. In fiscal year 2018, the Trump administration admitted a paltry 22,491 refugees, the lowest number since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980. In 2016, 84,995 refugees were admitted to the United States. The current crisis at our southern border could be ameliorated by resurrecting refugee resettlement programs in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala that the Trump administration rescinded last year. If people threatened by gang violence could apply for refugee status in their home countries, they could avoid the dangerous and expensive journey north.
Derek Thompson calls immigration to the United States “the world’s most effective foreign aid program on a per capita basis.” Immigration raises the living standards and enhances the quality of life of foreign-born migrants. But immigration is not just an act of generosity on our part. America’s immigrants model what is best in America. They are energetic, entrepreneurial, law-abiding, and risk-taking. Immigrants pay taxes, make purchases, open businesses, and expand the size of our economic pie. High levels of immigration multiply opportunities and wealth for native-born Americans.
Our leaders should stop describing immigration as a disease that is infecting the United States. Immigrants are the lifeblood of a thriving economy.