The Case against Immigration as We Know It

Thursday, April 30, 1998

The Three-Count Indictment

The case against America's current immigration policy develops inexorably from three fundamental points.

Point #1 in the case against immigration: immigration today is a big deal. It is a characteristic of the American immigration debate that even the simplest statement of fact meets with deep and persistent denial from immigration enthusiasts. Thus Professor Julian L. Simon of the University of Maryland, in his famous 1990 proimmigration polemic The Economic Consequences of Immigration, states flatly: "Contemporary immigration is not high by U.S. historical standards." I saw this claim repeated uncritically by Simon disciples and others in reviews of my book Alien Nation in 1995, although I explicitly addressed and refuted it there. Quite obviously, a lot of people are deeply and emotionally attached to the comforting thought that this has all (yawn) happened before (ho hum . . .).

But the recent immigration peak of 1990–1991 towers far above the previous record set in 1907, during the First Great Wave at the turn of the century. During the whole Great Wave decade, from 1901 to 1910, about 8.7 million immigrants arrived in the United States. In the decade just passed, 1981–1990, legal immigration into the United States amounted to some 7.3 million. Which means that, counting illegal immigrants--who were not a factor in the earlier period, when the borders were more or less open--1981–1990 probably matched and may well have exceeded the earlier record.

Immigration enthusiasts, of course, protest that you can't just look at absolute numbers of immigrants. You have to look at immigration relative to the American population.

For example, during the previous Great Wave in the first years of the twentieth century, the total U.S. population was rising through the level of only a third of what it is today. The census recorded just over ninety million Americans in 1910, when just over one million immigrants arrived. But there were just over 250 million Americans in 1993, when about one million legal immigrants were reported. So in 1910, immigration amounted to just over ten per thousand of the American population. But in 1990, immigration amounted only to four per thousand.

But even when you look at current immigration relative to U.S. population, it is still significant. Expected immigration levels above a million a year through the 1990s will work out at above five per thousand, well above lows in the 1845–1920 "Immigration Era," itself an aberration in American history. Adding three million annual gross illegal immigrants--almost twelve per thousand--would take the total to Immigration Era peaks.

Furthermore, absolute numbers matter--absolutely. They matter in at least two ways.

Firstly, comparisons can be deceptive. Expressing immigration relative to host population size causes something of a statistical mirage. A moment's simple arithmetic shows you why: it is mathematically impossible to maintain any very high proportion of immigrants, relative to a country's host population, as the host population grows. After all, immigration has never been relatively higher than when the second Pilgrim Father came down the gangplank. That increased the Plymouth Colony's population by 100 percent in just a few seconds.

Secondly, concentrations can cause trouble. Immigrants do not spread all across the United States in a thin, tactful layer just four one-hundredths of a native-born American thick. They invariably accumulate in specific localities. When the immigrants' absolute numbers in these localities pass a certain point, their communities achieve a critical mass. Their alien languages and cultures become, at least for a while, self-sustaining. And the natives start asking themselves, "Are we still living in America?"

For example, the Cubanization of the Miami area has become legendary. But Cuban immigration since 1960 has only been about 650,000--a fraction of the nineteen million immigrants who have come to the United States since 1960. The Cuban community in Florida, with its American-born offspring, is probably about 500,000. It has been, however, enough to transform the area.

Moreover, there is the issue of net immigration--another hidden dimension of American immigration history. Although you don't hear as much about it, as many as a third of the 1880–1925 Great Wave seem eventually to have gone back home. Significantly more of the post-1965 Great Wave immigrants seem to be staying in the United States. One estimate of current net immigration, both legal and illegal, has been made by Jeffrey S. Passell and Barry Edmonston of the Urban Institute of Washington, D.C.

Net immigration in the 1900–1910 decade was 4.9 million--well below the 8.2 million net figure we estimate for the 1980s. In fact, our estimates suggest that the 1970s (not the 1980s) were most comparable in terms of net immigration to the 1900–1910 decade, with the 1980s clearly exceeding all other decades.

The decisive element in the historical argument, however, is this: at the beginning of this century, the U.S. birthrate was much higher than it is now. Now American Anglos are below replacement levels. So post-1965 Great Wave immigrants are having a proportionately much higher demographic impact on America than the pre-1925 Great Wave.

Immigration in the 1980s contributed a significantly higher proportion of population growth (37.1 percent) than it did in the legendary 1900–1910 decade (27.8 percent). In fact, immigration also contributed a high share of population growth in the 1970s (32.6 percent).

And after immigrants arrive in the United States, they have children. So the true impact of immigration is the proportion of immigrants and their descendants in the American population. The demographer Leon Bouvier projects that immigrants and their descendants will make up about two-thirds of U.S. population growth during the 1990s. Thereafter, they will supply virtually all population growth.

By 2050, the Census Bureau estimates that the U.S. population will have reached 391 million. By Bouvier's count, at that point more than a third (36 percent) of the U.S. population will be post-1970 immigrants and their descendants--a staggering 139 million people.

By 2050, the Census Bureau projects, whites will constitute only 52.7 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanics will constitute 21.1 percent, blacks, 15.0 percent, Asians, 10.1 percent, and "other" 1.1 percent. But in 1960, whites were nearly 90 percent of the population. Blacks made up virtually all the balance--Asians and Hispanics were mere trace elements.

There is no precedent for a sovereign country undergoing such a rapid and radical transformation of its ethnic character in the entire history of the world.

Point #2 in the case against immigration: there is no economic rationale for immigration on this scale. The American immigration debate has been focusing, albeit rather ineffectually, on the issue of government bookkeeping--what is the fiscal burden of immigration? The immigration debate should be refocused. The question--the economic question--should be: is immigration actually necessary for economic growth?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is certainly not. Immigration does very little that the host country cannot achieve, possibly better, by other policies.

Immigration does generate instant population growth. The host country can't achieve instant population growth by other policies. And an instantly larger population can be very useful if you are seizing a continent or fighting a war (at least before high-tech weapons).

But, from an economic standpoint, instantly acquiring more people is not so obviously useful. A country's living standard is expressed by its output per capita, not just its sheer output. The economies of Britain and China had about the same output in the early nineteenth century. But Britannia could afford to rule the waves while China was starving because the British output was fifteen times higher per capita than the Chinese.

Immigrants and their descendants will make up about two-thirds of U.S. population growth during the 1990s. Thereafter, they will supply virtually all population growth.

Just acquiring more people is not enough. In an increasingly technical age, what will count is not the quantity of people but their quality--and the quality of their ideas.

This insight casts a stark new light on much American immigration history. For example, Professor Richard A. Easterlin, writing in the Harvard Encyclopedia of Ethnic Groups, has argued that the vast immigration into the United States in the nineteenth century "probably did not alter substantially the growth of output per capita."

The innovations that drove American economic growth such as mass production in manufacturing, Easterlin points out, were already celebrated worldwide by 1850 when mass immigration was only just getting under way. In the next hundred years, both France and Germany outstripped the United States in per capita output growth.

"Immigrants built America," immigration enthusiasts always claim. Well, not quite, as it turns out. The colonial stock Americans had things rolling along pretty well before mass immigration began. The immigrants just climbed on the bandwagon.

And what about the present situation--with large numbers of immigrants arriving who are far more unskilled relative to the host population? Even if they enter the workforce smoothly and cause total output to grow, their greater numbers must cause output per head to fall. And if their marketable skills are minimal, and their entry is not smooth but causes social stress, it's possible that even total output may not grow much more than it would have done anyway. Even, perhaps, less.

This is the specter haunting the United States in 2050--that the American population may be 30 percent larger than it would have been without immigration; but its native stock no richer and its overall national income little greater than would have been achieved anyway.

The sword of Damocles over the immigration enthusiasts' polemics is this: the extraordinary economic success of Japan since World War II. Despite its population of only 125 million and virtually no immigration at all, Japan has grown into the second-largest economy on earth. Its GDP has gone up nearly ten times since 1955 and is now about perhaps half that of the United States', which has barely tripled in the same period.

Point #3 in the case against immigration: what is at issue is not immigration in principle but immigration in practice: the fatally flawed 1965 act and the system based on it. The point cannot be emphasized too strongly: The current wave of immigration is wholly and entirely the result of government policy. Specifically, it is the result of the Immigration Act of 1965 and the further legislation of 1986 and 1990.

Today it is astonishing to read the categorical assurances given by the 1965 Immigration Act's supporters. "What the bill will not do," summarized its floor manager, Immigration Subcommittee chairman Senator Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.):

First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same. . . . Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset. . . . Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia. . . . In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think.

Every one of Senator Kennedy's assurances has proved false. Immigration levels did surge upward. They are now running at around a million a year, not counting illegals. Immigrants do come predominantly from one area--some 85 percent of the 16.7 million legal immigrants arriving in the United States between 1968 and 1993 came from the Third World: 47 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean, 34 percent from Asia. (What's more, nearly half of all the 1968–1993 immigration came from Spanish-speaking countries, dramatically contrasting with the First, polyglot Great Wave and enough to establish for the first time the possibility of permanent "bilingual"--more accurately, Spanish-language--enclaves in the United States.) Also, immigrants did come disproportionately from one country: 20 percent from Mexico. Indeed, 85 percent of legal immigration came from just 10 of the 191 sovereign countries in the world and not even the largest.

Finally, and above all, the ethnic pattern of immigration into the United States did change sharply. In fact, it could hardly have changed more sharply. And the ethnic mix of the country has, of course, been upset.

Are We Better Off?

So America is being transformed by accident, in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the world, to no particular economic benefit, entirely through public policy. Those of us who point this out are under no obligation to explain our motives. It is incumbent upon those who support this extraordinary situation to explain theirs. Neuroses about Nazis don't count.

I suggest Americans think about immigration this way: In the presidential debate of 1980, Ronald Reagan flourished this set of questions at the audience to remind them of the foreign and domestic record of Jimmy Carter:

Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you think that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago? . . . If you don't think that this course that we've been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.

If the 1965 act had done what its supporters said it would do, immigration would have been held to (say) 350,000 a year. The U.S. population in 1990 would have been 239 million instead of 250 million. According to the 1965 bill's advocates, the U.S. ethnic balance would not have been altered at all. That means that the American population would still be what it was in 1960: almost 89 percent white (including maybe 1 percent or so Hispanic white, which the 1960 census did not break out).

In the end, Americans have to ask themselves very specific questions about the immigration flood unleashed upon their country by the politicians in 1965: Has the mass immigration triggered by the 1965 reform made me and my family better off? Has it made it easier or harder for us to work, to educate our children, to live our lives? Has it resulted in more or less congestion? pollution? racial tension? crime? Do I feel it has made America respected for its generosity--or despised for its gullibility? Are we stronger because immigration brought diversity? Or weaker because it brought divisiveness? Has the post-1965 immigration enabled us to achieve anything that we could not have managed on our own?

What if the 1965 act had worked as promised and there were fewer immigrants? Or if immigration had been stopped completely in 1965?

Would America be a happier or unhappier place than it is today?

Well?