Pushing the immigration debate to the next level
It is often said that America is “a nation of immigrants.” But that’s not true in the strictest sense. As of the 2010 Census, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population was 12.9 percent, and so 87.1 percent of Americans that year were native-born non-immigrants. Granted, the nation of immigrants line tends to be used figuratively, to indicate that virtually all Americans come from somewhere else if you go back far enough. That includes the members of the indigenous communities that had settled in what is now the United States many centuries ago, and the descendants of the enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas against their will. Yet when we use nation of immigrants so loosely, it loses all meaning.
And when you compare the foreign-born share of the U.S. population to other countries, you soon realize that while the absolute number of immigrants living in the U.S. is very large, we’re nowhere near countries like tiny Qatar, where over three-quarters of the population consists of foreign-born individuals, most of whom are guest workers, or Canada, where the foreign-born share is a robust 20.6 percent. The U.S. is roughly in the same ballpark as countries like Germany and Sweden, which have become major destinations for immigrants only in recent decades.
So what would it mean for America’s foreign-born population to dramatically increase in the coming decades? That is the question we ought to be asking ourselves in light of the new Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate immigration bill. At first, many observers focused on CBO projecting that because the Senate immigration bill will tend to increase the U.S. working-age population while not increasing the number of retirees, at least not yet, it will tend to increase economic growth, raise tax revenues, and cut the deficit. Over the first decade, the CBO projects that deficits will decrease by $200 billion relative to the current law baseline, while they will decrease by $700 billion over the second decade.
Advocates of the Senate immigration bill suggest that the CBO analysis thus demolishes the economic case against this particular version of comprehensive immigration reform, but of course the CBO is relying, as it must, on a series of assumptions that might prove untenable.
For example, the Senate immigration bill bars unauthorized immigrants granted provisional status from access to a wide range of means-tested federal benefits. This is despite the fact that, as the Migration Policy Institute has documented, the unauthorized immigrant population is extremely poor, with 32 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults and 51 percent of unauthorized immigrant children living below the federal poverty level. An additional 30 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults and an additional 27 percent of unauthorized immigrant children live between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level, incomes at which many U.S. households still depend on safety net programs. The fact that unauthorized immigrants and recent immigrants are not eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a big part of why the U.S. has a higher incidence of food insecurity than other rich countries. Moreover, a number of liberals and centrists have already raised alarm bells about the fact that the Senate immigration bill bars legalized immigrants from the subsidies for medical coverage created by the Affordable Care Act, not least because this will put enormous fiscal pressure on cities and states with large immigrant populations.
It is certainly possible that U.S. voters will allow large numbers of poor legalized immigrants to go without SNAP benefits, but the political pressure to extend benefits will grow as legalized immigrants work their way down the path to citizenship. And this political pressure will grow because many Americans will simply feel compassion for the legalized immigrants who will be their friends, neighbors and colleagues. There is no sense in faulting the CBO for assuming that U.S. voters will remain hard-hearted, as their job is to work with the bill they’re given. But the assumption is naive all the same.
Then there is the fact that the Senate immigration bill will, according to the CBO, dramatically increase the foreign-born share of the population. Specifically, the CBO projects that the U.S. population over the next decade will increase by 10.4 million more than it would under current law. The CBO has been somewhat opaque about its assumptions regarding population growth under current law, yet an educated guess is that they assume that immigration will increase by roughly 10 million without the Senate immigration bill. Adding these two numbers together tells us that between 2013 and 2023, 20 million immigrants will settle in the U.S. This influx will push the foreign-born share of the population well past its 2010 level of 12.9 percent, and it will almost certainly push it above the 14.8 percent share it reached at its 1890 peak. Tim Fernholz and Ritchie King of Quartz project that it will reach 16.5 percent by 2023.
The fact that Canada’s population is one-fifth foreign-born is comforting, as Canada is clearly a prosperous, well-governed society. The difference is that while Canada’s foreign-born population consists primarily of skilled immigrants, the CBO projects that most of the immigrants who would settle in the U.S. under the Senate immigration bill would be less-skilled. That is, during an era in which the labor market position of less-skilled workers is deteriorating, the number and the share of less-skilled workers in the U.S. will greatly increase. This will greatly benefit skilled professionals who will purchase services from less-skilled immigrants, and it might also benefit less-skilled natives with complementary skills. But it will also pose new and unfamiliar challenges for the teachers, social workers and medical providers who provide services to children raised in low-income immigrant households. And if technologies emerge that allow skilled professionals and other consumers to substitute capital for immigrant labor, these challenges will grow more formidable still.
The willingness to take on this challenge is in a sense deeply admirable, as less-skilled workers are undoubtedly better off in the U.S. than they would be in a low- or even a middle-income country. Yet the more pressing question is whether taking on this challenge is prudent in light of the difficulties American institutions have faced in redressing severe racial inequality and many other social ills. At least one part of this challenge is unavoidable. There is a broad consensus that the U.S. ought to integrate the current unauthorized immigrant population into our economic and civic institutions. But if anything, this suggests that Congress should be very cautious about future immigrants. Immigration represents an enormous opportunity for the United States, and it can absolutely represent a source of economic renewal. One wonders, however, if we might be better off learning from countries like Canada and Australia, nations of immigrants that expect that new arrivals have the skills they need to be economically self-sufficient.
PHOTO: A sign is seen on the gate of a ranch in Falfurrias, Texas April 2, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thaye