Opinion

Reihan Salam

Pushing the immigration debate to the next level

By Reihan Salam
June 21, 2013

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

Comments
16 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

It really surprises me that Mr. Salam automatically assumes that America’s politicians have Americans’ interests at heart. This is all about which party the new “citizens” will vote for. Politicians have as much contempt for us as we have for them.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive
 

These present illegal alien squatters and all who would join them, given the chance will be an unsustainable burden on an already shakey U.S. economy. They will absolutely bankrupt America, the question not being one of whether, but when.

The great majority are relatively poor, unskilled and uneducated with poor comprehension or fluency in English. They already overwhelm community health centers, and will all wind up on Medicaid and/or be heavily subsidized in other ways.

“…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.”

“…unauthorized immigrants and recent immigrants are not eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)…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.”

“…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.” YOU GOT THAT RIGHT!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

It’s interesting how most of the border State Governors including Reagan, Bush and Perry have all been supporters of the bracero programs going back decades since they are well aware that they contribute significantly to enhancing the economies of their states. The employers also get to steal from the workers through withholding of federal and state income taxes that the workers (and government) will never see. Who owes whom taxes?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

@ptiffany,

Everyone can pull the numbers that they feel supports “their perspective”, but there is only ONE reality; and that is to consider the effects of legalizing these people on local, state AND federal government burdens long term.

CBO (federal) goes out only 10 years, obviously not enough to consider Jeb Bush’s “fertility factor”. With all the the little immigracitos as deductions, they pay NO income tax, instead almost always qualifying for the “earned income credit” (reverse cash flow!).

The state takes it in the shorts with Medicaid. Not sure where the money comes from to pay hospitals for mandated buy uncompensated Emergency care…likely County government. Similarly it is local taxes that must pay for the extra classrooms, bilingual teachers, extra cafeteria help for their free meals (and thru the summer) necessitated by these children.

The old ones who will almost immediately qualify for disability or Social Security. State get raped financially as Medicaid explodes. Local food banks will find their shelves stripped clean.

Oh yeah, they contribute a little here and there but it’s a HUGE LOSS in the overall to American taxpayers! And then there’s the icing on the cake…all the money they send OUT OF THE COUNTRY. That adversely affects OUR economy and benefits the economy they send it into.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Big money has much to gain by immigration, because immigration certainly increases rents and profits of big capital. That simple fact is disputed by nobody.

I’ll say it again, big money has much to gain by immigration.

Washington DC is home to the world’s largest and most advanced public relations firms, and their clients are big money. The corruption quotient of their profession is very high.

This article is typical of the type of article seeded into the media by those public relations firms. This is their bread and butter.

But the American middle class worker knows something that he observes on his own:
Immigration is destroying the American middle class.

Look at the rest of the world.

Immigration is destroying modern England, too. England, too, has dropped its defenses. England too, has no immunity to invasion by immigration.

JAPAN – THE LAND OF NO IMMIGRATION
Japan is smarter. Japan was an unpopulated group of islands until its first human inhabitants arrived from China.

Quite striking, of course, is the fact than Japan rose to prominence among human cultures because it was, like England of old, an island nation, and compared to other countries, Japan had almost zero later immigration. And today, Japan strictly prevents immigration.

Japan, the land of the gods, grew such a strong culture, admired around the world, because it was not constantly disturbed by immigrations.

INDIA – THE LAND OF IMMIGRANTS
The exact opposite of Japan is India, which has constantly, throughout its history, been disturbed by immigrations. Including its immigrants, India today has a population of 1.17 billion people, compared to Japan’s 128 million.

India has had migration after migration from every direction. It is made up of Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, and Jains, just to start.

India, the land made of immigrants, has literally dozens of languages, and great corruption. Everybody speaking a different language, worshiping a different god, fighting with each other.

Yet Japan, with a population only one-tenth the size of India’s, has a GDP 4 times as big as India.

Japan, the densely populated island nation, protected from immigrations, is a cohesive culture, very high economic production, high per-capita incomes and wages, and the lowest crime rate in the world.

So America should ask itself, do we want to remain a strong culture, like Japan, or do we want to allow immigrations from all directions, and end up like India, with low wages, corruption, extreme poverty and chaos?

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive
 

Agree with Adam Smith. Japan adopted their no-immigrant policy when their fishermen were having to travel far out to sea for their catch because fishing stocks had become depleted closer to shore. The same situation arose with their need to import rice because too much arable land had been given over to human habitation.

New Zealand also has a no-immigrant policy to preserve their land. They figure that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Many people who oppose immigration reform have been harmed by a policy of uncontrolled borders, unenforced laws and an underfunded ICE. Middle class workers have seen their wages stagnate over the last 3 decades because the influx enabled union busting of formerly decent paying jobs in the construction, meat processing and technology industries.

Posted by yooper | Report as abusive
 

As long as we allow companies, large and small, to hire illegal immigrants without fear of prosecution, immigration laws will remain unenforced no matter what they are. Cut off the job supply, and you cut off the immigrants’ desire to come here. Until we do that, all the laws in the world won’t make one bit of difference.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

The “border surge” is a sop to border states to the south and does nothing to address the other half of the problem. Illegals fly in from Eastern Europe and India to “visit relatives” or “go to school” and overstay their visas. The H1B visa program has been abused by employers to bring in cheap and docile foreign labor as well. Employers aren’t satisfied with the current quota, they want more. In the meantime, we have unemployed and discouraged workers here already who speak the language.

Posted by yooper | Report as abusive
 

Salan has carefully avoided the true meaning of the phrase “nation of immigrants.” It is an idea of the United States that I hold dear. The second generation of my family born in this country, I remember being educated in the public schools of New York City and learning to know by heart and revere Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired your poor
Your troubled masses yearning to breath free
The retched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss to me,
I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door!

If Salan wants to understand the meaning of the appellation, it is in this poem. The light that statue in New York Harbor shone across the world to struggling starving people everywhere. It is light does not dim with distance or time or circumstance — or even with budget deficits. But we Americans can turn the light off, if we become a nation of the privileged living behind walls, like the wealthy who live in gated communities.

Posted by MarkPine | Report as abusive
 

“There is a broad consensus that the U.S. ought to integrate the current unauthorized immigrant population into our economic and civic institutions.” Mr. Salam, where did you get this?

The recent CNN poll has 51% favoring a the current bill, “Based on what you have read or heard about this bill.”
But when asked “What should be the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with immigration policy?” , 62% chose “Increasing border security to reduce or eliminate
the number of immigrants coming into this country
without permission from the U.S. government.”

Here is the link to that survey: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2013/images  /06/18/rel7f.pdf

Please cite a credible survey that supports your statement. I will check back for your answer.

Posted by DanCorleone | Report as abusive
 

I wonder how many people leave the USA for other countries..?

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive
 

Agree with Adam Smith and Yooper, and I am Canadian. There are days when I yearn to return to my American Great Grandfather’s homeland because I’m not sure Canada feels like home anymore. Was a 4th generation Vancouverite but joined the diaspora due to Asian money/immigrant influx off the chart increase in housing expenses. The article is ideological. What I have learned as a Canadian: look after and respect your countrymen, women and children first. If they are not educated enough to make your country productive then your government policies and education system have not looked after its own people and country. Immigration reduces quality jobs and wages, it causes cultural tension. It does only benefit big business and those getting the bonuses at the top. The ones with all the education and rhetoric to make it sound like a good idea. It’s not. Immigrants and those importing immigrants are doing the same thing. Their not looking after their problems and expecting someone else to fix them. Stay put, fix the problem where you are.

Posted by takeapill | Report as abusive
 

PS, I love America. Stay American. If not, where else can I run back too? (How ironic is that!)

Posted by takeapill | Report as abusive
 

Not mentioned in this piece is the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption, and its role in driving up unemployment. Every densely populated nation on earth is either dirt poor or leans heavily on manufactured exports – primarily to the U.S. – to employ their bloated labor forces and boost their standard of living.

There is no other “U.S.” out there that we can lean on as we grow more densely populated. Worsening unemployment is inescapable and will only exacerbate our nation’s fiscal problems.

Pete Murphy
Author,”Five Short Blasts”

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive
 

Funny how a few decades back, individuals from other countries had to become Naturalized citizens to work, enjoy some of the benefits of living here, etc. and now, all the illegals, etc want everything for nothing. It’s no wonder many of the border states are fed up with the influx of crime, loss of revenues, etc. Keep it the way it was, go thru the approved process and quit expecting everything for nothing, without giving back. US soon to become an entitlement country/nation, but who will fund it?

Posted by IronMan4X | Report as abusive
 

Still waiting on a reply to my question of 6/24.

Posted by DanCorleone | Report as abusive
 

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