D. Dowd Muska


Facts (About Immigration) Are Stubborn Things

October 01, 2015

The Pew Research Center’s “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065,” a voluminous compendium of data, should be required reading for pols, pundits, and voters. It’s “a 100-year look at the impact of immigration on the nation’s demographics since passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act,” and includes “survey findings [of] the U.S. public’s views of immigrants and their impact nationally and in local communities.”

During America’s first century, the borders were essentially open. (The Office of the Superintendent of Immigration, housed in the Treasury Department, wasn’t formed until 1891.) But in the 1920s, federal laws began to slam the door on newcomers. At the time, immigration was dominated by “Italy, Poland and elsewhere in Southern and Eastern Europe.” Restrictionists didn’t much like the way the America’s ethnic makeup was trending, and policy shifted, in an attempt to “return U.S. immigration patterns to those that prevailed … when Northern Europeans were the largest group of immigrants.”

The 1920s to the 1960s could be called the Pat Buchanan Golden Era. Immigration “slowed sharply,” and the people who did arrive were 80 percent white. Some Mexicans were allowed northward, but under the Bracero program, designed to meet the demand for manual labor.

LBJ signed the Immigration and Nationality Act in the fall of 1965. He claimed that it was “not a revolutionary bill” and would “not affect the lives of millions.” Nonsense. It abolished “the old national origins system” and lifted visa limits for “spouses, parents, and minor children of U.S. citizens.” Perhaps most significantly, it “imposed the first limits on immigration from Western Hemisphere countries, including Mexico. Those limits, combined with the end of the Bracero program … are associated with a rise in unauthorized immigration, mostly from Mexico.”

In 1965, there were 193 million Americans. Without immigration reform, Pew estimates, “the nation’s population still would have grown -- to 252 million people by 2015.” That’s a sizable difference from the 324 million residents we have now. The foreign-born portion “has more than quadrupled” in the last five decades. Immigration, not births, accounts for 76 percent of the increase in Latinos. Overall growth has been massive. Latinos were a mere 4 percent 50 years ago, when whites grabbed an 84 percent share. Latinos are 18 percent of the populace in 2015. (Asians, once a cohort almost too small to measure, are at 6 percent.)

By 2065, Pew projects that nearly one in four Americans will trace their lineage to Latin America. Caucasians will dip below 50 percent sometime in the late 2040s or early 2050s -- when the whole country will be “majority-minority.”

Amazingly, if current trends continue, Asians will outnumber blacks by 2065. That’s due to a fairly new development: Latino immigration has slowed, significantly. The Great Recession/Pathetic Recovery did more to discourage northbound crossings (legal and otherwise) than increased border patrols, tougher port-of-entry checks, and gee-whiz technologies. As The Wall Street Journal reported in May, “China and India have taken the lead,” with “South Korea, the Philippines and Japan” also on the list of “top immigrant-sending countries.” Between 2009 and 2013, 2.47 million Asians came to America, surpassing Central and South America’s 1.66 million new arrivals.

Today’s immigrants, Pew finds, “are much better educated than their counterparts of 50 years ago.” A “larger share” of those 25 and older have “a high school diploma, a college degree or an advanced degree.” In 1970, just 20 percent of recently arrived immigrants worked in managerial/professional fields. Today, it’s 28 percent.

Sadly, Americans’ grasp of the complexities of the immigration issue is dismal. Over a third wildly overestimate the percentage of the population that is foreign-born. The number of immigrants here illegally is exaggerated as well, and knowledge that Asia, not Latin America, is the source of most recent immigrants is nearly nonexistent.

The good news is that a plurality of Americans -- 45 percent to 37 percent -- believes that “immigrants to the U.S. are making American society better in the long run.” The favorability level drops off significantly, though, when the poll results are disaggregated. Whites, older folks (50 plus), the less-educated, and Republicans are likelier to oppose immigration than Latinos, the college-educated, those born abroad, Millennials (under 30), and Democrats. Perhaps the most encouraging finding in Pew’s report is that “U.S.-born adults who live in places with immigrant communities feel more positively about immigrants.”

They’re still coming to America. With a presidential election 13 months away, shouldn’t we better understand why, how, and what it all means?

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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