Since the beginning of his campaign, President Donald Trump has taken a hardline stance on immigration, and his administration has followed suit. This stands in contrast to the approach taken by his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, who favored a more robust immigration system that included guestworker programs and a path to legalization for the undocumented population. Much like the tides of the country’s political leanings, there is an ebb and flow of sentiment towards immigration in the United States.
In response to nativist public opinion, there is a tendency is to blame immigrants for declining programs, such as education or health care. But doing so ignores three things: 1) perceived failures attributed to our immigration system are unsupported by facts; 2) prosperity in America has always coincided with increasing immigration policy; and 3) increasing immigration is a necessary component to continuing our positive social and economic trends. It’s impossible to reconcile American exceptionalism without acknowledging the success of our immigration policies.
In many cases, immigration policy, in general — and low-skilled immigrants, specifically — has become a scapegoat for America’s national tensions.
Yet contrary to the Trumpian narrative that arguably won the election, immigrants are not linked to higher levels of crime in the United States. In fact, between 1970 and 2010, immigration was consistently linked to decreases in violent and property crime. Even cities that have seen a rise in violent crime are much safer today than they were in the early 1990s, when the foreign-born population was much smaller.
Saddling low-skilled immigrants with the brunt of responsibility for failing neighborhoods and schools — and even the for the perceived degradation of culture in the U.S. — is not new.
In reality, immigration is a critical component of economic growth and industry success nationwide. Agriculture, fishing, and forestry — together a $215 billion industry — rely almost entirely on low-skilled immigrants. Not only do immigrants contribute to our declining health-care and welfare coffers, they are twice as likely as Americans to fill skilled home health aide, physician, and surgeon positions. Immigrants are credited with founding American companies that employ millions of Americans, including Google, Yahoo!, and Trulia. Nationally, immigrants earned $1.3 trillion in 2014, and contributed $105 billion in state and local taxes, and $224 billion in federal taxes.
Scapegoating immigrants as the “problem” population only allows Americans to procrastinate finding solutions to correct bad policies that stifle economic and social growth nationwide.
Immigrants = American Prosperity
America’s remarkable historical economic and social prosperity is rooted in its immigrant foundations. In large part, those who came to America were self-selected; the nation’s exceptionalism turned on the determination and ingenuity of a diverse group of new Americans. Even though the country’s sentiment towards specific immigrant populations at any given time has fluctuated wildly, aggregate prosperity in America has remained constant.
A March 2017 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the short and long-term effects of migration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries conclusively finds that “locations with more historical immigration today have higher incomes, less poverty, less unemployment, higher rates of urbanization, and greater educational attainment.” If history is any indication — and it almost always is — we will continue to need immigrants to further our economic and social successes as a nation.
A turning point often cited by critics of progressive immigration policy — and a poignant snapshot of immigration policy — was the 1942 Bracero program. The Bracero program allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the U.S. to work on short-term labor contracts, because many growers were afraid that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs.
Unexpectedly, half of the immigrants who entered the United States over the course of the next 30 years were from Latin America and Mexico, resulting in an enormous demographic change in America. Finally, after years of contentious debate surrounding the Bracero program and the remaining illegal braceros in the United States, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized the vast majority of the workers who remained on American soil, cementing the country’s demographic changes.
What coincided with this influx of workers? The greatest economic expansion in any country — ever. Between 1982 and 1989, both immigration and economic prosperity were at an all-time high. Immigrants constituted 33 percent of the total U.S. population from 1970–80 and nearly 40 percent between 1980–90. Despite the inflow of “low-skilled” workers from Latin America during this time, federal spending on public housing and welfare decreased, and the poverty rate has fallen steadily since 1983.
Of course, correlation does not equal causation. But it would be obtuse to ignore such a significant part of the history of American prosperity following the largest and most contentious expansion of immigration. Immigration has helped buttress the achievements that make America exceptional throughout history, and will continue to do so moving forward.
We Need Immigrants
Contrary to what immigration critics vehemently assert, we need immigrants in America right now.
Countries with higher levels of immigration do better than those that close their borders. The United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada take in the most immigrants worldwide and have the strongest economies. By comparison, even historically wealthy countries such as Japan have been struggling for nearly a decade with a steadily declining workforce and an aging population because they do not accept immigrants. The ideal level and makeup of immigration is different for every country, but we can use market forces — bound by law — to determine what the best level of immigration should be.
It is similarly beyond factual dispute that we need low-skilled immigrants to fill jobs. Over the past 10 years, there’s been a marked decline in the rate of the American workforce participating in low-skilled jobs. Even with higher wages, better working conditions, and overtime pay, farmers report that Americans still don’t seek temporary jobs picking fruit; they want benefits and paid vacation time.
Finally, we need certain high-skilled workers to fill a growing shortage of skilled manufacturing workers, health-care providers, and professionals in STEM fields. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that there will be about 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs by 2018, with more than 50 percent of these in IT-related fields.
For example, 25 percent of our physicians and surgeons are foreign-born. It’s even higher for health-care workers, most of whom enter on H1B visas. With an estimated shortfall of 90,000 physicians by 2025, we will leave an already doctor-strapped rural America — the very states that voted for President Trump — without critical health-care providers.
The specifics of these immigration policies need work. We need to reform the process that low-skilled immigrants and employers use to cycle in and out of temporary jobs. We need to fill jobs more effectively, incentivize following the rules to avoid fraud and undercutting American workers, and protect both workers and the public. But just because our current immigration system is slow, inefficient, and often ineffective does not mean we should abandon or restrict immigration.
While extolling the virtues of a robust immigration system as a whole, we must also acknowledge the shortcomings of our own immigration policies. Plenty of these policies need reform — including better enforcement of the immigration laws currently on the books. But effective reforms require a pragmatic, historical review of the intertwining issues, impacts, populations, and intervening factors surrounding immigration.
There is a portion of the American population that does not want any — or any more — diversity in this country. While their voices should certainly get a hearing in the public discourse, they should not drown out the facts. And the fact is immigrants are an important part of American identity and integral to our economic and social success. To succumb to fear tactics unrooted in reality would be a grave disservice to the individuals who have helped propel American exceptionalism.
Kristie de Peña is the immigration policy counsel at the Niskanen Center.