Immigration

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
December 2016

Economic, political, and social conditions are better in some nations than in others. Since we don’t get to choose which country we’re born in, fairness requires some opportunity for migration, particularly for the least well-off. Migration also can be a source of economic advance for recipient countries, with immigrants bringing new energy, ideas, and skills.

On the other hand, migration can pose challenges for recipient countries, from maintaining order and safety to protecting cultural norms and community to ensuring jobs and wages for native-born citizens. And sending nations can suffer from “brain drain” if their most talented depart.

What impact has immigration had on America and Americans? What is our immigration policy? How might we change it going forward?

MIGRATION TO THE US AND OTHER COUNTRIES

In 2015, 244 million people, about 3.5% of the world’s population, lived outside their country of birth.1 If immigrants were a country, it would be the fifth largest.

Major source nations include India (16 million), Mexico (12 million), China (10 million), the Philippines (5 million), and Syria (5 million). The chief recipients are the world’s affluent countries, where about 70% of migrants go.2

As figure 1 shows, there’s been a gradual rise in migration since 1980.

Figure 1. Foreign-born share worldwide
Data source: Michael Dimock, “Leaving Home,” Pew Research Center, 2016, using United Nations data.

America has long been a land of immigrants. The US population consists almost entirely of the descendants of immigrants; Native Americans are only about 1%. And the US is home to more current migrants than any other country — about 45 million. The largest source countries are Mexico (12 million), China (2.5 million), and India (2 million).

Figure 2 shows the foreign-born share of the US population since the mid-1800s. The immigrant share peaked in the early 1900s, then fell sharply, then rose again beginning in the 1970s. The level today, around 13% of the population, is close to the peak of a century ago.

Figure 2. Foreign-born share in the US
Includes both legal and illegal immigrants. Data source: Census Bureau.

While America hosts the largest number of foreign-born persons, our foreign-born population share is only middle-of-the-pack among the world’s rich nations, as figure 3 shows.

Figure 3. Foreign-born share in rich nations
Data source: OECD.

HISTORY OF US IMMIGRATION POLICY

America’s immigration policy was minimally restrictive in the 1800s and early 1900s. It turned heavily restrictive from 1921 to 1965. Since 1965 it has been moderately restrictive. These shifts in policy are the main cause of the over-time changes in immigration flows we see in figure 2 above.3

Prior to the 1920s there were few limits on immigration into the US. Exceptions included an 1882 law limiting immigration from China (completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 reduced the need for Chinese laborers), an 1892 law barring immigrants with severe diseases, and a 1917 literacy requirement for immigrants over age 16.

By the early 1900s, immigrants to the United States increasingly were coming from southern and eastern Europe. Many were Catholic or Jewish. Given religious intolerance and stereotypes about laziness, these changes led to growing public discomfort with immigration. World War I and the 1917 Russian revolution added a worry about the potential spread of communism. In 1921, congress passed the Quota Law, profoundly altering America’s immigration policy. Together with amendments in 1924 and 1929, the Quota Law limited the annual number of immigrants from each country to 3% of the persons of that nationality currently in the US. The aim was to reduce the volume of immigration and freeze its existing ethnic mix.

Over the following four decades there was only one noteworthy exception to the Quota Law’s restrictionist orientation. From the 1940s to the mid-1960s, the Bracero Program allowed up to 500,000 Mexicans to enter the US each year as temporary guest workers.

In 1965, the Immigration Act reoriented US immigration policy. It ended the national origins system, though it retained an upper limit on the total number of legal immigrants. It instituted a system for ranking immigration applicants, with preference given first to family reunification and second to persons with needed skills. The new law also ended the guest worker arrangement with Mexico and established a cap on the number of immigrants from the Western hemisphere (later changed to a cap per country).

While the 1965 law remains the basis of our immigration policy policy today, there were two important amendments in the 1980s. First, the 1980 Refugee Act exempted political refugees from the numeric limit. The number of refugees permitted to enter is decided each year by the president and congress. Second, illegal immigration into the US increased steadily after the guest worker program with Mexico was ended in 1965. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act offered a path to citizenship (amnesty) for illegal immigrants living in the US since 1982 but also attempted to deter further illegal immigration by imposing stiff penalties on businesses caught employing undocumented workers.

The 1986 act was the last major change to US immigration law. In 2006 and 2007 the Bush administration tried to pass immigration reform bills proposing something similar to the 1986 law — a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been here for several years coupled with stronger penalties on businesses that employ illegals. Each bill passed in one body of congress but failed to pass in the other.4

In 2012 and 2014, the Obama administration issued executive actions shielding from deportation persons who were brought to the United States illegally as children and undocumented parents of US citizens and permanent residents. However, these were blocked by the courts in 2016.

IMMIGRATION’S EFFECTS

Much of the debate about immigration has to do with its economic consequences. As consumers, Americans benefit from low-skilled immigrants via reduced cost of housing construction and of various services. But do low-skilled immigrants reduce jobs and wages for low-skilled native-born Americans? Social scientists disagree about the answer to this question. Some conclude that they do reduce employment and/or wages, and that the impact is large.5 Others have found that they do, but just a little.6 Some recent analyses conclude that there is no such impact.7

Do immigrants cost more in government services and transfers than they pay in taxes? Here there is more agreement among researchers. Just as among native-born Americans, immigrants with low education are a net minus and those with high education are a net plus.8

How does immigration affect adherence to our country’s traditional values? One view is that growing diversity of ethnicity, cultures, and religions inevitably brings a dilution of such values. The composition of immigration may also matter. In the early 1900s, more than 90% of immigrants came from Europe, whereas now only about 10% do. However, the evidence suggests that this worry may be misplaced. Today’s immigrants, on average, are more likely to be employed, less likely to divorce, and attend church more frequently than native-born Americans.9

A related concern is about immigration’s impact on community. A century ago each immigrant group was so small (Polish Jews, Italian Catholics, etc.) that it had little hope of preserving its culture for more than a generation or two. And a fluid economy provided lots of opportunity for upward mobility. Immigrants therefore tended to assimilate by the second or third generation — speaking English, marrying outside the group, integrating into schools, employment, occupation, and residential location. They became part of the broader American community rather than maintaining separate communities of their own.

The chief worry is about Mexicans and other Latinos, who account for a large share of the past generation’s immigrants. The size and persistence of the influx of Latino migrants exceeds that of previous immigrant groups, and economic circumstances faced by people with limited skills may be more challenging today than in the past.10 As it turns out, however, the data indicate that the children of new immigrants, including Latinos, are assimilating just as rapidly and effectively as their predecessors.11

At the same time, we could be doing better at facilitating integration. The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) regularly assesses policies and immigrants’ outcomes in the world’s rich nations.12 As figure 4 shows, America’s policies are only moderately effective relative to those of the best performers.

Figure 4. Policy facilitation of immigrant integration
Average of 167 scores in eight policy areas. Labor market mobility: Do legally-resident foreign citizens have comparable workers’ rights and opportunities like nationals to access jobs and improve their skills? Family reunification: Do legally-resident foreign citizens have a facilitated right to reunite in their families? Education: Are the children of immigrants encouraged to achieve and develop in school like the children of nationals? Political participation: Do legally-resident foreign citizens have comparable opportunities as nationals to participate in political life? Permanent residence: Do temporary legal residents have facilitated access to a long-term residence permit? Access to nationality: Are legal immigrants encouraged to naturalize and are their children born in the country entitled to become full citizens? Anti-discrimination: Do all residents have effective legal protection from racial, ethnic, religious, and nationality discrimination in all areas of life? Health: Is the health system responsive to immigrants’ needs? Data source: Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), mipex.eu.

OPTIONS FOR POLICY CHANGE

One option for the United States is to continue with its current policy. In some respects the immigration policy in place since the mid-1960s has worked reasonably well. As noted earlier, the best available evidence suggests that the past half century’s immigrants have tended to adhere more to traditional American values than their US-born counterparts do and that they may have had little or no adverse impact on employment or wages of low-skilled native-born workers. Like low-skilled natives, low-skilled immigrants tend to use more in government services than they pay in taxes, but they may more than offset this by helping to reduce the price of houses and other goods and services. The second and third generation of the past half century’s immigrants have tended to assimilate just as thoroughly as their predecessors of a century ago. Finally, as figure 5 shows, illegal immigration, the source of much of the dislike of our existing policy, has been negative over the past decade. Unauthorized immigrants’ share of the US population is lower now than in 2007. Given these considerations, some will ask “Why change the policy?”

Figure 5. Illegal immigrants
Unauthorized foreign-born persons as a share of the population. Data sources: Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Overall Number of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrants Holds Steady Since 2009,” Pew Research Center, 2016; Douglas S. Massey, “The Great Decline in American Immigration?,” Pathways, 2012, using US Office of Immigration Statistics data; New York Times, using Pew Research Center data.

One argument in favor of change is that even if immigration’s effects on America’s economy and society have been muted, our policy approach corrodes tolerance and trust. As Christopher Jencks puts it, “The federal government’s policy of opposing illegal immigration while refusing to enforce laws against hiring illegal immigrants has had huge costs. It has exacerbated popular distrust of the federal government (…). It has also increased hostility to foreigners, especially Mexicans, who are all suspected of having entered the country illegally. To many Americans Washington’s failure to control illegal immigration, like its failure to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is just another example of how out of touch, duplicitous, and incompetent federal officials really are.”13

What policy changes could we make?

The most restrictive type of proposal is to reduce the volume of both legal and illegal immigration. A particularly draconian version of this would be a “zero immigration” policy.14 Some Americans might support this, but probably not enough for lawmakers to give it serious consideration. As figure 6 shows, only 30% of the public want to reduce the amount of legal immigration at all, much less to zero. This share probably would be even lower if Americans had a more accurate sense of immigrants’ prevalence. According to a 2014 survey, Americans think immigrants are 32% of the US population, when actually they’re about 13%.15

A more popular restrictionist approach is to clamp down on illegal immigration. Figure 6 shows that as of the most recent polling, about 60% of Americans support doing so. Interestingly, though, support for reducing illegal immigration has dropped over the past two decades.

Figure 6. Favor decreased immigration
Estimated share of US adults. Illegal immigration question: “How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement? America should take stronger measures to exclude illegal immigrants.” Response options: agree strongly, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, disagree strongly.” The chart shows the share responding agree strongly or agree. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series excludimm. Legal immigration question: “Should legal immigration into the United States be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?” The chart shows the share responding decreased, with don’t know responses excluded. Data source: Pew Research Center, “May 2015 Political Survey,” Final Topline, 2015.

How could we reduce illegal immigration? One strategy is to locate unauthorized immigrants and deport them. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the US. That would be a tall order. The number of deportations has risen sharply in recent decades, from an average of 20,000 per year during the Reagan administration to 400,000 per year during the Obama administration. Yet as figure 7 reveals, this represents a tiny fraction of the illegal immigrants in the country.

Figure 7. Immigrant deportations
Deported immigrants as a share of illegal immigrants. Data sources: The number of deportations (“removals”) is from Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, table 39. The number of illegal immigrants is from the Pew Research Center.

An alternative approach is to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country in the first place. Historically, our chief strategy for doing so has been to enact harsh penalties on employers caught hiring unauthorized immigrants, the idea being that if the economic incentive to come to the US is weakened, far fewer people will be willing to endure the significant risks entailed in crossing the border illegally. The 1986 immigration reform included such penalties, and various states, such as Arizona, have enacted others over the years. But employers strongly oppose them, so they are enforced with limited consistency and vigor. In a typical year, only 2,500 employers — about 3 out of every 10,000 — are investigated for violating immigration laws.16

Donald Trump’s signature pledge during the 2016 presidential campaign was to build a giant wall along the entire border with Mexico. Whether he will follow through with this, and whether it will work if he does, remains to be seen. Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona and Secretary of Homeland Security, once quipped “Show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.”17 Portions of the border already have been walled off over the past several decades, and money spent on border control activities has risen sharply since the mid-1980s. This has shifted the entry points for undocumented immigrants, but without altering the overall level. And paradoxically, it appears to have caused more Mexican immigrants who do enter the United States illegally to remain in the country, whereas previously such immigrants tended to circulate back and forth.18

Figure 8. Border patrol expenditures
Border patrol budget as a share of GDP. Data source: Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand, and Karen A. Pren, “Why Border Enforcement Backfired,” American Journal of Sociology, 2016, figure 1.

A different approach to reducing illegal immigration is to reinstate a guest worker program for migrants from Mexico and perhaps other countries.19 This would allow a specified number of people to enter the US to work for one to three years, as we did with Mexico from 1942 to 1964. We already have a “temporary work visa” program, but it allows in only 500,000 to 750,000 people each year.20 A significant expansion of this number might satisfy the wishes of employers, who want an abundant supply of low-wage workers, and of those who want a reduction in illegal immigration. But there are potential concerns: Would the logistics of forcing such a large number of guest workers to leave prove too difficult? And would it be good to have a large group of people in the country who have no political rights?

Another suggestion is for the United States to boost its efforts to assist Mexico’s economic development. Illegal immigration is driven mainly by the search for economic betterment, so improving economic conditions in source countries will tend to reduce it. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a good first step. It reduced the cost of importing products from Mexico into the United States and thereby encouraged creation of factories (“maquiladoras”) and businesses in Mexico. But China’s rise as a site for low-cost manufacturing, particularly after 2000, limited NAFTA’s benefits for Mexico. A more aggressive proposal is for something like a Marshall Plan for Mexico — massive financial assistance for infrastructure development, job creation, schools, and poverty alleviation.

Do we need significant policy change in order to achieve a reduction in illegal immigration? That’s no longer clear. As noted earlier, over the past decade the number of unauthorized immigrants and their share in the US population have decreased (figure 5). The initial spark was the 2008-09 economic crisis, but this trend has continued long past what we would expect if it were driven solely by the weakness of the American economy.

Some favor leaving the overall volume of legal immigration more or less intact but shifting its composition. Since the early 1990s the US has let in a total of roughly one million legal permanent (non-temporary-work-visa) immigrants per year. Family reunification accounts for about 65%, skills 15%, and refugees and other special categories the remainder.21 As figure 9 shows, the share of immigrants with even a high school degree has stalled in recent decades. One proposal is to prioritize skills rather than family reunification in the legal immigration system.22 That might give a boost to our economy and reduce the net cost of immigrants to taxpayers, though it isn’t clear how large the gain would be.

Figure 9. Immigrants with a high school degree or more
Share of foreign-born persons with a high school degree (including GED) or more. Includes illegal immigrants. Data sources: Census Bureau; Lawrence Mishel et al, The State of Working America, various editions, using Census Bureau data.

The chief argument against shifting toward an emphasis on immigrants’ likely economic contribution is that it might reduce opportunity for the most needy. The United States already is mediocre in its generosity toward migrants from less-affluent countries and toward refugees, as figure 10 suggests.

Figure 10. Orientation of immigration in favor of persons from developing countries and refugees
Scale from 0 to 1. The scoring takes into account the number of immigrants who are from developing countries and the number of refugees and asylum-seekers (persons who claim to be refugees but whose claim hasn’t yet been confirmed), relative to the country’s population and relative to its total number of immigrants. Data source: Center for Global Development, “Commitment to Development Index 2015,” cgdev.org.

Others favor greater openness in our approach to immigration rather than more restrictiveness or a change in composition. One proposal is for a path to citizenship for some or all of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States. A second is to halt deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US when they were children and those who are parents of US citizens and permanent residents.

A third is to take in more refugees. The United Nations estimates that 65 million people have been displaced from their homes by war or persecution as of 2015. Of these, 41 million were still living in their country of origin while 24 million were in another country.23 The most visible crisis is Syria’s. Since 2011, around 5 million Syrians have left because of that country’s civil war. Most are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. Germany has pledged to take 100,000, other European Union (EU) countries 30,000. The United States has agreed to accept only 10,000.24

Perhaps the most controversial proposal of all is for the US to adopt an “open immigration” approach. The moral argument in favor of doing so is straightforward: birth country is no less accidental than is birth location within a country, and it tends to be far more consequential. Freedom and equality of opportunity require the ability to choose where one lives.25 Opponents warn this could lead to overwhelming numbers of people moving from poor or politically repressive countries to rich democratic ones. Open immigration advocates point to the European Union’s experience with open borders. Skeptics feared an unmanageable flood of migrants from Romania, Poland, and other poor member countries to Germany, France, the UK, and other affluent ones. But it didn’t happen.26

Given the large Latino population already in the United States, however, things might play out differently if we were to open our borders to Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Nor does the EU experience tell us what would happen if rich countries were opened to immigration from the world’s poorest ones. In addition, while the economics of intra-EU immigration have proved manageable, the politics have been more problematic, with nationalist parties rising in popularity in nearly all western European nations.27

What are the prospects for immigration policy reform? Until recently, immigration was a less partisan issue than many others in American politics. Republicans were divided, with the base tending to want less immigration while the business community preferred more. Democrats, too, were conflicted, with some supporting immigration at or above the levels of recent decades while labor unions wanted reductions. These intraparty divisions might have created an opportunity for agreement on a significant shift in our immigration policy. Yet major reform efforts by presidents Bush (George W.) and Obama failed.

Since 2007, immigration has become more straightforwardly partisan, with Republicans favoring a restrictive approach and Democrats favoring greater protections and a path to citizenship for current illegal immigrants. That isn’t likely to increase the odds of reform.

SUMMARY

Around the world, about one in thirty persons are migrants, and this share has been rising in recent decades. A significant number of them, particularly those who are economic and political refugees, face difficulty in finding a host country or in successfully integrating into one.

After a restrictive period in the middle of the twentieth century, since 1965 America’s immigration policy has been fairly welcoming, and the immigrant share of the US population has returned to its previous high of a century ago. Compared to other rich nations, however, our foreign-born share, 13%, is only average.

Immigrants tend to benefit from migrating to the US, and native-born Americans tend to benefit as consumers. A potentially vulnerable group is low-skilled US-born workers, but social scientists have reached mixed conclusions about immigration’s impact on their employment and wages. The children of the past half century’s immigrants have been assimilating into American society in numbers and ways similar to their predecessors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Americans disagree about how, if at all, our current immigration policy should be changed, with proposals ranging from greater restrictiveness to heightened focus on immigrant skills to citizenship for existing unauthorized immigrants to increased openness. Illegal immigration has dominated political debate over the past decade, even though it has decreased significantly during this period.


  1. Michael Dimock, “Leaving Home,” Pew Research Center, 2016, using United Nations data. 
  2. Dimock, “Leaving Home.” 
  3. Douglas S. Massey, “The New Latino Underclass: Immigration Enforcement as a Race-Making Institution,” Tobin Project, 2010; Julia Preston, “The Truth About Mexican-Americans,” New York Review of Books, 2015. 
  4. Christopher Jencks, “The Immigration Charade,” New York Review of Books, 2007. 
  5. George J. Borjas, Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy, Princeton University Press, 1999; Borjas, “The Wage Impact of the Marielitos: A Reappraisal,” 2015. 
  6. David Card, “Is the New Immigration Really So Bad?,” 2005. 
  7. Giovanni Peri, “Does Immigration Hurt the Poor?,” Pathways, 2014. 
  8. James T. Smith and Barry Edmondston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, National Academies Press, 1997; Mary C. Waters and Marisa Gerstein Pineau, eds., The Integration of Immigrants into American Society, National Academies Press, 2015. 
  9. Steven A. Camarota, “The Employment Situation of Immigrants and Natives in the Fourth Quarter of 2015,” Center for Immigration Studies; Zhenchao Qian, “Divergent Paths of American Families,” US2010 Project, 2013; General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series attend. 
  10. Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Simon and Schuster, 2004; Reihan Salam, “Republicans Need a New Approach to Immigration,” National Review, 2016. 
  11. Waters and Pineau, eds., The Integration of Immigrants into American Society. 
  12. Özge Bilgili, Thomas Huddleston, and Anne-Linde Joki, “The Dynamics between Integration Policies and Outcomes: a Synthesis of the Literature,” 2015. 
  13. Jencks, “The Immigration Charade.” 
  14. Patrick J. Buchanan, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, Thomas Dunne, 2006. In campaigning for the presidency in 2016, Donald Trump argued for a “pause” (of unspecified duration) on all immigration. 
  15. Ipsos, “Perceptions Are Not Reality: Things the World Gets Wrong,” 2014. 
  16. Jencks, “The Immigration Charade”; Wayne Cornelius, “Why Immigrants Won’t Self-Deport,” Los Angeles Times, 2016. 
  17. Marc Lacey, “Arizona Officials, Fed Up with U.S. Efforts, Seek Donations to Build Border Fence,” New York Times, 2011. 
  18. Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand, and Karen A. Pren, “Why Border Enforcement Backfired,” American Journal of Sociology, 2016. 
  19. Michael A. Clemens and Lant Pritchett, “Temporary Work Visas: A Four-Way Win for the Middle Class, Low-Skill Workers, Border Security, and Migrants,” Center for Global Development, 2013. 
  20. American Immigration Council, “Employment-Based Visa Categories in the United States,” 2016. 
  21. Douglas S. Massey, “The Great Decline in American Immigration?,”“The Great Decline in American Immigration?,” Pathways, 2012; American Immigration Council, “How the United States Immigration System Works: A Fact Sheet”; Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. 
  22. Salam, “Republicans Need a New Approach to Immigration.” 
  23. Somini Sengupta, “Record 65 Million People Displaced by Global Conflicts, UN Says,” New York Times, 2016. 
  24. Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, “The Refugee Crisis: 9 Questions You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask,” Vox, 2015; Daniel Smilov, “The Argument Against Compassion: Europe and the Refugees,” openDemocracy, 2015; David Miliband, “How the U.S. Can Welcome Refugees,” New York Times, 2015. 
  25. Bryan Caplan and Vipul Naik, “A Radical Case for Open Borders,” 2014; Alex Tabarrok, “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders — Completely,” The Atlantic, 2015. 
  26. Douglas S. Massey, “Caution, NAFTA at Work: How Europe’s Trade Model Could Solve America’s Immigration Problem,” Pacific Standard, 2008. 
  27. “Europe’s Rising Far Right: A Guide to the Most Prominent Parties,” New York Times, 2016.