IN TIMES OF economic trouble--and with gross domestic product (GDP) growth still below 2 percent in the United States, today surely qualifies--many Americans instinctively become more cautious about immigration. If we let in more workers, they fret, the newcomers will be a drain on the economy, dragging down wages and gobbling up services.
In fact, precisely the opposite is true. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a comprehensive report finding that immigration has an overall positive impact on economic growth. Moreover, while new immigrants may have a slight depressing effect on the wages of prior immigrants, they have small to no effects on wages and employment for the native-born population.
If we want our economy to grow, what America needs more than anything is workers. Domestic fertility rates are plummeting even as the boomers are rushing into retirement. The U.S. birth rate hit an all-time low in 2017:1.7 children per woman, well below the "replacement rate" of 2.1. At the same time, the number of immigrants entering the country has slowed considerably, thanks in part to the Great Recession of 2007-09. Not only do these trends put enormous pressure on the country's entitlement system, they are already causing a drag on the economy. And this problem will only get more serious in the decades to come. Unless the U.S. finds a way to welcome more foreigners, and quickly, it is headed for a demographic crisis.
The concerns are understandable--but if we use them to justify constricting immigration, we'll be doing a devastating disservice, not just to outsiders who want to start a life here, but to those of us who are already here.
THE CHANGING CHARACTER OF AMERICA'S IMMIGRATION
ANTI-IMMIGRATION POLITICIANS AND activists often paint a picture of America as a place where immigrants are pouring across our southern border, where the overall number of outsiders is exploding, and where illegals dominate the foreign-born population. The reality couldn't look more different. As fertility rates have crept downward in Mexico and Latin America, far fewer young people have been trying to enter the United States.
It's true that since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act began allowing family unification, the number of foreign-born people in the country has greatly expanded. As a share of the U.S. population, it rose from 4.7 percent in 1970 to over 13 percent in 2015. That is higher than it has been at any time since the early 20th century, when immigrants reached almost 15 percent. In 2015, more than a quarter of all immigrants living in the U.S. were of Mexican origin, four times as many as from any other country.
Yet the total volume of new immigrants has fallen off in the last few years. In the two decades from 1980 to 2000, the share of foreign-born residents in the U.S. nearly doubled, from 6.2 percent to 11.1 percent. In the next decade and a half, from 2000 to 2015, it rose only from 11.1 percent to 13.4 percent.