U.S. Immigration – A Little Perspective

A lot of claims are made about immigration, especially by those supportive of high rates of immigration into the U.S., no more so than recently.  “We are a nation of immigrants.”  “Our high tech industry needs the special skills that immigrants provide us.”  “Immigrants are ambitious and innovative; 25% of all small businesses are started by immigrants.”  “Immigration boosts our economy through diversity.”  And so on.

Are these claims true?  Do immigrants possess some sort of mystical economic powers lacking in the native-born American population?  Or are these claims mostly hyperbole designed to support some other agenda?

First of all, let’s look at the evidence.  The claim that “we need immigrants to have a viable, vibrant economy” is similar to the claim that “we need free trade in order to have a viable economy.”  Both statements fail the most basic test of logic.  If these statements were true, then it would be impossible for humankind to have a viable economy since we have no trade with or immigrants from other planets.  Think about it.  In order for such a statement to be valid, it has to hold true regardless of how big you draw the circle around any given group of people.

If immigration is critical to a vibrant economy, how does one explain that, of the five largest economies in the world, three rank near the bottom in terms of migration rate?  China, the largest economy in the world and ranking in the top seven percentile in terms of its rate of economic growth, ranks in the bottom half in terms of migration rate.  India, with the fourth largest and seventh fastest-growing economy in the world ranks 84th in terms of migration rate.  And Japan, with the fifth largest economy in the world (but among the slowest-growing economies in the world) ranks 86th in terms of migration rate, with a rate of zero per 1,000 people.  In fact, of the 222 nations on earth, 151 nations have a net migration rate of zero or less.  (Less indicating that they have a net outflow of people.)  Clearly, immigration is no factor at all in determining the health of an economy.  That’s not to say that there aren’t instances where immigrants do, in fact, provide some special skills that are needed by companies and other institutions, but to extrapolate that to mean that more is better simply doesn’t stand up to the data.

There has also been a recent trend in holding up Europe as a shining example of tolerance toward immigration while berating the U.S. for its efforts to reign it in.  If we are to believe the news reports, the European Union (EU) has welcomed an absolute tidal wave of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, while the U.S. deports and talks of building a wall.  Let’s look at the facts.  In 2014, approximately 284,000 “refugees” arrived in the EU, which has a population comparable in size to the U.S.  In 2015, that number exploded to 1.82 million.  In 2016, the EU began “closing the door” and the number of refugees fell back to below the 2014 level, for a total of about 2.3 million over the course of three years.

Compare that figure to the U.S. where over a million illegal immigrants have crossed our southern border year in and year out for decades, while the U.S. admitted legal immigrants at about the same rate – a million per year – for a net influx of two million immigrants per year for as long as most of us can remember.  The fact is that Europe’s rate of immigration is dwarfed by what the U.S. has accommodated for far, far longer.  Yet, we are to see the EU as a shining example of tolerance for immigrants while the U.S. is depicted as intolerant and bigoted?  Give me a break!

This is a good time to take a closer look at legal immigration into the U.S.  Here’s the State Department’s statistics on visas issued for the 2012 – 2016 time frame.  As you can see, the number of immigrant visas issued has grown by about 50% over the past four years to nearly 618,000.  But take a look at the “non-immigrant category,” which is visas issued for temporary stay.  These are running close to eleven million per year – 13 million when you include “B1/B2 Border Crossing Cards.”  That sounds alarming at first, but let’s take a look at what these are.  Here’s a listing of the non-immigrant visas, broken down by category.  (The data for 2016 isn’t available yet.)  The vast majority of non-immigrant visas are for temporary visits for  business and pleasure.  However, there are a couple of categories that we do need to be concerned about:  F and M visas for students, which totaled nearly 700,000 in 2015, and H visas for “temporary workers.”  We’ll come back to that.

Let’s take a look at where most of the people migrating to the U.S. originate.  In 2016, of the 617,752 immigrant visas issued, 249,000 were immigrants from Asia.  Most of these were people from China, the Philippines, Vietnam and India, in that order.  222,000 were from North America, predominantly Mexico, followed by the Dominican Republic.  Most of the remainder were from Africa, spread across most African countries.  If you’re interested, here’s the complete breakdown from the State Department.

As you can see, the vast majority of people who immigrated to the U.S. in 2016 came from rather poor nations.  So how are we to believe that they possess some kind of mystical economic powers, or come to the U.S. with skills and education that just can’t be found among native-born Americans?  When you look at all the facts, such claims are clearly nonsense.

The fact is that immigrants bring nothing more to the table than do native-born Americans.  They are just people – no different than the rest of us.  As such, in the final analysis, there is only one real effect of immigration, and that is to grow the population.  And if that is the only effect of immigration, then any discussions of the merits of immigration that don’t begin and end with questioning the wisdom of growing our population are ruses, meant to confuse us in the hope of advancing some other agenda.  Like what?  Like using population growth to prop up economic growth, to drive consumer demand, to suppress wages and to fatten corporate bottom lines, just to name a few.

Putting a halt to illegal immigration and deporting those who have already entered illegally is a no-brainer.  A country that doesn’t control its borders is no country at all.  The real question is whether our current rate of legal immigration is appropriate.  Do we need to be growing our population?  In light of the relationship between population density and declining per capita consumption and rising unemployment, do we really need more people?  In light of the seemingly insurmountable challenge posed by global warming, do we really need more carbon emitters?  Is it appropriate for the U.S. to function as a population relief valve for other overpopulated nations?  Or are we merely exacerbating all these problems?

The time has come to begin scaling back the rate of influx of immigrants.  But where do we begin?  Legal immigration is like a pipeline that the longer the tap stays open, the faster the flow becomes.  Believe it or not, the place to start is not by trying to close the tap, but by slowing the source that fills the pipeline.  What I’m saying is that we need to begin with a hard look at student visas.  In my next post, we’ll take a close look at how student visas are driving all of the other classes of immigrants and the harm being done to our young people and our workers.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

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6 Responses to U.S. Immigration – A Little Perspective

  1. Brian E says:

    I think the birth rate in the US is 1.6, which is below the replacement rate. If this is accurate, we need immigrants to make up the difference. I think the argument is about the kinds and skills of immigrants we want.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      In 2015, the most recent year for which the CDC has published the statistics, the “total fertility rate” (not “birth rate”) was 1.843. This is below the “replacement rate” but above the rate at which the population continues to grow due to falling death rates. (The death rate rose last year, that may be only a temporary blip, which does happen occasionally.) Why do we need to “make up the difference?” The whole point of my book and of this blog is that the population is already beyond the point at which it has become a factor in driving up unemployment and poverty. I encourage you to read more on this site about the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption and unemployment.

      • Brian E says:

        I’ve read your blog off and on for some time and enjoy your perspective. I live in a rural area, so I don’t see the effects you describe relating to population density.

        If we reduce population, and thereby reduce density and increase consumption, is that increase greater than higher population and lower per capita consumption?

        There is a proposal in Congress to reduce legal immigration to 500,000 annually. I don’t have any particular number in mind, but I would like to see immigration pegged to gdp growth. Once we restore our economy to something closer to normal economic growth and real unemployment is reduced to around 5%, I think that would take some of the labor drag off capital expansion and more job growth.

        How do you respond to the argument that we need job growth (more working persons in an expanding economy) to avert the looming unfunded entitlement crisis. I understand the labor participation rate is low at this time, but if Trump’s economic policies are enacted, it’s not hard to imagine we’ll see labor shortages in some sectors.

        As I said I live in a rural area where agriculture is still an important part. Fruit and vegetable growers rely on immigrant labor– and because it’s seasonal, it can’t be filled by Americans. I assume you don’t have an issue with guest worker programs?

      • Pete Murphy says:

        First of all, I’ll address the question you raised in the 2nd paragraph of your reply. If we were to reduce our population and thereby increase per capita consumption, the increase in total consumption would not be as much as if we were to increase the population. However, per capita employment would be higher in the first case than it would in the 2nd case.

        Here’s a real-life example of what I’m talking about. With a population density ten times that of the United States, the per capita consumption of dwelling space in Japan is only about 30% of the U.S. They live in tiny homes, not because they can’t afford anything bigger, but because there is simply no room for bigger homes. This means that per capita employment in home-building is only about 30% of that in the U.S. But, at the same time, their total consumption of dwelling space is about three times what it would be if their population density was the same as in the U.S.

        At the point where the population density effect begins to manifest itself – where overcrowding begins to interfere with the ability to consume products – there is a divergence of interests that takes place. If you’re a home builder, it’s in your best interest to see the population grow indefinitely, because the total consumption of dwelling space will continue to grow. But, if you’re a consumer of dwelling space or a worker in the home-building industry, it’s in your best interest to see population growth halted so that you can continue to enjoy living in a bigger house or so that you will have fewer workers competing for your job. I think we can actually see this divergence of interests actually playing out in the real world today. Corporations want more, more, more. Individual citizens are saying, “enough, already!”

        Regarding the question about the need for population growth to fund programs like social security, it is a problem, but consider this: It’s absolutely impossible for population growth to go on forever. So the problem must be dealt with at some point. It would be much easier to address now than if we were to wait until the population has exploded to the point where it’s no longer sustainable. Exactly how to do that is beyond my scope.

        I’m OK with guest worker programs, but only when our own labor supply is exhausted. I don’t see us being anywhere near that level yet.

        Thanks for your great questions and reasoned comments, Brian.

  2. Brian E says:

    As to immigrants starting small businesses, my small town has Mexican shops springing up all over, plus the Vietnamese nail salons and specialty ethnic restaurants. So they do start businesses.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Absolutely. They do start businesses. But they don’t start businesses at any greater rate than the population as a whole. Using this as a justification for immigration – that our native-born population isn’t innovative enough to start businesses, is totally bogus.

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