Immigration

How it's affecting us

Not every immigrant becomes an entrepreneur; a man who pushed a hand plow in a Mexican village will probably pick vegetables or wash dishes if he comes to the United States. The more temporary the visit, the more likely the immigrant is merely to sell his unskilled labor, rather than look for a special niche. Economists distinguish such "sojourner" behavior from the attitude of the true immigrant. It typified many Italian sojourners in the United States eighty years ago and French-Canadians in New England until several decades ago, and probably typifies most illegal immigrants from Mexico in recent years.

Still, there is evidence beyond the anecdotal about the economic benefits immigration can bring to the new homeland. The Urban Institute, which has been conducting a study of the California economy in the 1970s, recently released its preliminary findings:

During the 1970s, when Southern California received more immigrants than any other part of the country, it also created jobs faster than any other, and its per capita income increased by 25 percent, also higher than the norm. Immigration was far from the only factor in these increases, the study reported; but, it said, the findings suggest, "at least at the aggregate level, that large-scale immigration did not depress, and perhaps increased, per capita income in the state"—that is, it did not divide the pie. On balance, the study said, the economic benefits to the region—results of the new human energy, the entrepreneurship, the adaptability— outweighed the costs, which primarily came from the immigrants' use of public services, such as hospitals and schools.

Although immigration is a divisive issue in Miami, almost no one disputes the economic bonus the Cuban community now represents. The first to flee Castro were mainly professionals and businessmen, who soon repeated their success here. The second and third waves were less select, more like America's other immigrants; the first-wave Cubans grumbled that those who had lived under communism had lost their drive. Still, they were absorbed into Little Havana, where they opened shops and restaurants and kept the town alive. Miami's Cuban population has helped make it the entrepot for Latin American trade, to the occasional sorrow of the Drug Enforcement Administration, but to the satisfaction of financiers.

Immigrants eagerly join the American race to get ahead. According to Barry Chiswick, of the University of Illinois, the sons and daughters of immigrants earn 5 to 10 percent more than others of the same age and educational level whose parents were native-born. The immigrants themselves, compared with native-born people of the same race and with the same amount of schooling, start out at a big earnings disadvantage. But, in a matter of years, even the first generation catches up with and then passes the native-born. This "earnings crossover" occurs after fifteen years for Mexican immigrants and after eleven for black immigrants. According to Thomas Sowell, a conservative black scholar, second-generation black-skinned West Indians in the United States have a higher average income than native-born white Americans.

Those opposed to immigration respond to these tales of success with three objections.

The first is demographic. One by one, immigrants may add to the national wealth, but collectively they frustrate efforts to limit America's population. Arguments about the ultimate "carrying capacity" of America's farmland, water supply, and other natural resources have been muted in the past decade, as American fertility rates have fallen. But many who are concerned about population growth naturally believe that each new immigrant puts ecological equilibrium that much further out of reach.

Those who advance this case often claim that immigration now accounts for half the total increase in the U.S. population. That is almost certainly not true. During the 1970s, the American population grew by less than one percent a year. The roughly 4 million legal immigrants admitted during that decade accounted for 21 percent of the growth. In comparison, the population grew by 2 percent per year from 1900 to 1910, and immigrants accounted for 40 percent of the increase.

If legal and illegal immigration combined did, as many environmentalists assert, account for half the increase in the 1970s, then there must have been more illegal than legal immigrants during that period. No one familiar with the subject believes that so many came. Lawrence Fuchs is a professor at Brandeis University who was executive director of the staff of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, the government body that in 1981 recommended changes in immigration law. The Census Bureau has estimated, he says, that in 1978 between 3.5 million and 6 million illegal immigrants were present in the U.S. Fuchs says, "Since we know that some of those have been coming since long before 1970, and since we also know that a large proportion of them are persons who go back and forth and are definitely not permanent residents, it is clearly fallacious to assert a number such as 50 percent without carefully qualifying it."

The demographic argument cannot be dismissed. But if immigrants bring adaptability to an economy, they may thereby increase the chances of finding new ways to use and conserve resources. Environmental concern means that we must strike a balance between two competing virtues: a sustainable population. and the invigorating effects of immigration. Too many of the environmental activists sound as if immigration is an unrelieved evil.

The second objection concerns international equity, even morality. It starts with the premise that immigration is a naturally selective process. Precisely because immigrants are so industrious, it is argued, the United States should not be skimming them from the poor nations of the world. Roger Conner, the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told a congressional committee in 1981 that the 808,000 legal immigrants and refugees admitted the previous year represented one five-thousandth of the population of the world. "Out of 5,000 impoverished people, we took one, taking the brightest, most able, most energetic, the best organized," he said. "We are taking the cream of each social class by the standards of their society...."We are taking the most energetic and talented."

In a human family of great riches and greater deprivation, a country as comfortable as the United States has an obligation to help. But of the varied ways in which America might advance the interests of poor countries, closing the door on their people seems one of the least effective, direct, or fair.

"We never heard this argument from experts in economic development or from the developing countries themselves," says Lawrence Fuchs. "We only heard it from Americans who oppose immigration."

Third, many people object to immigration because of the Americans it hurts. Overall, the nation might gain from immigration, they concede. But the benefits go to the most comfortable Americans, and the costs are absorbed by the least powerful and privileged.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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