Falling For Nativist Myths Will Be Injurious to America
Spurning immigrants when fertility rates are plummeting will mean less wealth and more misery for Americans
The commentary below is a lightly edited transcript of a presentation by demographer and sociologist Jack Goldstone at the May 17 Mercatus Center webinar “If Nativists Have Their Way.” Goldstone, the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel, Jr. Chair Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, discussed the demographic impact of nativist policies at a time that fertility rates around the world, particularly the West and America, are declining.
Also speaking that day were Michael Clemens, director of migration, displacement and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development, and Chandran Kukathas, Dean of Political Science at the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University, who discussed the impact of nativist policies on the political rights and liberties of Western citizens. Here is an edited transcript of Clemens’ remarks and of Kukathas’ remarks.
You can watch the entire May 17 panel discussion here, including a substantive question-and-answer session that begins around the 62-minute mark.
Nativists believe that slashing or stopping immigration will Make American Great Again. Mass immigration, they claim, has diminished wealth and opportunities for natives and left them worse off. It’s time to put Americans First and protect the country from immigrants.
But this line of thinking is both backward and baseless, starting with the claim that America has experienced anything resembling mass immigration.
Let’s look at the facts about that particular claim, other nativist myths and then examine what cutting back immigration will actually do to America and Americans’ well being. (Spoiler alert: The country will be much worse off, economically, socially, culturally.)
Myth # 1: America Has Experienced Mass Immigration
Chaotic scenes of Central Americans fleeing drought and deprivation in their home countries and flocking en masse to the Southern border can no doubt leave the impression that foreigners are deluging America. But such scenes are mainly a function of America’s failure to quickly process asylum applications and build adequate boarding facilities—not because the sheer numbers of immigrants are out of line with what America has historically handled. Would-be immigrants are now being crammed in temporary housing facilities or crude cramps along the border, all of which makes for terrible optics. But it represents not a migrant crisis but a humanitarian one.
Consider the numbers:
From 1956 to 1999, the U.S. annually admitted legal immigrants that were roughly 0.2% of its existing resident population each year. From 2000 to 2019, that number rose slightly to 0.34% before returning to 0.2% in 2020 and 2021. This is a much lower volume than the U.S. absorbed in the early 20th Century when it averaged over 1% per year from 1900 to 1914 before tapering down to 0.5% in 1920-24. It is also less than half of what most other large democracies are currently absorbing given that the net migration rate in Austria, Germany, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Chile and Norway is 0.6% each year or higher. Indeed, from 2015-2020, Ireland, Singapore, Cyprus, Belgium, Colombia, Sweden, the U.K., New Zealand, Peru and Estonia all had higher net migration levels than the United States.
For the past many decades now, the alleged period of mass immigration, U.S. immigration rates have been high neither by America’s own historical standards nor when compared to other large democracies around the world. In fact, U.S. immigration rates have been relatively low—so that the number of native-born Americans is still 86.5% of the total population. At the current rate of net migration, it would take another 40 years for the U.S. to reach an immigrant population of 25%, which is below the level already reached today in Australia and Switzerland.
Myth #2: The Border Is Not Being Sufficiently Controlled Because Democrats Like Open Borders
There is a perception out there that the border is out of control and the country just lets any undocumented immigrant waltz in, no questions asked. The reality is that successive administrations—both Democrat and Republican—have pumped vast and increasing amounts of resources into enhanced border security. From 2001 to 2021, the annual the budget of the U.S. Border Patrol has increased almost five-fold, from $1.1 to 4.9 billion. The number of border crossers being apprehended and returned to their country of origin is extremely high. In 2019, border apprehensions spiked to a whopping one million. That year, Central American migrants rushed north out of a fear that President Trump was about to close the border. But setting that year aside, between 2009-2020, about 500,000 to 600,000 border crossers were apprehended every year. While some of these folks were allowed to stay while their asylum claims were evaluated, 300,000 to 400,000 were speedily deported back to their country every year. Nor has this process been partisan. More people were apprehended and deported almost every year of the Obama presidency than in each year of the Trump presidency.
Myth #3: Immigrants Have Too Many Children
For many years, it was true that fertility rates among immigrants were higher than among native-born Americans. However, that stopped being true about 12 years ago when immigrant fertility rates began to rapidly converge with those of native-born Americans. In 2010, immigrant birth rates were over one-third higher than that of the native-born; by 2019 it was only one-sixth higher. More strikingly, fertility rates are now falling faster among immigrants than the native-born.
More importantly, total American births remain among the lowest in history. Although there was a slight upward tick in U.S. births in 2021, this was mainly a recovery following the exceptionally sharp drop in 2020. Overall, births remain well below those required to sustain the U.S. population. In fact, all major ethnic groups in the U.S. now have below replacement fertility. In 2021, according to the latest U.S. data, the total fertility rate for all American women was only 1.66, far below the 2.1 children per woman required to maintain a stable population. Without immigration, given the plummeting fertility of all those living in America today, immigrant and native-born, the population of America will soon start shrinking.
Myth #4: Immigrants Are Replacing White Americans in Their “Own” Country
Few false statements have been more pernicious than this one. It is the basis for the Great Replacement Theory, the notion that whites will be reduced to a plurality in the country and the various minorities together will be a majority. Yet this “minority majority” idea rests on how one interprets a single, odd category developed by the U.S. Census. The Census asks people to identify themselves in regard to race as “White,” “Black,” “Asian,” “Native American,” or “Pacific Islander.” The Census then asks people in a separate question if they identify their ethnicity as of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.” The latter is a useful question when determining how many native Spanish or Portuguese speakers are in the U.S. But it is really useless in addressing the issue of race.
Is an American family who comes from Spain not of European white racial background? What about immigrants from Cuba, or from other parts of Latin America who consider themselves to be “white?” In fact, the vast majority of Americans of Hispanic background self-identify as white including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But the census has combined its ethnic and racial categories to create the artificial and misleading category of “Non-Hispanic White,” which separates whites from non-Spanish/Portuguese speaking regions from the rest. In this odd category, white Christian immigrants from Lebanon, Armenia and South Africa are counted as “non-Hispanic Whites,” while white Christian Immigrants from Brazil and Argentina (85% white) and Chile (89% white) are considered “Hispanics.”
According to Census projections, if we count only non-Hispanic whites as “whites,” then this group—which makes up 61.3% of the U.S. population today—will decline to 44.3% by 2060. This has led to the anxiety that America will become a “minority-majority” nation by 2060. But in fact, if we count all those who identify themselves on the Census as “white”—whether Hispanic or not—as “white Americans,” then this group will still be 68% of all in 2060, larger than it is today. (See Table 4.1 of the linked book.)
It is quite true that there is an ongoing debate, often misinformed, about minorities in the United States. Muslims, for example, are now estimated to be just over 1.1% of all Americans—a far lower number than most Americans realize. It is now Asians from China and India, not Mexicans, who constitute the largest group of new American immigrants. And of course over the course of American history, at various times Germans, Chinese, African-Americans, Italians, and Irish were considered “undesirable” immigrants who could not become “real” Americans. What has made America great, however, has been its ability to turn people from all over the world, from all races, ethnicities, and religions, into “real Americans”—who contribute to its economy, fight in its armies, and educate their children to believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world.
If there is a threat to the future economy and prosperity of the United States, it is now likely to come from the rapid aging and decline of the U.S. workforce. For that threat, immigration offers one tool to reduce its consequences.
America’s Future in a Zero Immigration Scenario
Let’s look at the heartland—Greene County Iowa. Greene County—like much of rural America —is sinking into a demographic hole. From more than 15,500 residents after World War II, it had an estimated 8,717 last year. It loses about 100 people every year. Greene County has several well-known companies that proudly produce “Made in America” items. But they have dozens of unfilled job openings. Meanwhile, schools have closed and empty houses are crumbling. Deaths have outpaced births for so long that the local hospital stopped delivering babies. With the population rapidly aging and young people leaving for bigger cities, there is no one around to maintain people’s homes, take them to the doctor, keep up the streets and gardens, or take care of the elderly. Greene County, like many places in rural America, is trying to get more immigrants. Otherwise the town will wither, and its aging residents will die unattended, alone, without the care or services they need to lead a decent life.
Greene County is not alone. In the United States as a whole, due to better life expectancies and the aging of the baby boom generation, the number of 65-year-plus Americans is expected to nearly double by 2060, while the number of 85-plus is expected to triple. That means lots of people will need assistance to get around, take care of their homes, and in nursing homes or in their own homes. However, the Census Bureau also projects that the number of Americans who could do these kinds of jobs in health care and elder services—i.e. the working age population from 18 to 44 years—will grow hardly at all, increasing by only 10% by 2060. And that prediction assumes that net immigration remains at just over 1 million per year, not fall to half of that as it has done in the last two years.
The bottom-line is that in 2060, there will be 40 million more Americans who are 65 and older, and 12 million more who are 85 and older. But there will be maybe 10 million more Americans aged 18 to 44 than there are today—certainly not enough to keep the economy growing while taking care of the elderly. Without immigration, American seniors will face a bleak future of having to move en masse to poorly staffed and underfunded nursing homes or being left to die unattended in their homes.
To be sure, immigration is not a magic bullet that’ll solve all these problems. America will get older, no matter what happens. But immigration can have a huge impact on the number of workers available to grow America’s economy and fill jobs in labor-intensive sectors like health care, home care, and other services.
Along with several colleagues at George Mason, the University of Utah, and the University of California, I created scenarios for America’s economy over the next 40 years, with varying levels of immigration. The results were stark: A zero-immigration economy has negative economic outcomes for all Americans. Here are some of the key findings:
The ratio of seniors to working age population will double from 25 seniors per hundred to 50 per hundred. But with immigration just 50% higher than it was in 2018, it grows only to 30-35 seniors per hundred people of working age.
GDP will grow to $32 trillion by 2060. But with the higher immigration scenario, GDP will grow to $53 trillion. If, instead of maintaining the current rate of immigration, we go to zero immigration, by 2060 per capita GDP would be 5% lower; but the higher rate of immigration would produce per capita that is 5% higher.
The Social Security trust fund deficit will be twice as high under zero immigration as under the high immigration scenario—meaning benefit cuts or tax increases would be twice as large.
In sum, shifting to zero immigration imposes a heavy price on Americans, namely, a much smaller economy, lower per capita income, and either much higher tax increases or much lower Social Security benefits. By contrast, higher immigration levels would produce a huge boost to America’s economy, potentially almost doubling the GDP and raising per capita GDP by 10% relative to a zero-immigration scenario.
Halting immigration, restrictionists believe, will return America to some glorious past. But that is simply misty-eyed nostalgia divorced from facts. America in the 1960s was a high-immigration, youthful society with a fast-growing labor force fueling economic growth. America from 2020 to 2060 is going to be an older, slower-growing economy—an unavoidable consequence of fertility falling from over 3.0 to just 1.66 children per woman and life expectancy increasing by almost 10 years. These changes cannot be reversed because they are global trends. Even in India and Mexico, fertility has fallen below replacement.
However, America has the great advantage of being a place where the most talented, ambitious, entrepreneurial and creative people want to live. So we can have more workers, more growth, and more people to pay taxes and provide care for seniors if we maintain our current—or somewhat higher—levels of immigration.
Historically, America has been made great by accepting immigrants and blending them into American society. Shutting off the future flow of immigrants would create a very different future, one not at all like America’s great past, but, rather, one of greater poverty, loneliness, and misery.
That is not a future that most Americans would choose.
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