The Paradox of Immigration: Why Most Voters Only Focus When There Is a Crisis

Why 'Low-immigration, Pro-immigrant' is more than a slogan — it's a credo

By Andrew R. Arthur on October 28, 2020

In an October 6 post, I analyzed recent polling on immigration. That post was captioned "Immigration Affects the Issues Most Important to Voters: Survey shows it's fallen on their list of priorities — but shapes everything above it" for a reason: Most voters view immigration in a bubble, and only focus on it when there is a crisis (as in the run-up to the 2016 election). But immigration is actually a circle at the heart of a large Venn diagram of key issues — the economy, healthcare, and even policing. The body politic only realizes that, however, when it affects their communities and fellow Americans.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2020, President Trump "has placed less emphasis on immigration" despite the fact that it "dominated both his rise in politics and much of his first term as president." In a recent panel discussing the immigration positions of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I explained why: "I think that part of the reason why immigration isn't a big issue right now is that Trump has been a victim of his own success." And he has been, at least by his own metrics.

Apprehensions at the border are down, the administration is addressing legal immigration (but could do much more), and worksite enforcement has freed up jobs for American workers (citizens, nationals, and legal immigrants), in particular in minority and underprivileged communities. Border barriers are being erected to control the flow of migrants and stop the entry of drugs.

In a republic like ours, voters elect representatives to address problems. That is a feature, not a bug, for a self-governing people. Most of those problems are presented in graphic terms by the media (hardly a disinterested bunch these days), but the people also see them in their day-to-day lives. We avoid (or leave, if we can) blighted and mismanaged cities; we fret about long waits in emergency rooms; we worry that our children or neighbors will not find jobs, or that we cannot find them ourselves.

But say what you want about the American people and their shortcomings, as a whole, our hearts are good and we are a practical, but generous, people. We have forged a continental republic of diverse peoples and attempt (usually successfully) to both assimilate them to our civic values while embracing our differences.

If you want proof, look no further than the exterior of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress (LOC); it occupies a key place in our government, next to the Supreme Court and across the street from the Capitol. As the LOC's website states: "Thirty three ethnological heads ornament the keystones of the first-story windows. They were modeled on a collection related to different ethnic races, from Arab to Zulu, at the Smithsonian Institution."

That description soft-pedals those carvings (most pedestrians hardly notice them) on that 19th-century structure. They include "Turk", "Modern Egyptian (Hamite)", "Abyssinian", "Chinese", "Tibetan", and "Blonde European" (most of my forebears were European of one sort or another; none were blonde). We would no longer recognize them as separate races, however: We would say they are "American" if we saw them at work, school, or church.

Our inherent goodness tempered by practicality is best reflected when it comes to immigration. We laud our heritage as a "Nation of Immigrants" (to borrow from JFK), and a source of pride — in every sense of the word. We retell (usually with some degree of factual editing) the stories of our immigrant forebears, their struggles, and their triumphs. Sir Isaac Newton wrote: "If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants," and that more or less reflects our attitudes toward our immigrant ancestors. We are who we are because they were who they were: men and women who survived and achieved greatly.

For that reason, we embrace immigration — it reflects our past and points to our future. But again, we are a practical people. Although we are beneficent (Market Watch reported in 2019 that Americans have been "the most generous" of nationals of 128 countries over the past decade, giving $427.71 billion to charities in 2018), none of us wants to be played for suckers.

And although few (if any) in this country want to "pull the ladder up" on immigration, we also want to protect our fellow Americans, and in particular the poor and disadvantaged (hence, our emphasis on charitable giving).

This is the "paradox of immigration". We wholeheartedly embrace it, while at the same time are concerned about its deleterious effects on our communities and fellow Americans. We want immigrants who play by the rules, work hard, and provide for themselves and their families — without drawing down our social-safety net. But at the same time, we oppose those who game the system to enter illegally, or who pose a threat (economic or criminal) to our communities and underprivileged neighbors.

The economics of immigration is why, as I noted in my October 6 post, "an entire cottage industry has arisen on the" issue of whether immigrants are a net gain or loss to our economy. And the criminal threat posed by individual aliens is the reason why both the Obama and the Trump administrations have trumpeted the number of criminal aliens they have removed.

With respect to criminal aliens, politicos in sanctuary jurisdictions contend that they are protecting the immigrant community (as they have essentially done in Montgomery County, Md., Philadelphia, Pa., and the State of California, to name a few), eliding the fact that those policies solely protect criminals, and that immigrant communities themselves usually suffer the most from immigrant crime.

No serious observer would logically want more alien criminals in their communities (which is the reason I am confused as to why Trump has not made a bigger issue of Biden's promise to only deport aliens who have committed felonies in the United States and not including DUI), the reason vote-seekers focus on immigrants writ large when it comes to their short-sighted sanctuary policies.

With respect to economics, however, it is relatively easy to cut through the noise as it relates to immigration. As I noted in the October 6 post, the George W. Bush Center (which promotes immigration and contends that it is a "net plus"), admits:

Immigration changes factor prices — it lowers the wages of competing workers, while raising the return to capital and the wages of complementary workers.


Research suggests that previous immigrants suffer more of the adverse wage effects than do natives. Prior immigrants are more like current immigrants.

Research also suggests any negative wage effects are concentrated among low-skilled and not high-skilled workers. Perhaps that is because high-skilled U.S.-born workers are complementary to immigrants to a greater extent than native low-skilled workers, who hold jobs that require less education and fewer language skills.

In other words, immigration benefits you if you (or the immigrant) are well-off and educated, but not so much if you (or a legal immigrant already here) are struggling. Even illegal immigrants should logically see a wage boost themselves based on the comparative wealth of the United States, but at what cost?

My colleague Steven Camarota reported in February 2017 that 54 percent of adult aliens who had entered illegally or who had overstayed nonimmigrant visas had not completed high school, and an additional 25 percent had only a high school degree, placing them in direct competition with those American workers (again — citizens, nationals, and legal immigrants) who are on the margins of society.

As noted, Americans are a big-hearted people, and are (by and large) concerned about the welfare of their fellow Americans. Unregulated immigration would benefit most of them in the short run (because goods and services would be cheaper), but would they support it if they knew that poorer and less-educated Americans would suffer?

I believe the plain-spoken civil rights icon, Barbara Jordan — who was then the chairwoman of President Clinton's U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform — answered that question for the vast majority of Americans when she stated in 1995: "Immigration policy must protect U.S. workers against unfair competition from foreign workers, with an appropriately higher level of protection to the most vulnerable in our society."

Who were those "most vulnerable in our society"? She listed them in 1994: "[I]nner city youth, racial and ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants who have not yet adjusted to life in the U.S."

Respectfully, the economics — and economic consequences — of immigration have not changed in the past 25 years. Fair-minded Americans know that the people Jordan named, like the rest of us, do not want government handouts to ameliorate the economic disadvantages of unbridled immigration — they want good-paying jobs to support themselves and their families. Hence, the obfuscation from big business and immigration advocates on the economic costs of illegal immigration.

That said, limitations on immigration do not simply protect our communities from crime and the economic prospects of our fellow Americans. They protect our nation's dedication to immigration itself, as Jordan made clear, again in 1994:

This country has a problem. It is real. It is immediate. ... If we cannot control illegal immigration, we cannot sustain our national interest in legal immigration. Those who come here illegally, and those who hire them, will destroy the credibility of our immigration policies and their implementation. In the course of that, I fear, they will destroy our commitment to immigration itself.

I believe in immigration, as do all of my colleagues at the Center. It enriches our society, strengthens our institutions, and makes us a more vibrant nation. The place of immigration in the pantheon of our civic values must be cherished and respected. But that will only happen if it serves the interests — economic and humanitarian — of the American people, as Jordan underscored, which in turn will only happen if it is controlled.

The motto of the Center, written on our home page, is "Low-immigration, Pro-immigrant". Those words resolve the paradox of immigration: Only by controlling immigration, and eliminating its adverse effects while welcoming the newcomer, can we protect it. It is more than a slogan — it's a credo.

Topics: Politics