Education gap lurks as ticking time bomb in ongoing US border crisis

By Steven A. Camarota on March 31, 2024

New York Post, March 31, 2024

Much of the discussion of the ongoing border crisis focuses on crime, drug importation and human trafficking.

Important as these issues are, however, they should not distract from how the influx is driving up the total size of the immigrant population, legal and illegal, to a level never before seen.

It’s also contributing to a significant decline in new arrivals’ education level.

This decline has implications for workers, taxpayers and our ability to assimilate and integrate so many people.

Each month the government collects the Current Population Survey, primarily to measure employment. The household survey, as it’s often called, shows something extraordinary is happening.

Since President Biden took office, the nation’s foreign-born population grew from 45 million in January 2021 to 51.4 million in February of this year — a 6.4 million increase and new record high.

The foreign born has never grown this much this fast.

At 15.5%, the foreign-born share of the US population is the highest in American history, surpassing the record set in 1890 of 14.8% during the so-called Great Wave of immigration.

My colleague Karen Zeigler and I estimate 3.7 million of the 6.4 million increase under Biden is from new illegal immigrants settling in the country.

These numbers are net increases, not the numbers of new arrivals.

The number of newcomers is much larger but is offset by those who return home or die each year among the existing population.

These numbers also don’t consider those the survey misses. But even on their own terms the numbers are enormous.

Besides the disregard for the rule of law the illegal influx represents, another consequence is the dramatic decline in new immigrants’ educational level.

Partly because they don’t have to meet the same criteria as legal immigrants and partly because of the low average human capital in the countries from which most come, illegal immigrants tend to be much less educated than legal immigrants.

But the decline in education levels to some extent seems to have begun before the current border crisis, and it’s not clear why.

Of adult immigrants who said they came to America in the past two years, 41% had at least a bachelor’s degree, down from 55% of new arrivals as recently as 2018.

The share of newcomers with no more than a high-school education increased from 29% in 2018 to 44% in 2024.

Decades of research show education level is a key determinant of one’s occupation, income, tax payments and propensity to use welfare.

Lower income

Not surprisingly, less-educated immigrants tend to be a large fiscal burden not because they are lazy and don’t work but because they earn modest wages and pay relatively little in taxes, even when paid on the books.

Their lower incomes also mean they — or more often their US-born dependent children — can qualify for welfare programs.

The arrival of so many relatively unskilled immigrants also means a great deal more job competition for less-educated Americans who are already the poorest workers.

The effect of declining education can also have an impact over generations.

One of the best predictors of whether people graduate from high school or go to college is whether their parents did.

The decline in immigrant education almost certainly will have some effect on how well the second generation does.

The current scale of immigration (legal and illegal) into the United States is creating significant challenges across a host of issue areas, from housing and schools to the workplace and health care.

It also has the potential to overwhelm the assimilation process.

The precipitous decline in the educational level of new immigrants compounds the challenges, both short and long term.

Of course, none of this is inevitable.

We can enforce the law, and we can admit fewer immigrants and put more emphasis on skills when selecting them.

Creating an immigration system that better serves the country is certainly possible.