It’s Time for an Immigration Moratorium

By Jason Richwine on March 26, 2024, March 26, 2024

Editor’s Note: America is being attacked by a revolutionary regime intent on destroying the American way of life. This regime believes that a just society is based, not on individual merit, but on group quotas; hence we call this regime the “group quota regime.” Like all revolutionary regimes, the group quota regime must: 1. destroy the existing regime; 2. bring into being its desired regime; and 3. acquire the power necessary to achieve 1 and 2. We should understand each of the policies of the group quota regime as serving one or more of these purposes. Take open borders. It serves both to destroy the American way of life (by introducing millions of people with cultures different from our own) and to provide power to the group quota regime (through the addition of more Democrat voters).

Jason Richwine, a leading expert at the Center for Immigration Studies, surveys the consequences of open borders and asks whether a complete reversal of current policy might strengthen our culture, our government, and our economy at just the moment when they are under the gravest threat. The answer — a moratorium, a policy of lowest-possible migration for as long as it takes to correct our course — could be a valuable tool for any political leader with the courage and the wherewithal to wield it.

When President Biden took office, the foreign-born population in the United States stood at 45 million. By the end of 2023, that number had risen to a record 50.4 million. For years, as the absolute number of immigrants living in the U.S. hit all-time highs, advocates insisted that at least the foreign-born proportion of the country’s population was not unprecedented. Now it is. The figure of 15.2 percent foreign-born recorded in December eclipses the previous records set in 1890 and 1910. No longer can anyone say, “We’ve been here before.” In fact, with no changes to present policy, the Census Bureau projects that every year will now be a record year for the immigrant share of the population.

For immigration restrictionists, even just restoring some basic controls over the Southern border would be an improvement over the status quo. However, it’s useful to consider what the opposite of today’s policy would look like. Instead of record-breaking immigration, what would be the consequences of historically low immigration? While no one argues that it would usher in utopia, restriction could bring many cultural, political, and economic benefits at a modest cost.

First, what is meant by “low immigration”? Some restrictionists use the word “moratorium” to describe their preferred policy, but this is often misconstrued to mean a policy of zero new entrants — a practical impossibility. Even the most restrictive policy will always allow citizens to obtain permanent residency for their foreign-born spouses and minor children, who accounted for about 300,000 new green cards in 2022. That total would go down over time if immigration in general declines, but it will remain a non-trivial source of new Americans. Most low-immigration plans also make room for a small number of refugees who genuinely have no other place to go, and for Einstein-type immigrants who are exceptionally brilliant.

Balanced against those new immigrants would be the roughly 2 percent of the foreign-born who leave the U.S. each year. This number will also decline over time as the number of new immigrants declines. Extrapolating from Census Bureau projections, a low-immigration policy of the kind described above will result in an initial decrease in the foreign-born population, followed by stabilization around midcentury. The foreign-born share would decline significantly.

When we hear “moratorium,” then, we should understand it as a policy that permits the lowest reasonable number of immigrants to the United States; that is, the number closest to zero that still accounts for the clear-cut exceptions named above.

Preserving American Culture

One effect of such a low-immigration policy would be to slow the cultural change that newcomers bring. Culture matters on two levels. First, individual communities work better when they possess high levels of “social capital,” meaning interpersonal networks bound by norms of trust and reciprocity. “Where levels of social capital are higher, children grow up healthier, safer and better educated; people live longer, happier lives; and democracy and the economy work better,” explained political scientist Robert Putnam. Immigration can weaken social capital by injecting altogether different values into previously well-functioning communities. Putnam found, for example, that a greater share of noncitizens in a community is associated with less social trust, even after controlling for a host of other individual- and community-level factors.

Culture also matters at the level of the nation. The economist Garett Jones has written that economic prosperity requires wealth-creating institutions supported by a culture dedicated to preserving them. If mass immigration results in the importation of cultures that are unsupportive, our national economy could become less innovative and growth-oriented. Jones uses the example of Argentina, which in the early part of the twentieth century had a market-friendly system that helped produce one of the world’s highest standards of living. However, in Jones’s telling, decades of immigration brought more statist ideas and a receptive audience for them. As markets weakened and corruption increased, Argentina sunk to middle-income status and never recovered.

It can’t happen here, optimists say. They downplay cultural concerns through what I call the “Irish Retort”: People once worried the Irish wouldn’t fit in, and they turned out just fine, so today’s immigrants will too! The rhetorical appeal of the Irish Retort is understandable, but it fails as a substantive argument. For one thing, circumstances have changed. Immigrants during the 1880-1920 Great Wave arrived in a country that was dedicated to assimilation. Today, multiculturalism, identity politics, and even outright anti-Western ideologies are embedded in our country’s institutions.

Another difference is that the Great Wave actually ended. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, sharply curtailed immigration for 40 years and helped facilitate assimilation. Those who dismiss concerns about today’s immigrants using analogies to the Irish are rarely in favor of any such restriction now to encourage assimilation. On the contrary, most seem unbothered by the Census Bureau’s projections of record-breaking immigration throughout this century.

A second reason the Irish Retort fails is that its premise is wrong: The Irish did not fully assimilate. No group does. Research across a wide range of academic fields finds that immigrants and their descendants do not become clones of the native population. Instead, as Jones puts it, they “transplant” key cultural values from the Old Country into their new one. The historian David Hackett Fischer observed that even the original British settlers in North America differed among themselves in their approaches to education, civics, trust, crime, and government structure. The differences between, say, Puritan-settled New England and Scotch-Irish-settled Appalachia are still apparent today.

As new immigrants followed the initial settlers, each wave imported cultures that permanently changed the United States. For an illustration, consider that the level of trust and civic engagement among European American groups correlates strongly with the level of trust and civic engagement among corresponding groups in Europe. Put concretely, Sweden has a more civic culture than Ireland, which itself has a more civic culture than Italy. In the United States, the same order emerges: Swedish Americans are more civic than Irish Americans, who are more civic than Italian Americans. Once we understand the reality of cultural persistence, then “They said the same thing about the Irish!” becomes an obviously inadequate defense of mass immigration.

Closely related to cultural change is political change, and a minimum-immigration policy would slow this down as well. With about two-thirds supporting Democratic presidential candidates, naturalized citizens make clear with their voting patterns that immigration bolsters the political strength of the left. The present border crisis may indeed be born of the Biden’s administration’s desire to import more voters, or it may simply reflect distaste for immigration restriction in general. Either way, the consequences are the same: a leftward shift in the nation’s politics. Conservatives are obviously going to be more upset with this situation than progressives are, but newcomers bringing rapid political change of any kind undermines democratic legitimacy. In what sense do people have the right to shape any of their own associations — at the level of family, club, neighborhood, or state — if they lack the power to regulate membership?

Some conservatives insist that new immigrants can be recruited to their side, but history suggests that will be difficult. Data from the General Social Survey show that the most conservative voters typically are those from ancestral groups with the longest history in America. Americans with ancestry from Northern and Western Europe are still more conservative than those from Southern and Eastern Europe, who in turn are more conservative than those from Latin America. Winning conservative converts among the newest immigrants today is unlikely to occur before they help progressives notch lasting victories, just as Great Wave immigrants and their children once powered the New Deal policies that are still with us today.

Protecting American Prosperity

One might accept these points about culture and politics but still wonder how the U.S. economy could survive without high immigration. After all, don’t immigrants raise our GDP, fill vacant jobs, and save our entitlement programs from bankruptcy? Although immigration certainly can bring some economic benefits, all of those claims are misleading or overstated.

Take GDP. There is no doubt that immigration raises it, but almost all of the added income goes to the immigrants themselves in the form of wages. Meanwhile, because immigrants tend to have lower earnings than natives, the country’s per capita GDP declines. A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office provides an illustration. In revising upward its population projections due to higher immigration, the agency estimated that total GDP in 2034 would be 2 percent larger than its original estimate, but per capita GDP would be 0.8 percent lower. Needless to say, it is per capita GDP, not total GDP, that determines a country’s standard of living. Bangladesh, for example, is obviously less developed than Denmark despite having a larger GDP.

Immigrants are also said to ease labor shortages, but here again the story is incomplete. Shortages should not exist in a market economy where prices are free to adjust. Just as the price of gasoline increases with demand, so too should the price of labor. When employers complain of a labor shortage, what they really mean is that there is a shortage of workers at the wage they are offering. In that situation, employers should raise wages to recruit more workers, but instead they attempt to import labor from abroad in order to circumvent normal market processes.

Granted, social problems among Americans on the low end of the skill distribution have made them less attractive as workers. Many struggle with drug abuse, welfare dependency, and criminality. In fact, 12 percent of native-born men in the prime working age range of 25 to 54 say they are not even looking for work, up from 5 percent in 1970. Importing substitute workers does not make these problems go away, however. It is instead a convenient means of ignoring them. Long-term and sustained immigration restriction would force our society to place more value on the contributions of lower-skill natives. Without the crutch of imported workers to fill low-skill jobs, economic and political pressures would mount to address the problems that have kept natives away from or only tenuously attached to the labor force.

Filling low-skill jobs with immigrants carries fiscal consequences as well. The American welfare system is designed to assist the working poor, especially those with children, which makes immigrant households especially likely to partake. In 2022, 54 percent of all immigrant-headed households used at least one means-tested antipoverty program, compared to 39 percent of native-headed households. Therefore, importing foreign labor is not simply “matching a willing worker with a willing employer,” as President George W. Bush famously said. It imposes negative externalities on taxpayers and on the native workers with whom the immigrants compete.

What about the long-term health of Social Security and Medicare? The trust funds that finance them are indeed facing long-term fiscal imbalances because of a declining ratio of workers to retirees in the U.S. This aging of our society is a problem that no one should dismiss. Without a turnaround in fertility rates and broader acceptance of a higher retirement age for most workers, the U.S. will find itself devoting an ever larger fraction of its GDP to old-age programs.

But while immigration is often seen as another tool to slow population aging, it is inefficient to the point of impracticality. Immigrants are only slightly younger than natives, and their fertility rates tend to decline by the second generation. Combine those facts with the sheer size of the existing U.S. population, and the annual number of immigrants necessary to maintain — not raise, just maintain — today’s working-age share of the population through 2060 is five times the current immigration level. Obviously, such a policy would transform the U.S. into a very different place, taking to an extreme the cultural and political changes discussed earlier.

The Path Forward

A policy of minimum immigration would not solve every problem our country faces, but it would certainly make tackling some problems easier. A fractured culture? What proponents call a moratorium would promote continuity in culture, giving time for newer groups to adapt to our country. A crisis of political legitimacy? Freezing immigration would require a party seeking political victories to change the voters’ minds, not change the voters themselves. Welfare dependency? Less immigration would lead to fewer new clients for the welfare state, and it would also cause employers to focus on recruiting less-skilled natives back into the labor force. As immigration surges to record levels nationally — and as Republicans eye the White House once again — we should remember that there is an alternative, and it offers a much better deal for America.