Tablet, January 8, 2024
The Biden administration’s continuing effort to conceal or lie about the historic rates of immigration into the country is fast becoming a crisis in its own right—a socially- toxic version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. “It’s not unusual,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre casually remarked in late December, a month that saw the highest number of recorded migrant encounters in U.S. history. The Department of Homeland Security finally disclosed last Friday that more than 2.3 million migrants have been released into the country during the administration’s time in office.
From Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 to October 2023, the foreign-born population increased by an average of 137,000 per month—double the monthly average under Barack Obama and triple the rate under Donald Trump before COVID. If current rates continue, there could end up being some 12 million encounters by the end of Biden’s first term—equal to the entire populations of New York City and Los Angeles combined.
The attempt to convince Americans not to worry about or even discuss the most consequential public policy issue facing our country cannot be healthy for American society or American democracy. Census Bureau data from October show that the total number of foreign-born immigrants (legal and illegal) in the U.S. has now reached nearly 50 million, amounting to 15% of the total current U.S. population. Both the total number of immigrants and their percentage of the U.S. population are also new records in U.S. history.
The enormous scale of immigration over the past three years has implications for nearly every aspect of American society—from public coffers, to labor markets, to the balance of political power, to culture. The rate of increase has been so fast that it appears to have already made the new Census Bureau population projections, published just two months ago, obsolete. The bureau projected on Nov. 9 that the foreign-born share of the U.S. population would not hit 15% until 2033. And yet here we are.
By comparison, the 15% foreign-born mark reached in October 2023 is higher than the prior record of 14.8% set in 1890, during what is often called the Great Wave of immigration. World War I and restrictive legislation in the early 1920s caused immigration to fall significantly. The law was reformed in 1965 to allow in more immigrants, but even in 1970 the foreign-born still comprised less than 5% of the total population—less than one-third of current levels.
The long-term growth in the foreign-born population primarily reflects legal immigration. In the 1970s, new green card holders (permanent residents) averaged roughly 400,000 per year, but immigration tends to build on itself. By the 1980s the U.S. was welcoming 600,000 new permanent residents per year. Recipients of the 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants began to sponsor their relatives after a few years, stimulating more legal immigration. Legislation in 1990 increased legal immigration even further, and since the mid-1990s we have handed out about 1 million green cards per year.
Many illegal immigrants come to join their legal friends and family already here, and many native-born Americans are born to parents who immigrated illegally. It is therefore common for legal and illegal immigrants to live in the same household. As a result, many of the top source countries for legal immigration are also the top ones for illegal immigration.
The decision by certain universities not only to refrain from suspending foreign students who endorse or espouse the activities of foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas, but to also actively scrub the internet in order to protect the identities of these students—who in many cases are violating the conditions of their visas—should be viewed in part against this reality: Namely, it is paving the way for some foreign nationals, who by law are inadmissible, to remain indefinitely in the U.S., as part of a wave of immigration being encouraged from above, by federal authorities who have simply decided to no longer enforce existing laws, and in doing so to change the character of American society in ways that the administration seems unwilling to even begin to explain or discuss.
While legal immigrants make up most of the growth in the foreign-born population since 1965, the recent surge under Biden appears to be driven primarily not by legal but by illegal immigration. Since Biden took office, there have been 1.6 million “got-aways” at the border—individuals seen entering illegally but not stopped. That is three or four times the pre-COVID annual rate.
The sheer number of people stopped at the border or at ports of entry has been enormous. From January 2021 to October 2023 there have been nearly 8 million “encounters” of aliens not authorized to enter the country at U.S. borders and ports of entry, though in some cases it is the same person being stopped more than once. Encounters include individuals who are stopped at ports of entry, including at border entry points and interior U.S. airports, and those apprehended after crossing the border illegally, some of whom request asylum. Many of those encountered are subsequently let go within the United States.
My colleague, former immigration judge Andrew Arthur, has reviewed publicly available information from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and court-ordered DHS disclosures. He estimates that the Biden administration has so far released at least 2.7 million inadmissible aliens into the country. Hence the administration’s decision to obscure the monthly numbers of illegal immigrants who are permitted to enter the country. Inadmissible aliens released into the country are not considered to have been formally “admitted” and are legally subject to deportation at any time.
A big reason why so many people started showing up at the border at the end of 2020 was Biden’s campaign promises to get rid of Trump-era immigration policies. Chief among them was ending “remain in Mexico,” officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols, which began in January 2019 after a prior spike in asylum applicants. Since the vast majority of applicants simply wished to be released into the United States, requiring them to wait in Mexico for an asylum interview significantly curtailed applications. Bizarrely, or not, the Biden administration also ended agreements with the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras designed to curtail illegal migration.
Unlike in decades past, the vast majority of those caught at the border are not from Mexico and cannot simply be returned to the other side of the border. But the administration could have placed a large share of these individuals in what is called “expedited removal” and sent them back home relatively quickly. In addition, virtually all of them could have been held in detention—but Biden’s DHS chose not to do that, either.
Once it became clear that the administration was not going to detain people, send them home quickly, or require them to wait in Mexico, the number of people coming to the border skyrocketed. The asylum system quickly became overwhelmed, creating a backlog that will take a decade or more to work through. This encouraged even more people to come and apply in the hopes they too would be released into the country, where they would be allowed to remain for years awaiting court dates.
Of the 4.5 million-person increase in the foreign-born population between January 2021 and October 2023, my preliminary estimate—based on administrative data on the number of new legal immigration minus outmigration and death—is that more than half—2.5 million—immigrated illegally. Again, this represents the net increase, not all new arrivals. While there is some undercount in these numbers, especially of illegals, the Census Bureau is clear that they are included in the data.
Many conservatives see the Biden administration’s massive immigration policy and enforcement failures as evidence of a deliberate effort to subvert the nation’s immigration laws and import likely Democratic voters. Some in the administration may indeed think this way. Another likely reason is that many progressives, even those who may publicly pay lip service to enforcement laws, see immigration restrictions as motivated by racial animus, making them ipso facto illegitimate.
According to this worldview, the affirmation of national borders, not to mention a national identity anchored in American exceptionalism, is an anachronism; a remnant of a racist past that is, to use Barack Obama’s preferred turn of phrase, “not who we are as Americans.”
By castigating the mere existence of nation-state borders—the supposed inviolability of which informs U.S. foreign policy decisions like support for Ukraine—as a human rights violation of immigrants fleeing desperate circumstances, the administration has obscured both the incentives for illegal immigration it has unilaterally created, as well as the role of drug and human trafficking cartels, hostile foreign nations, and others who take advantage of those incentives. Without enforcement of existing laws or new legislation, or a change in administration, the flow of illegal immigrants will likely continue unabated, to levels that go way beyond anything Americans of any generation have ever experienced.
The current scale of immigration raises two specific sets of policy concerns. The first set of issues stem from short-term costs and adjustments. Most illegal immigrants settle in blue cities not only because of economic opportunities, but also to some extent the availability of free public services. Mayor Eric Adams told New Yorkers at a gathering in September that the influx of migrants “will destroy New York City.” Nevertheless, New York City expects to spend $12 billion over the next three years on housing, food, and other services for new illegal immigrants. To manage the deficit, Adams announced 5% budget cuts across the board that will affect sanitation, schools, and the police department—a number that only accounts for migrants who have already arrived in the city.
Overcrowding in hospitals, schools, and other public services can put enormous strain on the communities dealing with the problem. Chicago, for example, has estimated that the costs of accommodating recently arrived illegal immigrants in 2023 alone will be $361 million. Governor J.B. Pritzker, who in 2021 signed legislation establishing Illinois as the most welcoming state in the nation for immigrants, sent a letter to Biden in October pleading for federal aid, as the number of incoming migrants was overwhelming the state’s capacity to meet the governor’s own promises.
The second set of concerns are more long term. As in the past, the vast majority of immigrants come to America for a better life, and the high rates of labor-force participation among immigrant men reflects that desire. By increasing the supply of labor, however, immigration can crowd out U.S.-born workers and artificially repress wages, particularly in jobs that require modest levels of education. Although the wage impact of large-scale immigration was once disputed by immigration advocates—the argument being that immigration has only minimal effect on wages, and that in the long term it helps grow the overall economy—in the post-COVID high-inflation era, businesses began openly clamoring for more immigrants to help hold down wages, effectively confirming what basic economic theory and prior research had long asserted: Immigration injures the poorest and least fortunate segments of American society, including inner city African Americans and rural whites.
Perhaps the biggest labor market issue is that in the last half century the share of less-educated men not in the labor force increased dramatically as immigration grew. Among U.S.-born men ages 20 to 64 with no education beyond high school, the share not in the labor force—neither working nor looking for work—increased from 7% in 1960 to 25% in 2023. These men do not show up as unemployed because they are not actively looking for work.
In turn, the rise in non-work is associated with a host of profound social pathologies, from crime and social isolation to overdose deaths and welfare dependency. At a time when many businesses struggle to find workers, it may seem desirable to simply use immigration to fill jobs. But continuing to bring in millions of less-educated immigrants effectively allows business interests and the state to ignore the huge deterioration in labor-force participation and all the accompanying social problems that large-scale immigration creates among poor Americans of all races and social backgrounds.
Arguably, the most important reason to downscale immigration from its current peak is to facilitate assimilation. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, himself the son of immigrants, famously said in 1915 that learning English and American customs is not enough. He believed that “the immigrant is not Americanized unless his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here.” Immigrants should be “brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations,” he elaborated. Few public figures in America would ever dare to express such sentiments today, partly because there is no longer any basic agreement on what our ideals and aspirations are, or should be.
Of course, not every immigrant experience is the same. To express concern that the current scale of immigration may overwhelm the assimilation process does not mean that some immigrants are not integrating well into American society. Still, the stark images coming from American cities and college campuses in support of Hamas are a clear reminder of the opposite: that toxic mores, ideas, expectations, and allegiances imported from failed societies can prove resistant to assimilation—especially when anti-American attitudes and ideas are explicitly encouraged by the federal government, educational institutions, and elite culture.
If President Biden is reelected and present trends continue into 2028, the foreign-born will make up 17.3% of the U.S. population—a level that has never before been contemplated at any point in American history. To be sure, those allowed in will benefit by coming here. Employers will have access to more labor, while immigrants already here will be reunited with relatives. These are clear benefits, both to the immigrants themselves and in many cases to American society as a whole. But it is foolish to think there will be no consequences to a change this large, or that we can deal with those consequences by pretending that the change isn’t happening.