The American Mind, October 19, 2023
The border crisis is a disaster for the rule of law. Approximately five million inadmissible migrants have already entered during Joe Biden’s presidency, and the numbers continue to climb. Far from attempting to block the flow, the Biden Administration is actually facilitating it, inviting migrants without visas to come to the U.S. to receive “parole” or other temporary status. The legal situation has deteriorated to the point where the administration effectively claims the right to wave through any migrants it wants, from whatever countries it wants, at any time it wants.
The rule of law is not the only casualty of the border crisis, however. Less appreciated are the long-term effects of mass immigration that the crisis will exacerbate. Whether legal or not, large-scale immigration can cause profound changes in the receiving society. While not all of these changes are necessarily negative, immigration does have concerning impacts on the economic, fiscal, political, and cultural health of the United States.
Let’s start with the economic effects, specifically on the labor market. In the immigration advocate’s preferred version of this debate, the restrictionist shouts, “They’re stealing our jobs!” The advocate lets out a faux-exasperated sigh, shakes his head, and proceeds to explain the “lump of labor” fallacy to his economically illiterate opponent. In reality, restrictionists understand that the number of jobs in our economy is not fixed. They also understand, however, that the laws of supply and demand apply as much to labor as they do to any other good or service. Therefore, increasing the supply of low-skill immigrant workers will put downward pressure on the wages of the natives who compete with them. Empirical evidence generally confirms this prediction, but we need not rely on academics for proof. In response to high inflation, business leaders have openly stated that importing more immigrants would help hold down low-skill wages. We should take them at their word.
Wage reduction is not the only way that immigration harms the poorest Americans. A related, but more insidious phenomenon is how immigration devalues them in the eyes of wealthier Americans. For a variety of reasons not necessarily related to immigration, Americans have been gradually dropping out of the labor force, and this problem is concentrated among the least skilled. To illustrate, the fraction of prime-age (25-54) U.S.-born men without a college degree who are neither working nor looking for work has risen from seven percent in 1980, to 11 percent in 2000, to 16 percent today.
Labor-force dropout is associated with a host of social problems, including welfare dependence, drug abuse, and even declining life expectancy. But why worry about any of this as long as we have a steady flow of low-skill immigrants to take the vacant jobs? Americans on the bottom of the economic ladder can suffer from all manner of social dysfunction with little concern on the part of those who can afford to look away.
By contrast, imagine how the focus would change if the supply of immigrants who fill low-skill jobs suddenly dried up. Politicians and business leaders would need to take a much greater interest in getting idle Americans back to work. Advocates from across the political spectrum already suggest ideas for promoting work, such as reducing the generosity of welfare benefits or increasing the minimum wage, but the political impetus for actually testing such reforms would be enhanced if immigration were no longer available as a band-aid over the problem.
Because immigrants’ wages and employment competition with natives requires a strong attachment to the labor force, one might assume that immigrants have a relatively low level of welfare consumption. To emphasize this supposed logic, immigration advocates have circulated a meme depicting “Schrodinger’s Immigrant.” In one panel, the immigrant is shown taking a job from an American, and in the other panel the immigrant is lounging around on welfare. The point is supposed to be that restrictionists offer inherently contradictory arguments.
What the meme actually reveals is confusion on the part of immigration advocates about how our welfare system works. Most means-tested anti-poverty benefits, including Medicaid and food stamps, are readily available to workers and non-workers alike. Therefore, it is not at all contradictory to note that immigrants both compete with natives in the labor market and consume welfare.
How much do they consume? According to the Survey of Income and Program Participation, 54 percent of all immigrant-headed households used at least one means-tested benefit in 2022, compared to 39 percent of native-headed households. The reason for the difference is not that immigrants are lazy; rather, it’s simply that the U.S. has a welfare system that privileges low-earning families with children. Because so many immigrant households fit that description, they naturally consume welfare at higher rates than natives. Libertarians sometimes offer the solution of excluding immigrants from welfare eligibility (“building a wall around the welfare state”), but that is simply impractical. There is no way, for example, to prevent immigrants from receiving welfare through their U.S.-born children.
The Irish Retort
That Biden’s border crisis will generate more clients for the welfare state—and perhaps more Democratic voters as a result—is one small result of larger political consequences that will be felt for years to come. Whether administration officials are consciously using immigration to boost their party’s support, or simply embracing the emerging progressive conviction that accepting immigrants is a moral obligation, the outcome is the same. If the millions of inadmissible migrants who have entered under Biden are allowed to stay and eventually obtain citizenship for themselves or their children, they may shift the American political spectrum leftward, making it more difficult for today’s conservatives to win elections.
Leftward tilt among new immigrants is not guaranteed, but it is certainly likely based on recent history. For one thing, naturalized citizens voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by about a two-to-one margin in 2016. And although exit polls apparently did not ask about citizenship in 2020, we can still examine Hispanic and Asian voters as a rough proxy for post-1965 immigrants and their children. Those groups voted for Democrats by about the same two-to-one margin in both 2016 and 2020.
Although conservative appeals to newcomers are welcome, we should also be realistic about the limits of such outreach. John McCain learned this lesson the hard way. The former senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee thought he could recruit Hispanic voters by supporting amnesty legislation against the wishes of his party’s rank and file. When Hispanic voters still overwhelmingly rejected him in favor of Barack Obama, he was reportedly furious. But perhaps he should not have been. As the political scientist George Hawley has argued, it’s not the amnesty issue that drives Hispanic voting behavior; rather, it’s their support for the larger government that Democrats advocate.
If Biden’s immigration surge does shift the political center leftward, that change will be only one aspect of a larger cultural transformation. Restrictionists sometimes find it difficult to discuss the cultural impact of immigration, in part because their opponents stand at the ready with what I call the “Irish Retort.” People once worried the Irish wouldn’t assimilate, as this argument goes, but they turned out just fine, so today’s immigrants will too. One response to the Irish Retort is that historical circumstances have changed. The 1880-1920 Great Wave immigrants came to a country with an assimilationist ethos, reinforced by a decades-long period of low immigration following the wave. By contrast, today’s immigration is rising rather than falling, and multiculturalism is practically our civic religion.
There is, however, a second and arguably more important response to the Irish Retort. It’s that the Irish did change America, just as every other immigrant group has. To motivate this argument, it’s useful to first consider a fateful case of domestic population movement. In the decades following the Civil War, the former Confederate states experienced substantial outmigration. The movement of Southern blacks into Northern and Midwestern cities is well known, but there was actually an even larger movement of Southern whites into the border states and West.
When these Southern migrants arrived, did they assimilate into the non-Southern culture? No. A recent study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics calculated the county-by-county percentages of Southern-born residents living outside the South in 1940. The researchers found that those 1940 percentages correlate with how likely people in each county today are to oppose abortion, build evangelical churches, listen to country music, and even favor barbecue chicken over pizza. Far from disappearing into the host society, Southerners clearly transplanted their own culture, sharing it with non-Southern neighbors and transmitting it to the next generation.
This finding seemed to receive little pushback from progressives. In fact, some surely found it expedient to blame white Southerners for seeding red-state values outside the South. And yet in debates about migrants from abroad, progressive immigration advocates eagerly wield the Irish Retort, dismissing concerns about assimilation.
There is in fact a large body of academic literature documenting the tendency of migrant groups to transplant old-country values to their new homes. America has certainly not been immune to this cultural persistence. Even descendants of European immigrants still exhibit differences more than 100 years after the peak of their immigration to the U.S. One of those differences is the strength of their civic values—social trust, tolerance, community engagement, etc. Researchers have found a remarkably strong rank-order correlation between the civic values of European American groups on one hand and the civic values of their ancestral countries on the other. To illustrate, Swedish Americans have a more robust civic culture than Irish Americans, who in turn are more civic-minded than Italian Americans. At the same time, Swedes in Sweden are more civic than Irish in Ireland, who are more civic than Italians in Italy. Correlations like these would not exist if immigrant groups simply disappeared into a melting pot.
Cultural persistence is more than just a curiosity. In his book The Culture Transplant, economist Garett Jones points out that a nation’s prosperity depends on the quality of its institutions, and those institutions are supported by the citizens and their culture. He warns that cultural change brought about by mass immigration could weaken those institutions and threaten our prosperity.
None of this has to happen. American culture need not be transformed. The political balance need not be upset. We don’t have to add more clients of the welfare state, nor must we import low-skill workers to avoid tackling our own social problems. We do have to recognize, however, that the Biden border crisis is not damaging merely because it’s illegal. Even legal immigration, when it occurs on a large scale, can have many of the same long-term consequences.