Too Many: Looking Today's Immigration in the Face

By Steven A. Camarota on July 29, 2002

National Review, July 29, 2002

When the history of the 1990s is written, the most important story may not be the GOP takeover of Congress, the boom economy, or the Clinton impeachment. The big story may be the decade's unprecedented level of immigration: a social phenomenon of enormous significance, affecting everything from the nation's schools to the political balance between the two parties.

Newly released census figures show that the foreign-born population reached 31.1 million in 2000 (including some 7 to 8 million here illegally). This is by far the largest immigrant population in U.S. history, and represents a 57 percent increase from 1990. The rate of increase is itself unprecedented: Even during the great wave of immigration from 1900 to 1910, the foreign-born population grew by only about 31 percent (from roughly 10 million to 13.5 million). Over the past 30 years, the number of immigrants in the U.S. has tripled. If current trends are allowed to continue, the foreign-born share of the population will in fact pass the all-time high by the end of this decade. Many defenders of high immigration argue that the current immigration is not really unusual, because although the numbers and growth are without precedent, the total U.S. population was smaller 100 years ago and immigrants constituted a larger share of the total. It is true that the 11.1 percent of the nation's population that is foreign-born today is lower than the all-time high of nearly 15 percent reached in 1910. But one may ask why 1910 should be the benchmark by which to judge today's immigration. In evaluating its effect on modern society, it seems more reasonable to compare today's immigration with that of the more recent past. And in that context, today's figures represent a fundamental break with prior decades: From 1940 to 1990, the foreign-born population averaged less than 7 percent, and as recently as 1970 it was less than 5 percent.

The implications for American society are enormous. For example, a good deal of attention has been given to the fact that the number of people who live in poverty did not decline in the 1990s, despite a strong economy. What has generally not been reported is that new immigrants and their U.S.-born children accounted for the nation's stubborn poverty rate. The primary reason so many immigrant families live in poverty is that a large percentage have very little education. Newly arrived adult immigrants, for example, are more than three times as likely as natives to lack a high-school education.

Immigrants and their children also account for nearly two-thirds of the increase in the population lacking health insurance over the last decade. By dramatically increasing the uninsured population, immigration creates significant costs for taxpayers, and it drives up costs for insured Americans as providers pass along the costs of treating the uninsured to paying customers. The central role immigration has played in creating the nation's health-insurance quandary has largely gone unreported.

The impact on public schools is even more significant. In the last 20 years the school-age population has grown by roughly 8 million. Most observers agree that this increase has strained resources in districts across the country. What most media accounts of this growth leave out is that census data indicate that there are about 8 million school-age children from immigrant families -- and, because they are much poorer on average than natives, this increase in enrollment has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in local tax revenue. Moreover, because of language barriers, the children of immigrants often cost significantly more to educate than those of natives. Most news coverage of the issue discusses how to meet the needs of these children, but fails to point out that federal immigration policy created the problem in the first place.

Despite the clear implications mass immigration has for the future of American society, many boosters still argue that today's immigration is very much like that of 1910. No doubt, there are similarities, but the differences are profound and striking to even the casual observer. America is a fundamentally different place than it was 100 years ago, and today's immigration is also very different.

As far as assimilation is concerned, numbers matter at least as much as percentages. For example, a quarter of a million immigrants in a metropolitan area are enough to create linguistic isolation: neighborhoods where immigrants can live and work without ever learning much English. Large numbers also create politically influential ethnic organizations whose leaders often adhere to an anti-assimilation multicultural ideology. Whether the immigrants in question represent 10 percent or 30 percent of a city's population is not so important; it's the raw numbers that count, and the numbers are already well over twice what they were in 1910.

In one sense, today's immigrants are more diverse than ever before, in that significant numbers arrive from all continents and races. But in a more important sense, today's immigration wave is considerably less diverse than those of the past, because Spanish speakers dominate in a way no other group ever did before. While German speakers accounted for a little over a quarter of all immigrants in the late 1800s and Italians for about one-fifth in the first decades of the 1900s, such concentrations were transitory. In contrast, the domination of immigrants from Latin America has grown steadily. In 1970, 19 percent of the foreign-born were from Latin America; by 2000, it was more than half. One ethno-linguistic group can now predominate in schools, neighborhoods, entire metropolitan areas, and even whole states.

One institution that helped immigrants and their children acquire an American identity in the past was public education. Schools brought children from different immigrant backgrounds into contact with natives and helped to forge a common American culture. But today, basic demographics makes this much more difficult. Unlike in the past, immigrants now have many more children on average than natives, which means kids from immigrant families very quickly predominate in public schools. For example, although about a quarter of California's total population is foreign-born, half of the school-age population is from immigrant families. In many districts in high-immigration states, immigrant families now account for more than 80 percent of school kids.

Of course, neighborhood schools in 1910 saw heavy immigrant concentrations. But because of the large differences in fertility rates, immigration today creates many more districts in which the cultural norms are set by children from immigrant families, who have relatively little contact with their counterparts from native families.

There is, of course, another problem with expecting public schools to play the role they did in the past of assimilating immigrants: Schools don't want to. A very significant share of the U.S. elite has embraced the anti-assimilation ethos, which regards America as a collection of peoples, each with its own distinct culture, which vie for political power as groups. America's educational establishment has embraced this multicultural vision. This is why history textbooks look as they do, and why bilingual education remains widely popular among educators. This trend shows no signs of abating; in fact, the growing number of immigrants only feeds the multiculturalist perspective. Immigration provides further justification for it by creating an ever larger aggrieved class, whose cultures must be preserved in the face of an oppressive majority culture.

Of course, some form of assimilation does take place, even in the modern public school. While language acquisition almost certainly has slowed in recent years, most immigrants learn to speak at least some English. But assimilation is much more than learning to speak English, or driving on the right side of the road. It involves what John Fonte of the Hudson Institute calls "patriotic assimilation," the belief that American history is one's own history. A century ago it meant that immigrants and their children came to see America's past as something "we" did, not something "they" -- white people of European ancestry -- did. To the extent that immigrants are assimilating they are doing so, in many cases, as "multicultural" Americans.

Some conservatives, and even some liberals, have a different conception of assimilation, but it is not at all clear that those who wish to see a more robust love of country inculcated in our children (immigrant or native) are winning the debate. It simply makes no sense, therefore, for a society that cannot agree on its own history or even what it means to be an American to welcome over a million newcomers each year from outside.

Technology is another obstacle to assimilation. It is now possible to call - or even to visit - one's home country with a frequency that was inconceivable even 50 years ago. One can listen to a hometown radio station or read the local newspapers on the Internet. The costs of travel and communication are now so low that many wealthier immigrants can live in two countries at the same time, traveling back and forth with ease. In such a world, it is less likely that immigrants will develop a deep attachment to the U.S.

The American economy is also fundamentally different, with serious consequences for the assimilation process. A century ago, manufacturing, mining, and agriculture employed the vast majority of the workforce, creating plentiful work for unskilled immigrants. These jobs eventually led to solid working-class incomes for immigrants and their children. (In fact, most native-born Americans a century ago worked in the same kinds of jobs.) Though most people were poor by today's standards, most historians agree that there was not a very large economic gap between the standard of living of natives and that of immigrants; this was because, on average, immigrants were not that much less skilled than natives. Data are limited, but in terms of years of schooling or literacy, immigrants 100 years ago were roughly equal to natives.

This is no longer the case. While a number of today's immigrants are quite skilled, immigrants overall are significantly less educated than natives. As a result, when it comes to average income, poverty rates, welfare use, and other measures of economic well-being, today's immigrants are much worse off than natives. Unlike that of 1910, today's U.S. economy offers very limited opportunity for those with little education, and this creates a very sizable gap between the two groups.

Another important change since 1910 is the profound expansion in the size and scope of government. Spending on everything from education to infrastructure maintenance is many times greater than it was back then. With federal, state, and local government now eating up roughly one-third of GDP, the average individual must be able to pay a good deal in taxes to cover his use of public services. In practice, the middle and upper classes pay most of the taxes; the poor, immigrant or native, generally consume significantly more in public services than they pay in taxes.

This means that the arrival of large numbers of relatively poor immigrants has a significant negative effect on public coffers in a way that was not the case in the past. In 1997 the National Academy of Sciences estimated that immigrant households consumed between $11 and $20 billion more in public services than they were paying in taxes each year. (Other estimates have found this deficit to be even higher.) A smaller government may well be desirable, but it is politically inconceivable that we would ever return to the situation of 100 years ago, when government accounted for a tiny fraction of the economy. Thus, continually allowing in large numbers of unskilled immigrants has very negative implications for taxpayers.

The situation of today's immigrants is, then, dramatically different from what it was at the turn of the last century. But even if one ignores all these differences, one undeniable fact remains: The last great wave of immigration was stopped, as an act of government policy. World War I, followed by restrictive legislation in the early 1920s, dramatically reduced immigration to about a quarter of what it had been in previous decades. This immigration pause played a critically important role in turning yesterday's immigrants into Americans. So if the past is to be our guide, then we should significantly reduce immigration numbers.

If we don't, the assimilation problem will only get worse. We know from experience that it is often the children of immigrants who have the greatest difficulty identifying with America. While their parents at least know how good they have it, the children tend to compare their situation to that of other Americans, instead of that in their parents' homeland. Unless the gap between themselves and other Americans has been closed in just one generation, something few groups have been able to accomplish, this can be a source of real discontent. Moreover, it is children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents who often feel caught between two worlds and struggle with their identity.

What we should do is call a halt to the current heedless increase in annual immigration, and reduce the numbers to something like their historical average of 300,000 a year. In the mid 1990s, the bipartisan immigration-reform panel headed by the late Barbara Jordan suggested limiting family immigration to the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal non-citizens, and to the parents of citizens. However, we should probably eliminate the preferences for the spouses and minor children of non-citizens, since these provisions apply to family members acquired after the alien has received a green card but before he has become a citizen. If we also eliminated the parents of U.S. citizens as a category, family immigration would fall to less than half what it is today. The Jordan panel also wisely suggested eliminating the visa lottery and tightening up the requirements for employment- and humanitarian-based immigration.

These changes would, taken together, reduce legal immigration to roughly 300,000 annually. Only if we get the numbers down to this reasonable level can we begin the long process of assimilating the huge number of immigrants and their children who are already here.

Steven A. Camarota is director of research of the Center for Immigration Studies.