Panel Transcript: Projecting the Impact of Immigration on the U.S. Population



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The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel discussion on Thursday, February 14, focusing on the impact of immigration on both population growth and the working-age share of America's population. The starting point for conversation was the recent report by the Center's Director of Research, Dr. Steven Camarota.

Date: Thursday, February 14, 2019 at 9:30 a.m.

Location: National Press Club, Murrow Room, 529 14th St, NW, 13th Floor, Washington, D.C.

Introduction and Moderator

Mark Krikorian 
Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies


Dr. Steven A. Camarota
Camarota is Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies and author of a recent report, "Projecting the Impact of Immigration on the U.S. Population", which examines the impact of immigration on U.S. population through the year 2060.arnett, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and widely published on refugee resettlement and asylum issues, presented his recent publication, "Do States Have a Say in the Refugee Resettlement Program?"

Dr. B. Lindsay Lowell
Lowell is a Visiting Researcher at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he was formerly the Director of Policy Studies for the Institute for the Study of International Migration. He was previously Director of Research at the congressionally appointed U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.hompson is the President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, which filed a lawsuit challenging constitutionality of the federal refugee resettlement program.

Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes on demographics and economic development with a focus on domestic poverty. His latest book is "Men without Work: America's Invisible Crisis".

MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning. My name is Mark Krikorian. I’m executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Thanks for coming to our panel today on the issue of immigration and population growth and population change in the United States. This is a – obviously a really important issue because immigrants may have a variety of different effects on tax, fiscal issues, on the labor market, on assimilation. There’s a lot of angles to the immigration issue, but the one thing that’s undeniable is that immigrants add to the population. More people move here, there’s more people. I mean, it’s as simple as that. And yet, it doesn’t – that aspect of it, sort of the effect on population as a whole, just doesn’t get the attention that it seems that it should in policymaking, you know, because you would think that Congress, in making decisions about immigration, would think about, OK, well, what effect is this going to have 10 or 20 years from now.

And yet, that doesn’t seem to factor into the equation at all. And the paper we are going to be talking about today looks at Census Bureau projection of overall population growth, but specifically from – with an immigration angle. And that’s the reason we had to do it, as opposed to the Census Bureau itself doing it, is because the Census Bureau doesn’t pull out the immigration parts of its calculations. So as you’ll hear, what we did is recreated the Census Bureau projections with the immigration part, and then basically turned the dial up and down to see what the consequences would be. And I think this is – this is an extremely important aspect of the issue that just doesn’t get looked at.

So our panel today is going to start with a presentation of the paper by its author. Steven Camarota is director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies and has written extensively on demographic and economic consequences of immigration. We have to highly qualified, distinguished people to comment on the paper, and then more generally on the issue. Nick Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute, has written extensively on demographic workforce issues, the demography of North Korea and China, for instance. His most recent book was on American workforce, called “Men Without Work,” which got quite a bit of attention. It’s an important book.

Our other respondent will be – is Lindsay Lowell. He’s a visiting researcher at Georgetown School of Foreign Service and has written on immigration issues quite extensively. He was the director of policy studies at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, and before that was the director of research at the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, the Jordan Commission, which released influential – very influential, important recommendations on immigration some 20 – little more than 20 years ago.

So we’ll start with Steve, then our two respondents, and then we’ll take questions. And we have a microphone for those questions.

So, Steve.

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Well, thank you, Mark.

Yeah. The report that we’re releasing today, as Mark said, takes as a starting point the Census Bureau projections, and then varies things to see what we get. Oh, before I get started, I do want to mention there is actually a co-author on this report, one of the center demographers Karen Ziegler is also the other person. She’s not here today, but I want to acknowledge that she helped me write the report and do the research. I’d also like to acknowledge the demographers at Decision Demographics, Stephen Tordella’s outfit, that also helped us develop these projections as well.

As we say, they are based on the most recent Census Bureau projections that were re-released – there was a correction made – and they were released in September of last year, the newest versions. We then vary the immigration component to see its impact on the size and age composition is our main focus here of the U.S. population. Now, I’m not going to talk a lot about methodology, though we could have that discussion as well. Nor am I going to talk about all the Census Bureau assumptions, though we could talk about that too. Rather, I’m going to focus on findings.

In my comments, I should also point out, I will use rounded numbers just to make the discussion easy about future population, how many people coming, that sort of thing. Now, the Census Bureau projection – projects that net future immigration between now – or, 2017 and 2060, that’s their takeoff date – will total about 46 million people. Net immigration is the difference between people coming versus going. And they project a population of 404 million by 2060, or 79 million larger than in 2017. Now, varying the immigration component shows that immigration will account for about 95 percent of that population increase, or about 75 million. That is, immigration will add 75 million people to the U.S. population in about four decades. So that is a population equal to roughly the population of France.

Now, of course, that’s comparing zero immigration with Census Bureau immigration. And zero net immigration in the future is unlikely, as the U.S. has always had some immigration – not as high today necessarily always, but still some. Now, we can compare the Census level of immigration to what would happen if immigration was cut by two-thirds. Now, we do a lot of comparisons, which I can’t run through them all in the report, but let’s talk about that two-thirds cut, because it’s kind of interesting, because it is the level that would roughly stabilize the U.S. population after, say, 2040.

Now, even in that stabilization scenario you still have nearly 400,000 net arriving each year, 370,000. And you still get a population that’s about 29 million larger than it is today, but 50 million less than the Census Bureau projects. So you still get a significant amount of population growth under that sort of low or stabilization projection or scenario, but not what you would get under the Census Bureau. So, again, 29 with a – 29 million growth with the stabilization projection, because it stabilizes after 2040, as compared to 50 million growth if we go with the Census Bureau projections.

Now, I’d like to talk very briefly, which I don’t do in the report, but I think is important – I think it’s a discussion worth having – what does it mean to have 75 or 50 million more – million more people in the United States? Let’s just consider an issue like traffic. As a Brookings Institution analysis a number of years ago concluded, quote, “the most obvious reason traffic congestion has increased everywhere is population growth.” In a recent book, the author estimates $120 billion net cost to the U.S. economy just from traffic congestion. Now, like anything else, traffic has many causes, not just population. But it’s clear from the research that population size has a significant impact.

Now, beyond the issue of traffic, there is the larger issue of the nation’s infrastructure problems, sometimes referred to as the infrastructure gap. There is widespread agreement that the nation’s roads and bridges and other transportation systems are in need of serious repair. You can look at what the American Society of Civil Engineers says, the Department of Transportation. But, you know, roughly speaking, it’s thought that we need to spend about a trillion more on infrastructure in the next few years to update things, to keep up, to maintain, and so forth. Now, in a nation that is finding it difficult to keep up with the maintenance on existing infrastructure, it is hard to imagine that adding tens of millions of more people will not make that problem worse.

Now, of course, it’s true that with immigration you have more people to help you pay for the more infrastructure you’re going to need. But, again, if we’re not – if the average is not currently maintaining the infrastructure, it’s hard to see how adding more people who will also not help maintain that infrastructure will make it any better. Equally important, of course, for the immigrants to pay for the infrastructure they’d have to be some kind of fiscal boon that is paying a lot more in taxes than they use in services. And there’s no research to indicate that is the case.

The most detailed estimates of the current fiscal estimate of immigrants and their dependent children was done in 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences. They ran eight different scenarios looking at taxes paid and services used, and they all came out negative. Now, I would say that it is possible that the children of today’s immigrants may become at least average taxpayers at some point, but then, again, just making them average, again, wouldn’t help us with our infrastructure problem. You’d still have the same problem of adding more people like we have now and the same problem of underfunding would only be made worse with a larger population.

Now, in addition to infrastructure there is the issue of the environment. It’s long been recognized that population size has important implications for the environment. As the former director of the United Nations Population Division, Joseph Chamie, who is American and a very moderate voice on issues of immigration and population and the environment, has observed, there have been various high-level commissions in the United States over the decades that have looked at population growth. And all have concluded – and this is Chamie’s words – there is hardly any problem confronting America whose solution would be easier with a larger population. He further points out that these commissions have all found that stabilizing the population would be very helpful to dealing with issues associated with energy and resource consumption, climate change, and environmental stability and stabilization. I should say, sustainability.

Now, finally, let me just add one other issue. There is the issue of political representation and population growth. At the time of the last census in 2010, each member of Congress represented about 710,000 constituents. If immigration unfolds as the Census Bureau expects, they’re going to represent about 930,000 constituents. The same thing happens, of course, at the state and local level. Making the population a lot larger is likely to exacerbate the sense among many Americans that government is too distant and unresponsive.

So these are just some of the issues that I think we want to think about when we think about making our population so much larger. I’d like to return the focus on the report a little bit, and it’s second key finding. Not just this larger population, but the impact on the age structure in the United States. Now, many have argued that without immigration there will not be enough workers to support the government or the economy. Among those who have made this argument are Jeb Bush and the late Charles Krauthammer. Now, there’s a lot of inherent plausibility here. After all, immigrants arrive young and do have somewhat larger families. And of course, Americans are living longer and having fewer children.

Yet, as the projections show, immigration’s ability to, quote, “rebuild” the demographic pyramid, as Jeb Bush put it in 2013, is actually quite limited. For example, we found that in 2060 59 percent of the population will be of working age, if immigration unfolds as the Census Bureau projects. But this compares to 58 percent under the stabilization scenario I mentioned. That’s cutting immigration by two-thirds. A positive effect of immigration, but small. Looking at the ratio of potential workers to retirees shows – also shows a modest impact. But a little better impact there.

None of that is inconsistent. This idea that immigration can have a small positive effect on the age structure, but only a small one, is consistent with the prior research. A 1992 article in Demography concluded – which is the top demographic journal in the field – concluded: Constant flows of immigrants, even at relatively young ages, do not necessarily rejuvenate low-fertility populations. In fact, immigration may even contribute to population aging in the long run. As the Census Bureau said in a report in 2000, immigration is, quote, “a highly inefficient means for increasing the percentage of the population that is of working age.” Our analysis simply confirms that older research.

I could discuss at length why immigration has this modest effect on aging but let me – let me just explain it very briefly. Immigrants are not just a demographic abstraction. They are not simply the idealized young workers in perpetuity that some immigration enthusiasts seem to imagine. For one thing, immigrants arrive at all ages. The latest Census Bureau data on new arrivals in 2017 shows that about one out of every seven new legal immigrants is over the age of 50. Look at an issue like fertility. The total fertility rate of immigrants is now barely above 2.1. That is the – that is the level of children that a woman would expected to be – expected to have in the course of her lifetime given current patterns. And that is just about the replacement level of fertility. It’s higher than natives, but not that much higher. If you look at the impact of immigration on fertility in the United States, it raises the fertility rate – or the total fertility rate – by about 5 percent. So it’s positive, but quite small.

Now, one of the things we did do in the report is we looked at what would be necessary if we wanted immigration to maintain the ratio of workers to retirees. But to do that, it would require a level of immigration at about five times what the Census Bureau projects. It would produce a population of 706 million in 2060, more than double the current population. Put a different way, to preserve the working-age population, it would require growing the U.S. population by 376 million. So it doesn’t seem like that’s much of an option.

Now, alternatively, raising the retirement age by two years, even assuming zero net immigration – as I said, is unlikely – has about the same impact on the retirement – actually, a slightly better impact on the retirement age in terms of looking at the share of workers who are of working age than does the 46 million net immigrants who are supposed to come in the next four decades. It has also – it has a similar impact on the ratio of workers to retirees. So in other words, just raising the retirement age can replicate the effect of all the immigration the Census Bureau projects.

Now, one other way to deal with the decline in the working age is to increase the share of working-age people who are actually employed. At present, the employment rate – the share who actually have a job of 16- to 64-year-olds, is about 70 percent. Seventy percent of them work. Increasing the employment rate to 75 percent – which is almost what it was as recently as 2000, would have the same impact on the share of the population who are actually workers, as would the immigration projected by the Census Bureau.

As I think Nick can tell you, working-age people, particularly men not working, is associated with a lot of very negative social outcomes. So increasing the share of people who have a job, particularly these idle men, would be a good idea regardless of any other consideration. But in terms of this discussion, it is important because it’s another way of dealing with the potential decline in the working-age share.

In conclusion, it’s clear that the impact of immigration on the size of the U.S. population is very large. And this does have important political, environmental, infrastructure, and quality of life implications. And although immigration makes the United States population much larger, it doesn’t really fundamentally remake the demographic pyramid, again to use Jeb Bush’s term. It doesn’t significantly – or, dramatically, I should say – or, only modestly, maybe is a better way to put it – changes the ratio of workers to retirees or the share of the population that is of working age. It would require a truly dramatic level of immigration to do that. That seems totally implausible and no one that I know of is seriously arguing that.

Therefore, the debate over immigration should focus on issues like population growth, and what does it mean to make a much larger population. Now, of course, this report doesn’t tell us what are all the costs and benefits. I’ve mentioned some here in my discussion. Instead, the report tells us, if you will, where we’re headed as a nation. What we have to decide as a country is, do we want to go there? No one has a right to come to America? And if we wish, we could reduce immigration. We could also increase it or keep it the same. That’s up to us based on what we think makes sense for our country. What these projections show is one of the impacts that’s undeniable: population growth. Thank you.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Steve.


NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: Want me to go next?

MR. KRIKORIAN: Oh, yeah, sure. Yeah, go ahead. Yeah. Nick?

MR. EBERSTADT: I want to thank my friends at the Center for Immigration Studies for inviting me. It’s nice to be back with you guys. And I also want to tip my hat to Steve Camarota and Karen Ziegler for a fine paper here. I enjoyed reading it. It is a very good diagnostic on a part of the American prospective projection future that isn’t usually explored. So I think that this is a serious edition that people should look at, and analyze, and use to inform the debate, which will inevitably confront us.

Steven shared with me a number of the results which were not published. I went through those as well. I did not actually get down to the guts of the model and do it, but everything looks completely the way that it should. The absolutely unassailable conclusions which this paper emphasizes are basic factors that come out of population arithmetic or population math. And two of the most important are these: One of them is that immigration cannot possibly over the long run maintain a youthful population structure for a country. It just – the arithmetic doesn’t work on this. There was a wonderful illuminating experiment at the U.N. Population Division about two decades ago, under Joseph Chamie, projections on replacement population, what was necessary to maintain the size or the structure of a country.

As Oxford’s David Coleman noted in a paper he did discussing that, it would take – it would have taken more than the population of the world to maintain South Korea’s then-youthful population structure for 60 or 70 years in the future. It just doesn’t work. So we know that. Another thing, which is also inescapable as a matter of population arithmetic is that raising the age of retirement has a bigger bang than immigration in effecting the proportion of so-called working-age population in the country. And if you take a look at table five in this paper, you’ll see this laid out very clearly. Even a zero-immigration future for the United States would end up with a higher proportion of so-called working-age population by raising – by raising retirement age by two years than the Census Bureau’s autopilot assumption of migration.

Those are just simple arithmetic facts. So let me offer some comments and qualifications of my own. Or some thoughts of my own about what came to me as I looked at this. One thing I would suggest in the way of, I hope, constructive criticism, is that in the online version of this study – of this very good study – I think it would be beneficial to readers to present population pyramids – to just present a visual – because I think that people understand intuitively much better how population composition is changing if you can see it, than if you see, you know, a row of figures And I think that would – that would clarify some of the changes that lie ahead of us in way that, you know, you can’t necessarily see just by looking in a – in a set – a row of numbers.

I think a couple of things would come out of that. For instance, number one, any projection with lower net migration to the U.S. for the future of the next 40-plus years will, perforce, mean lower aggregate working-age population growth. And there are a lot of ifs here, but all other things being equal that would also mean a slower aggregate rate of economic growth for the United States. There are dis-amenities which Steve mentioned. And those dis-amenities and risks are considerable. But there are also potential amenities from this, not the least of these being the potential GDP growth.

A second thing to bear in mind – now, this is – this is not in the paper, because the paper takes the Census Bureau’s assumptions. A second thing to bear in mind is whether the Census Bureau’s projections will actually turn out to be accurate about future fertility trends with the United States. There is no reliable method anywhere for projecting fertility into the future. There just – and as long as this is a matter of human volition, it’s unlikely that we’re going to come up with a neat method of accurately doing this into the future. And at the moment, whereas the Census autopilot assumption of a not-unreasonable two births per woman – looking at the past generation for the United States – right now we’re at a bit over 1.7. And there are at least reasons to wonder whether a noticeably below replacement trend may not be part of the American future as well.

I won’t predict that. I don’t know how to predict it. But we can see that the United States has been the exceptional large country in the OECD with respect to fertility for a very long time. And there are people that have been arguing that that exception is going to come to an end. Ron Lesthaeghe, one of the authors of the so-called “Second Demographic Transition,” most prominently among them. If the United States has a(n) appreciably lower fertility level in the decades immediately ahead than is projected, then the U.S. starts to look a lot more as if it’s on a Western European trend, with more aging, slower labor force growth, and with slower immigration and slower labor force growth it starts to look much more like a Western European population.

The third question – and this is one which has to do with real existing America, is whether a future in which we have less immigration and higher retirement ages will also mean we have not just a higher proportion of working-age population in America, but a correspondingly high proportion of people who are actually working. As has been mentioned, I did a little bit of homework a few years ago on the – on the very troubling trends for labor force participation for American men in the past generation or so. And those trends are particularly troubling for native-born American men.

MR. CAMAROTA: Less educated, in particular.

MR. EBERSTADT: Less educated. The epicenter of the problem is native-born high school or no high school degree men who are not married, who have never been married, who have not have their – a wife and children. If you look at that group, the most recent figures that I’ve seen is that their labor force participation rates are about 50 percent – extraordinarily low. Whereas, for less educated married or unmarried immigrant counterparts, the labor force participation rate is in the 90-plus percent. It’s kind of indistinguishable from native-born college-educated guys. This is – this is a social problem in the United States entirely apart from the migration question. This is something which we – I think is a crisis in the United States that we have to deal with for intrinsic reasons, having to deal with the distress of this group in our society.

But until and unless we manage to raise the labor force participation rates, especially for men, towards the much higher rates that we see in general for immigrant men, the – I don’t think we can be confident that we’ll get the sort of employment rate response that we want to and that we’d like to see in this paper. So thank you very much.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Nick.


LINDSAY LOWELL: Yeah. Thank you as well. Glad to be here today. Five minutes? I’m just wondering. OK, let me go. (Laughs.) All right.

All right, so we’re here today. I’m a demographer. That’s population studies. So just the sheer numbers fascinate me. The so-what I think is what people are more concerned about. I’m not going to actually address that as much. These are a set of population projections looking at the future age distribution in the United States, given the most recent projections by the U.S. Census Bureau. As we just heard mentioned, around 2002 the U.N. came out with something called replacement migration. And what that was, was a sea change in a way of the concerns that gripped demographers just 10 years before.

We were worried about population out of control. By the way, population is still a big issue in developing countries, right? Growth is occurring there. Population growth, on the other hand, has slowed down in most of the Western world. That report, as you just heard, kind of said: Well, the U.S. is a lot better off than Europe. And so we were. And so we remain. And primarily for two reasons, one of which is we had a total fertility rate of about replacement for many years. And that’s changed, as we just heard. But also because of migration. Not because of migrants fertility, per se, but just the sheer level of migration to the United States. And that inertia’s been kind of baked in. And that explains a lot of what we hear in these results from this paper.

So why do we need to revisit that story? Have we learned anything new? Kind of not a lot. But we revisit the story because things are so much more dynamic that you might imagine. So we just heard, total fertility rate has changed remarkably in the United States in the span of just less than 10 years now. Nobody really saw that coming. It was a bit of a shock. As you know, of course, mortality rates have also increased, also a bit of a shock. Nobody saw that coming. And labor force participation rates have really not done what we would have hoped. And they make a big difference. Female fertility rates, among other things, have kind of hit what they can do. But they could go a little bit higher. So there’s still a lot of unknown there as well.

What has really changed, though, amazingly enough, is immigration. So in its 2000 projections, the U.S. Census Bureau said, oh, we’re going to 1.4 million annual migrants coming into the United States going forward. The latter part of the last decade they said, oh, 900,000. Then around 2012 they said, oh, well, maybe 700,000. So the number of migrants they predict coming in keeps on dropping. And why is that? Among other reasons, one of my little cottage industries is looking at Mexico to U.S. migration. As we all know, that’s got to pretty much net zero, even though the volume of migration – Mexican migration coming into the United States is still high, and even though the number of migrants coming across the border remains fairly high.

So that was completely unseen. In fact, a decade ago I was doing presentations in Mexico City, showing the graphs. And it was stunning to see what we expected and what happened. So migration is real dynamic process. We don’t always know where it’s going. I’m engaged currently in forecasting will Mexican migration bounce back? We don’t know, but we’re betting not, which means that a lot of these things that Steve was talking about are going to go towards the shorter side of the problem – that is, less migration than some advocates might imagine.

Well, so the proportion of the population growth attributable to migration is continuing to drop. And the proportion due to natural increase remains pretty much important. That is fertility and mortality. So what have we learned from this paper? Well, this is an ongoing evaluation. We do need to revisit these numbers. It’s not always the same story, even though the big story hasn’t changed that much. And what we get with this paper is a contribution to a current evaluation of what’s happening with the aging population, and what happens in the future if we were to vary the levels of migration on something very important – which is, the ratio of the older population to the working population.

And a lot of what we learn is, of course, that inertia is baked into population processes and things don’t vary as much as you would think. But it’s important to note that Dowell Myers, who’s also worked out this – out in California, has devised something he calls the senior ratio. So that’s the ratio of the population 65 and over to those just in the prime working ages of 25 to 64. And his projections suggest that over the next half a century that migration at its current levels will increase over net zero migration, will increase that ratio of the elderly to the working-age population by about a quarter, by about 25 percent.

And when you put it in those terms, yeah, so immigration is offsetting the aging ratio by about 25 percent. Well, that’s particularly sizable. Now, Steve is a little bit more conservative. He just looks at the ratios themselves. So he looks at, say, for example, the ratio of the elderly, 65 and over, to the total population of the working ages 18 to 64. And he finds that ratio goes from about 2 to 2.4, give current projections of migrations and over zero migration. Does that make sense?

So if you say that you say, oh, that’s a 0.4 percentage point increase. And 0.4 percentage points doesn’t sound that great. But it’s about a 20 percent increase in terms of that aging ratio. In other words, migration is offsetting the aging of the population by about 20 percent – about the same thing that Dowell Myers found by the way. And when you put it in that sense, you get a – you get a better way maybe perhaps of thinking about that. In other words, migration is a big deal, it does offset aging, but it’s perhaps not the biggest deal.

So how you – how you frame it – I think population pyramids would help you visualize this. Maybe a percentage change versus a percentage point change gives you a different handle on the role that migration plays. So why are we concerned about aging? And for a lot of reasons. I think mostly we think about the fiscal effects. Steve’s already touched on what the national academy has told us about immigration’s role on that going into the future. It’s also important to note that when you’re evaluating population ratios, the composition of the population going forward, and what effects they have, skills matter.

Skills matter a lot. So that if you really want to offset fiscal deficits to the United States, it’s not just immigrants. It has to be pretty much skilled immigrants. You know, that’s one bottom line that comes out of a lot of research. Documented status matters. Right at the moment, the undocumented don’t pay a lot in, but they don’t take a lot out. That could change with utilization. It’s still not a big enough population to change the story for the United States at large going forward. And there are different reasons to argue about legalization versus not. But documented status does matter.

The age and the time in the United States of migrants matters. So we look at net present value, newcomers coming in tend to be more of a fiscal negative. They tend to draw more than they pay in over their lifetime. But after about 15 to 20 years in the United States, that seems to turn around. And that’s important because the age of migrants coming into the United States has been getting older. That collapses that favorable period of time that they’re in the United States in terms of their ability to offset costs. And, of course, we know that period and cohort matters. That is, the types of migrants coming in.

So Mexican migration is tapering off. We see a lot more Chinese and Indian migration coming in. That’s going to change some of the dynamic a little bit on the margins as well. In other words, if you’re talking about population and migration policy, the issues of how many is married very strongly to who we bring in and what skill levels. The other thing that’s really important – and Steve’s talked about some of the things that affect the age ratio. In terms of things going forward, again, in terms of policy levers – migration versus other policy levers – the effect of migration, regardless of skill level – almost regardless of level – and its impact, is really mediated most importantly by productivity. And if we have a problem in the United States and the Western world, it’s productivity in the labor market.

So that’s really key going forward too. Anything you can do to grow the economy is probably going to be more important than the levels of migration that you dictate, absent no migration – (laughs) – or multiple levels greater. So productivity and the economy is a really important thing. In fact, population growth in most developing countries today will have an adverse effect on GDP per capita. Population growth in the Western world, the developed world, population because it’s tapering off is going to have more of a downward effect on per capita growth. So in that sense, many demographers argue that’s why migration’s good, right? It’s redistributing population growth away from the places where it’s not doing any good to places where it’s needed.

The question always comes back to all these fundamentals – what levels of migration, what age are the migrants, what skill level are the migrants, and what’s the underlying level of productivity in the country at large? That’s really the factors that kind of mediate that impact. Well, this issue, of course, enters into the political debate. So some will, kind of, like, sit on one side or the other. Let me make my position clear: U.S. immigration will help the United States offset aging. We know that. Is it a magic bullet? No. And that’s essentially what this paper is saying as well.

The hard decisions, the primary buttons that we’re going to have to push going forward, are how best to grow the economy to get productivity growth. Labor force participation is a fundamentally problematic thing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects labor force participation rates and, just like the Census Bureau, has missed population growth targets. The Bureau of Labor Statistics misses its projections to labor force participation all the time. These are very difficult things to predict.

And it’s interesting, because you would think population growth, among other things, would be simple. We usually talk about population as being a relatively straightforward projection problem, because there is so much inertia built into it. But in fact, it can change. And let me go back. In the 2014 projections, the Census Bureau said – I’m rounding – half a century out, 440 million in the U.S. Now it’s saying 400 million. That’s a 10 percent drop in a three- or four-year period in a projection process.

I also asked – suggest you take a look at something very interesting, which is the Social Security projections – a parallel set of projections – which are in the same general ballpark. They include a projection for legal migration and other migration, because we do have much more than simply the undocumented population. We have a fairly large irregular population in the United States and multiple statuses. And that projection still remains fairly high, although much less than it used to be. But that dynamic, of course, plays in here.

We need to know other than that the kind of hard decisions that politicians aren’t grappling with and shouldn’t put off in debates over migration on how do you deal with things like the CPI? How do you deal with things like age of retirement? There’s a sentiment now that we shouldn’t be extending age of – retirement ages. How do we build progresstivity (ph) into the Social Security system itself in terms of inputs and outputs? As I see it, Steve’s paper takes a fairly neutral tone. It certainly doesn’t address these larger policy issues. It doesn’t particularly evaluate what impact the aging of the population and the contribution by migrants will have on fiscal deficits.

Some will argue that by downplaying the effects of migration that it undercuts an argument for migration. But I don’t really see that. What I see is it is undercutting strong arguments for strongly increasing the numbers without a particularly strong suit for arguing for fewer numbers. What it’s really telling us is a lot that we know about migration in general, which is that the impacts aren’t large often one way or the other. The bigger questions and the tough questions to answer are what are the impacts that mediate themselves through the economy in terms of other kinds of things, like productivity, skill composition, and whatnot. Those are very difficult questions to answer and very hard to get right in the current policy environment.

Thank you.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Lindsay.

Steve, did you want to make a few comments before we take Q&A?

MR. CAMAROTA: Sure. I would like to echo a lot of what they said. I mean, you know, there’s so much unknown here, right? We don’t know what fertility’s necessarily going to be. And no one seems to be able to predict the level of immigration because these are all human decisions and we haven’t been able to get that right. It’s – I guess one area where I would slightly disagree with Lindsay, or maybe more, is he said at the end that the impact of immigration isn’t that big. I mean, I guess that’s ultimately for the reader to decide. I think you would guess from my comments I think adding 75 million people to the U.S. population, or making it 75 million larger than it otherwise would be in less – in four decades seems like a big number to me. It’s equal to the entire population of France, as I said. If you compare the last census in 2010, you could throw in France and Belgium and maybe the Netherlands. That’s a lot of people to add.

And it does seem, based on the latest surveys – just to give you one example – that Americans very much prefer to live in low-density areas – suburbs, rural areas. The march to the suburbs continues kind of unabated. What does it mean to add another million people to the Washington metro area? What does it mean for the preservation of open space? What does it mean for traffic congestion? What does it mean to grow California to 50 million, or Texas to 40 million? That’s what immigration does. And plays a huge role in California and a very significant role in Texas, and an enormous role, say, here in the D.C. area.

So those things are big. And remember, all the population growth that immigration and that we experience in America occur in about 100 counties in the United States. So it’s – people say, well, you know, Wyoming’s empty. We could fill it up. That’s true. But the reality is, immigrants don’t go to Wyoming. Native-born people don’t move to Wyoming. Almost all this population growth we’re discussing is occurring within about 100 counties or 50 metro areas in the United States. And that’s worth thinking about. And that seems like a big effect.

Now, you could still argue for population. You could say, look, more people means more opportunities for businesses and more opportunities for consumers. I’m a skeptic of that position, but you could argue it. But I guess I don’t think that 75 million – and, by the way, it doesn’t end at 75 million. If you just take these projections out a little longer, you could easily – in another 10 years you could get to 95 million pretty quick by, say, 2070 if you just assume the level of migration that the Census Bureau projects. So they seem like big numbers, but, again, that is ultimately the judgement of the reader.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Since I paid for the microphone, I’ll ask the first question. (Laughter.) But you know, think about what your questions are. And there’s a mic in the back.

What I wanted to ask is sort of a general question that would – and I mean, and I think – I mean, I think the answer is obviously yes, but I’d like some people’s thoughts on it. Different levels of immigration would actually affect some of these other phenomena. In other words, is at least conceivable that lower level of immigration might actually raise native-born fertility, for instance? Or is that a lower level of immigration might actually – at least in part, because there’s a lot of moving parts here – help draw more less-educated men into the labor market? And so I just wanted to hear people’s thoughts on that.

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, obviously, on the second question, would a lower level of immigration be helpful in getting less-educated men in particular back in the labor force? You know, obviously, people have been debating this forever. What we do know is the decline in the labor force participation of less-educated men does coincide with the massive growth in immigration, but whether it caused it is a more open question.

I would say it seems very difficult to imagine that we’re going to get the millions of less-educated people who are currently not working back into the labor force if we keep immigration this high because I do think that in a way someone who’s been out of the – an American who’s been out of the labor force for a while has problems – you know, significant social disadvantages – and is – certainly if you listen to employers, the immigrant is definitely the preferred person. And you can see why that might be good, right? You get a good worker.

I mean, the classic place where people look at this is teenage employment. It does appear that the decline in teenage employment is very much associated with immigration. And why that matters, and why that likely matters in the long run too, is that the research shows that if you don’t work when you’re a teenager and you don’t go onto college – which is about half of our kids – then you’re much less likely to work later in life. And so one of the ways immigration might be displacing natives is more early in their life. Later in life their presence may make less difference, but it’s early in life and then that plays out.

On the question of the impact on fertility, you know, people have looked at that. We can’t seem to find much evidence of it. But the notion is – just to flesh it out – is immigration makes affordable family formation more difficult. The idea is that if you raise the cost of housing, if you increase job competition, it makes it less likely that Americans will choose to have children. It’s plausible, but it would be – it’s hard to test. And to the best of my knowledge, the little bit of work that’s been done on it doesn’t seem to show that immigration is reducing native fertility, though it might.


MR. LOWELL: I think you may have a more complete answer than I.

I would only point out that one thing that’s interesting is fertility rates are dropping across both groups, foreign-born and native-born. So there seem to be – there seems to be something else going on. A lot of these things are kind of like master trends that we don’t always understand until years after.

On the labor force participation rate, I think the straightforward answer seems to be that there is an agreement among most economists that low-skilled migrants adversely affect the labor market performance of low-skilled natives. That’s 10 to 15 percent of the population at most, so it’s a small population, but we are concerned. How well you deal with that goes a long ways.

And, of course, the other wildcard – because we like wildcards here – is the reason we’re talking about universal income kind of programs is because people are worried about robots and what’s that going to do. But that’s science fiction out in the future.

MR. EBERSTADT: Yeah. I would – I think I’d echo Lindsay on this. I don’t think we have a very good answer, at least at the moment, for why America’s period fertility rate dropped so sharply since the crash. There’s a good argument that this is a continuing impact of an economic nature, since a really scary number of Americans tell us that we’re still in a recession if you ask people are we in a recession.

There also seems to be a sort of a Millennial moment where people’s outlook and values and view about family and family formation are also changing. I can’t parse this for you.

I can tell you that the best predictor anywhere of fertility levels is always desired fertility, wanted fertility on the part of women. If we knew how that was changing and how immigration was affecting that, we’d have a much better sense of all this, I guess.

With regard to labor force participation for our least-skilled native-born men, of course it has to be true that a greater supply means a lower price. I mean, that’s kind of like Economics I. And so if there is a greater supply of low-skilled migration from abroad, all other things being equal that’s going to lower wages. I mean, that’s George Borjas, that’s a lot of people who have looked at this.

However, if you start digging down at this, I think there’s an awful lot of heterogeneity in the less-skilled U.S. male working-age population. And when you look at the native-born, unmarried, lower-education demographic that I was describing, there are some things we don’t usually collect information on which I think are important to keep in mind.

One of these is the enormously high proportion of this group that has a felony conviction in their background. And I think it is a scandal that the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Census Bureau doesn’t regularly collect and analyze this sort of information, but my own back-of-the-envelope calculations are that one in eight adult American men has a felony conviction in his background – not behind bars, in the general population – and it’s probably an awful lot higher for lower-skilled men. That’s a big impediment to participation in the labor force.

Likewise, the disability and opioid archipelago is a – is a new phenomenon that, among other things, is a – is a terrible disadvantage for people who are caught up in this. And just how much the increase in wages and the effect of a higher wage versus a reservation wage will influence labor force participation for people who have this set of really terrible disadvantages as part of their biography is something I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to.

MR. CAMAROTA: One follow up. There is the question of the absolute labor market competition between immigrants and natives. There is a second argument that people raise the concern, is that with large-scale unskilled immigration it lets us ignore the problem much greater.


MR. CAMAROTA: So that politically employers would say, well, look, we’ve got to try to do more to rehabilitate prisoners and to get people off drugs. Oh, wait, we’ve got immigrants to do this work; why do I care? That’s one of the concerns. That is the other thing, it changes the incentive structure of our society and our political system: We can just ignore them, and with a – with a cascading series of social consequences. So there’s the job competition question and then there’s the sort of larger political/social question.

MR. KRIKORIAN: OK, thanks. Now I think that we have introduced a phrase into the English language, the “opioid/disability archipelago,” which I think was a great phrase. (Laughter.)

We can take questions. Anybody has questions, we’ve got – wait for the microphone. Yes?

Q: Hi. I’m Laura Francis. I’m a reporter with Bloomberg Law.

I wanted to pick up on something that you had said, Lindsay, about the skill level of immigrants. And I’m assuming that, you know, these projections from the Census Bureau are all based on the current immigration system, which is heavily skewed toward family-based immigration. And, you know, what the president’s called for, more of a merit-based immigration system, if policymakers were to change the system so that, you know, it kind of flip-flops and it’s more heavily in favor of people with certain skill levels or maybe, you know, employment-based immigration as opposed to family-based, how would that affect, you know, what you’re seeing in terms of the effects of immigration on the United States?

MR. LOWELL: So it’s a bit of a mind experiment, right? I mean, one thing – one estimate I saw for the United States and a couple of other countries is that we need 1.5 million college-educated migrants annually to offset all the adverse effects of aging because skilled migration has that kind of impact. It’s not going to happen. But you can imagine that moving towards a markedly better skill distribution would improve these kinds of outcomes for a host of reasons.

I don’t think it’s in the cards for the United States. I don’t even know how to address that simply because we back into so many problems with the U.S. in terms of our temporary migration system, which is where we get our largest supply of skilled migrants currently and that has a huge number of problems that to some extent minimizes the potential positive impact they would otherwise have. And at the same time we’re seeing – there are ways shy of point systems and really aggressively changing classes of admission, which is what the Jordan Commission argued for 20 years ago, of nudging things toward a more skilled composition. And that could include family migrants, too, if you start playing around with the edges in terms of how you bring people in and who you bring in. And I think those would be favorable ways to go that aren’t as – you know, as aggressive as saying let’s do what Canada does, which is bring in two to three times the number of skilled migrants than they do on the family basis and really, really screening for very highly skilled individuals. I think there are intermediate steps we could do that would be favorable.

MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah, I mean, there are two points.

The first point is there’s just no question that more-educated immigrants do much better. They pay more in taxes. They use less in public services. So that’s all to the good, right? It could help in some ways. And if you had the right immigrants, it could.

Having said that, it’s very complicated. The most recent Census Bureau data shows that immigrants have become more educated. The share who have less than a high school is way down, the share with more college is up, and it doesn’t seem to make any difference. The share of new arrivals who live in poverty or are on Medicaid or other measures or in the labor force doesn’t look any better over the last 10 years. It’s kind of puzzling.

One of the reasons seems to be related – to just show you how complicated it is – when you give immigrants literacy tests, if – and this is a big “if” – they’ve been educated outside of the United States, they score – those with a college degree score at about the same level as someone with a high school education in the United States. And they actually do also worse on math than college-educated natives, which is more puzzling to me. However, those educated in the United States almost do as well as natives educated in the United States. But about half – very, very roughly – of college-educated immigrants have a foreign degree, and it doesn’t seem to matter.

So you’d have to take that into account. You know, if you wanted to select skilled immigrants, you don’t want to go to India, necessarily, or China, or anyplace that seems to want to send a lot of skilled people and just take people at their word they have a college degree if you want the most skilled. It’s complicated. They may not be as skilled as they seem on paper, and you’d have to think about those who were educated in the United States and that sort of thing. And so very complicated, but as a general proposition more skills should translate into better outcomes in the United States.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Next question? Yeah, in the back.

Q: Hi. My name is Ian Snively. I’m with Townhall.

I just wanted to ask about the number of people, native-born, who don’t end up with a high school diploma or just have a high school diploma. Could you just go over quickly the significance of that number group?

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, of course, it’s still enormous, right? About 38 percent of adults, say 18 to 65, in the United States have zero education beyond high school. And of those with a college degree, what, it’s like 34 percent of 18 to 65 or 21- to 65-year-olds have a college degree – something like that, 34 percent – so the rest have some college. And some college is a really mixed group. Some of them seem to have a lot. They might be like, you know, two-year nursing degree. They have a good job. And some of them are just a kid who took a couple of classes and he’s no different than a high school graduate, if that.

So, yes, it’s true that one of the things the United States, I’d say, as a general proposition, that that 38 percent of the 150 million people in the U.S. workforce has struggled. Their real wages don’t look good, even long term. Their employment rates don’t look good. The share who get benefits from their employers don’t look good – that is like health insurance and stuff. So they’ve really struggled, I think everyone agrees. And one of the concerns about high levels of immigration is: Does it adversely affect, say, people with only a high school degree or less? Most people have looked at only the high school only, but – I mean, the less than high school, but there’s also – less than high school is about 8 percent of that 38 percent. So most of them have a high school degree, but nothing else. And that’s a lot of Americans, and they’ve really struggled.

And it’s hard to find evidence just looking at the normal measures that we have a labor shortage in those categories, even though employers are constantly saying we need nannies, maids, busboys, construction labor constantly. Real wages in all those categories haven’t grown. Real wages for workers with that level of education hasn’t grown. And their labor force participation for the high school only doesn’t look as bad as it does for the dropouts by any means, but it doesn’t look particularly good either, even with the recent improvements.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Anyone else? Any other questions? Well – yeah, go ahead.

MR. LOWELL: I just want to echo what Nick was saying here. You know, when I saw Frank Bean’s portrayal or portrait of those that we’re talking about – the low end of the labor market – in the past, it was shocking because the use of drugs, the use of – you know, the broken families, the disenfranchisement of that young population, that lesser-educated population, is pretty dramatic in the United States.

Would less immigration help? I don’t know. We’re not going to sit up here and have that debate. But it does call to question, again, using this – the argument that we need more or less migrants on just this particular issue, I think you can see the type of migration – moving towards skilled migration having a more positive effect on these – the lower-educated population in the United States because that’s what the data tells us we should expect. But again, we’re talking about more fundamental problems in many ways that getting too caught up with the migration argument I think kind of detracts, with a big caveat, again, as to what part of the migration argument you’re having.

And that is not just about numbers. It’s about the type of migrants. It’s about the legality of migrants. It’s about the nature of the labor market and how we manage it.

MR. KRIKORIAN: OK. Well, if there’s no other question, I appreciate everybody coming. Thank you very much to Nick and Lindsay for their thoughtful comments. This will be on our website. It’ll be posted in relatively short order. And hope to see you all at our next event. Thank you. (Applause.)