The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel discussion December 11. The featured experts delved into the findings of the Center’s latest report, which revealed that the total foreign-born or immigrant population (legal and illegal) was nearly 50 million in October 2023 — a 4.5 million increase since President Biden took office and a new record high.
Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, and Roy Beck, the former president of NumbersUSA, joined Steven Camarota, Center’s director of research and author of the new report. The panelists, who have all written extensively about the impact of immigration on the United States, will discuss what caused this rapid growth and the broad implications this has for American society, including the labor market, public coffers, politics, the environment, and culture.
Rich Lowry, Editor-in-Chief, National Review
Political commentator with CNN, columnist at Politico, author of “The Case for Nationalism”
Roy Beck, Founder and former President, NumbersUSA
Author of five books, the recent being “Back of the Hiring Line”
Steven Camarota, Director of Research, Center for Immigration Studies
Author of the report, "In October 2023, the Foreign-Born Share Was the Highest in History".
Mark Krikorian: Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies (moderator).
Date and Location:
December 11, 2023
MARK KRIKORIAN: Hello. My name is Mark Krikorian. I’m executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
In last week’s Republican primary debate immigration came up early, but it came up in the context of the border and quickly turned into a discussion about fentanyl. And while the border and this administration’s de facto waiving of congressional limits on immigration is the most urgent and immediate immigration issue, most immigration is actually legal. And so – and after all, when we talk about illegal immigration, that’s enforcement of the legal immigration rules.
So immigration, obviously, is a much broader issue than just the border. And we passed recently a milestone in American history: We now have the largest share of immigrants in the U.S. population ever recorded by the U.S. government. And so this should have been the topic of discussion at various forums. The Republican primary debate would have been a nice place for candidates to talk about it. It should be coming up in the press. It does not seem to be. And so we are trying to do our part in getting this fundamental issue about the future of the United States discussed more broadly and more substantively.
And to that end, we have three eminently qualified speakers.
First, Steven Camarota, the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, is co-author of a report using and digesting and slicing and dicing recent Census Bureau data showing the large share of – historically large share of immigrants in the U.S. population. Steve will be talking about his report and his findings.
And then we’ll have two commentors. Rich Lowry is editor-in-chief of National Review. He’s a commenter at – a commentator at CNN and a columnist at Politico. And following Rich will be Roy Beck, who is founder of NumbersUSA, former president of NumbersUSA.com, one of the leading citizen action groups related to immigration.
So we will start with Steve, and then go to Rich and Roy. Steve?
STEVEN CAMAROTA: Thank you, Mark. Yeah, we’re going to be discussing today what in many ways is the most important issue when it comes to immigration. Our discussion will be based, as Mark said, on a report published by the Center for Immigration Studies last week. Almost all the information in the report comes from government data collected in October of this year and it’s all available at our website.
The data show that the total immigrant population – that’s legal and illegal – is now nearly 50 million, which is 15 percent of the total U.S. population. Both the number and the percentage are record highs in American history, as Mark said. Just to be clear, we’ve never been here before as a country. No government survey or Census has ever shown such a high immigrant share of the population. Now, the enormous scale of immigration obviously has implications for nearly ever aspect of American society, from public coffers and the labor market to our culture and our politics.
The government typically refers to immigrants as the foreign-born, which includes everyone who was not a U.S. citizen at birth. Now, I’ll use the word “immigrant” and “foreign-born” interchangeably in my talk. The above numbers that we just discussed from the monthly survey done by the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is often referred to as the Household Survey, while it may be surprising to some, both the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics are quite clear that illegal immigrants are included in the data, though some are missed, of course.
The data show that from January of 2021 – when President Biden took office – to October of 2023, the foreign-born increased by 4.5 million. Put a different way, on average, the foreign-born has grown by 137,000 each month since the start of the Biden presidency. This is roughly triple the average increase during Trump’s time in office before COVID hit, so it’s enormous. The number’s also double what it was per month growth averaged over President Obama.
Let’s put up Figure 1 and take a look at that. Now, all the figures we’ll show during this discussion are in the new report, which, again, is available at our website. The numbers in that figure are even more striking when you consider that growth in the foreign-born represents net increase, not the number of newcomers. All births in the United States, including those to illegal immigrants, can only add to the U.S.-born population by definition, so the foreign-born can only grow from new arrivals. But new arrivals are always offset by everyone who goes home each year – which is not trivial – and by natural mortality. Since January of 2021, emigration – the people who leave – and deaths had the total at minimum 1.5 million, given the overall size of the immigrant population. Therefore, for the foreign-born to grow 4.5 million, at least 6 million new immigrants had to have settled in the United States legally and illegally in just the last 34 months.
This increase has been so fast that it appears to have made the new Census Bureau population projections which just came out on November 9th of this year obsolete. The Bureau projected that the foreign-born share was not supposed to hit 15 percent until 2033.
Let’s put up Figure 2 from the report, or the third figure I should say. The 15 percent shown in October of this year is higher than the prior record of 14.8 percent in 1890 and 14.7 percent in 1910, during what is typically referred to as the last Great Wave of immigration. Now, restrictive legislation in the ’20s and even World War I before that caused the foreign-born to fall significantly, and then the law was changed in 1965 to allow in more immigrants. But even in 1970, as the figure shows, the foreign-born were still less than 5 percent of the population. Since then, the share of the population that is foreign-born has more than tripled, and numerically it has quintupled. As I said, we’ve never been here before.
Now, the long-term growth in the foreign-born since 1970 has been mostly due to legal immigration, the so-called green card. Immigration itself tends to build on itself. As the legal-immigrant population grew, immigrants sponsored more relatives overseas. In the 1970s, new green cards averaged about 400,000 a year. And now it’s up to about a million a year, as ever more immigrants are able to sponsor more relatives. The law was also changed in 1990 to allow in more people as well.
Now, illegal immigration has grown right along with it. In fact, many illegal immigrants come to join their legal friends and family who are already here. As a result, many of the top sending countries for legal immigration are also the top sending countries for illegal immigration. In many ways, illegal immigration is partly driven by the scale of legal immigration.
Now, there was an amnesty for illegal immigrants back in 1986. We gave green cards to 2.7 million illegal immigrants. But because the law was never enforced thereafter, we replaced that population pretty quickly.
Now, there is general agreement but not unanimity that the illegal population was roughly stable, maybe declined some between 2010 and 2019 at 10 to 12 million people. Now, this is an important point, I think, that confuses a lot of people. Rough stability in the illegal population in no way means that new illegal immigrants weren’t coming. Between 2010 and 2019, it has to be the case that at least 4 million – maybe 5 million – new illegal immigrants settled in the United States, but that number was offset by the illegal immigrants who went home, the illegal immigrants who got deported, the illegal immigrants who legalized – such as when an illegal immigrant marries an American or wins the visa lottery or gets asylum, so those numbers are substantial – and, of course, just natural mortality among illegal immigrants every year. It’s a population of over 10 million; there has to be roughly 50,000 deaths each year. So it is not the case that rough stability in the immigrant population or the illegal immigrant population is an indication that no one is coming.
Now, when COVID hit in 2020, it’s likely that the overall immigrant population fell. We can’t say by how much because of the data; there’s problems with the data. But immigration – legal immigration was largely shut down and illegal immigration was likely much lower, so that we think that the numbers did fall. But by January of 2021, the numbers were back to where they were in terms of the overall foreign-born to what they had been before the pandemic hit.
Now, since January ’21 the numbers have exploded, and illegal immigration does account for a lot of the increase. There’s been a record number of border encounters. This is when someone tries to slip past the Border Patrol between ports of entry or presents themselves at a port of entry but is an inadmissible alien; that is, they have no legal right to enter but they’re asking to enter anyway. Now, the Biden administration has released about 2.7 million people into the United States. These are the so-called inadmissible aliens. Technically – I know it seems strange – they’re actually not considered to have been formally admitted to the United States, and as such they’re all subject to deportation, though DHS is choosing not to deport them and so they’re allowed to stay. Many times it’s because they have an asylum application or some other immigration status, but they are – not formally been admitted. And so that has created an enormous increase in the foreign-born.
Now, a big reason why the number of people showing up at the border has exploded was due to the president’s campaign promises to end Trump administration policies. Chief among them was the Remain in Mexico policy, which is formally known as the Migration Protection Protocols. Now, that had began in January 2019 to deal with another surge of asylum application. Now, since the vast majority of asylum applicants simply wish to be released in the United States – they don’t really qualify for asylum – requiring people to wait in Mexico for an asylum interview, which is what the protocols did, significantly curtailed applications.
Now, it is important to understand that unlike in decades past the vast majority of people caught at the border are not from Mexico and can’t simply be returned to that country. Now, the administration could have used various procedures to send people back quickly. One is called expedited removal. It could have held many of them in detention, before the numbers got too big, as they awaited their court date. But again, the administration chose to do none of that.
Now, once it became clear that the – that the administration was not going to hold people, was not going to make them wait in Mexico, and was not going to use expedited removal, then the numbers exploded as ever more people came to apply for asylum in the hopes that they, too, would be released into the United States with some far-off court date, which is now a decade from now. That’s how backed up the immigration courts are.
Now, in addition to those who have been released, there’s also a huge number of people who just slip past the Border Patrol. We don’t know what that number is, but the Border Patrol has this metric called gotaways, and they’re people seen on cameras but just never stopped. Now, those numbers are about five times on an annualized basis what they were before COVID. They have exploded. It looks like we’ve had 1.5 million so-called gotaways in just the last two fiscal years, many times what it was in the past. And one reason the Border Patrol stops fewer people is they’re so busy processing all the border encounters that are flooding the system.
Now, why has the administration chose to adopt such policies? A lot of conspiracy ideas or see a big hidden motive, but I think the key reason is that many progressives simply see immigration restrictions as motivated by racial animus, making them illegitimate, in their view – though, in public, most officials will still pay lip service to enforcement. Democrats also tend to see immigrants solely as desperate people fleeing desperate circumstances, which is sometimes very true, but not as rational risk-takers responding to the incentives the administration has created.
While the influx of illegal immigrants has been nothing short of astonishing in recent months, a significant part of the recent growth in the foreign-born post-COVID is legal immigration. My preliminary estimate: That of that 4.5 million increase between January 2021 and October of 2023, 2.5 million of it is illegal immigrants and about 2 million are legal immigrants. Keep in mind that is not the number of new arrivals by any means; that’s just the net increase in the number. The actual number of new arrivals is higher, and of course there’s some undercount, as I had said before, in these numbers.
So where are we headed? Well, let’s put up Figure 7 from the report. What this figure shows is that if present trends continue we would be setting new numerical and percentage records basically every month. If these trends do continue, the total number of immigrants would reach nearly 60 million and 17.3 percent of the total U.S. population by the end of a hypothetical second Biden term, and that’s what the figure shows. These, of course, are levels unlike anything in American history.
Now, look, Congress sets limits on legal immigration and allocates funds to enforce those limits for very good reasons. The current scale of immigration raises both short- and long-term issues. Some of the short-term costs we’re seeing play out in cities across the country. New York City, for example, is expected to spend $12 billion over the next three years on social services for illegal immigrants. The impact – the shorter-term impact, the immediate impact on key public services like hospitals and schools are certainly not trivial, particularly in the communities where these folks are being settled.
The second set of concerns are more long term, and I think – and I think these long-term issues is where we need to focus our discussion. Let me just touch on a few, because there are a lot and, you know, we don’t have that much time.
As in the past, the vast majority of immigrants come to America in search of a better life. And the high rates of work among immigrant men reflects that desire. But by increasing the supply of labor, immigration does reduce wages and sometimes crowds out U.S.-born workers, particularly in jobs that require modest levels of education.
Now, although the wage impact of immigration was once disputed by immigration advocates, in the post-COVID high-inflation world businesses began – and their allies – began to openly clamor for immigration specifically to hold down wages, effectively confirming what basic economic theory and prior research had found. The only debate now is, is reducing the wages of working-class Americans good public policy or bad? But everyone kind of agrees that that’s what immigration does.
Now, 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. Now, there’s a lot of research on this question, there’s a lot of data, but let me just give you one number to think about. Let’s exclude teenagers and focus only on U.S.-born men 20 to 64 – of working age – with no education beyond high school. In 1960, 7 percent were not in the labor force, which means they’re neither working nor working – looking for work. By the beginning of 2023, it was 25 percent. So we’ve seen an explosion of people who don’t show up as unemployed but are working age because they don’t say they’re actively looking for a job. So there’s all these people – millions of them – on the economic sidelines. The total number of people who are of working age is over 50 million who are neither working nor looking for work, but if we look at the less educated – those without a college degree – is where the big deterioration seems to have happened.
Now, this rise in non-work there’s a pretty clear consensus is associated with a host of serious social pathologies, from crime and social isolation to overdose deaths, suicide, and welfare dependency. Now, at a time when businesses are struggling to fill jobs, it may be very tempting to simply argue for immigration or new immigrants to fill jobs and just forget about all those on the economic sidelines and all of the economic problems of less-educated Americans. But that comes at a cost of allowing these social problems to persist. It is not right to say that immigrants or immigration caused that problem entirely – it probably contributed to it – but it certainly lets us let it go unaddressed. It lets us ignore it.
Now, perhaps the most important reason we limit immigration is to facilitate assimilation. And I don’t mean by assimilation simply driving on the right side of the road or even learning English or having a job, though those things are important; I mean something deeper. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, himself the son of Jewish immigrants, famously said in 1915 that learning English and American customs is not enough. He believed, quote, “the immigrant is not Americanized unless his interests and affections are deeply rooted here. And we properly demand of the immigrant even more than this,” Brandeis said. “He must be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate with us for their attainment.”
Now, few public figures in America today would express such a sentiment. I think one of the main reasons for that is we no longer even agree on what our ideals and aspirations are. In fact, assimilation itself is increasingly seen as a bad word. As Boston College Professor Peter Skerry wrote some years ago, assimilation is morbid among many of our elites. That said, I still think it’s fair to say that a large share of the public supports the idea of assimilation, including the kind of robust assimilation that Brandeis outlined over a hundred years ago.
But as my colleague Mark Krikorian has observed on more than one occasion, it’s hard to assimilate immigrants when the numbers are so large and they get such mixed messages about what we want from them. Should they retain their cultures? Should they celebrate American history or accomplishments? Or is America an irredeemable, racist, sexist, classist society in need of fundamental transformation?
Whether we are talking about labor markets, culture, or the impact on public services and welfare, the most important issue is numbers. Yet, as a country, we have great difficulty in discussing this issue. Talking about immigration without talking about numbers is like discussing a budget without ever mentioning what it is you’re actually going to be spending. In terms of numbers and their share of the population, America, when it comes to immigration, is headed into uncharted territory. The key question for policymakers and the public is: Do we want, as a society, to go there? Thank you.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thanks, Steve.
RICH LOWRY: Thank you. So I hope everyone’s doing great out there. Where I live in the Northeast, there’s been this respiratory thing going around, kind of nasty; actually briefly landed me in the hospital last week. I’m doing much better. It was a real nice hospital, nice facility near me; not nearly as many hostages as I expected, though, and the underground tunnel facility was really underdeveloped. (Laughter.) So kind of pathetic.
I want to say before I say anything else honored to be here with Roy, who’s been – is in the trenches on this issue every day, and my hat’s off to Steve on another really important study. I rely on the Center all the time. I cite it a lot. I rely on it even more than that. I don’t think there’s really a week that goes by where I’m not calling Steve, Mark, or Art Arthur, and sometimes I think I’m wearing out my welcome when Mark won’t even say hello when he picks up; sometimes he says, “Yes, Rich?” (Laughter.) “Now what, Rich?”
But anyway, this – I want to underline an issue that both Mark and Steve have hit on: Where is the debate? Where is the debate on this issue? Fifteen percent is a landmark number. It’s a historic number. It’s a number worthy of being discussed and litigated in the public sphere, and it’s just not. This is an issue that impacts wages. It impacts schooling. It impacts welfare. It impacts politics. It impacts our broader culture.
Among other things, national characteristics tend to be enduring – not immutable, but they tend to be enduring. Bob Newhart used to say that being three-quarters Irish and one-quarter German made him a very meticulous drunk. (Laughter.) So these qualities, they don’t go away easily. And this historic wave of immigration just affects our national life in ways large and small, good, bad, and indifferent.
Just a little example. I lived in New York for decades, and when I first went there in the 1990s pretty much every cab driver in New York was an African American. That’s no longer the case. That industry is now dominated by Pakistani and West Indie(s) ethnic networks. You still occasionally come across kind of an old school African American cab driver. I ran across one of these guys, real salt of the earth, a couple years ago, and he was haranguing me in the cab with all his views that were – some of them were substantially to my right. And at the end of this he was like, you know, and that’s what I think, and he fixed me with a suspicious gaze in the rearview mirror and he said, “because I don’t know where you’re from, but I’m an American.”
And just to the issue Steve hit on briefly of cost, I mean, you just look at the current wave of illegal immigration now in cities like Chicago and New York. You know, New York, we’re an amnesty jurisdiction. We welcome everyone from everywhere. And then, sure enough, tens of thousands of these migrants show up. And you know, they’re unskilled, they don’t have family connections the way other immigrants might, but still you have the mayor of New York City – 8 million people – saying our city is now fiscally ruined by tens of thousands of these migrants showing up. So it just goes to how consequential this issue is.
It is as consequential or more consequential as trade, as Ukraine funding, as infrastructure, as the climate, as the deficit, all these issues that are routine matters of congressional debate and talked about on the Sunday shows all the time. But this one is missing. And the question is why. And I put a lot of the onus on conservatives and on Republican politicians.
And it reminds me a lot of the way the trans debate used to be several years ago. When this would come up, there would be legislation somewhere, we’re going to stop these so-called medical transitions or we’re going to stop biological males competing in women’s sports, and you’d have, you know, Republicans in good standing – Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas or a Kristi Noem out there in Dakota – saying, nah, you know, we’re not going to do that; we’re just going to rely on the experts and the professional advice. Which is a way of saying: Don’t hurt us. Leave us alone. We’re not mean people. We’re not transphobic. It goes to what my longtime colleague Rick Brookhiser says about Republicans, that in their heart Republicans think they’re wrong, which they do on a lot of issues and they did on that. They just didn’t want to talk about it because it seemed nasty.
Now, what happened is you had conservative influencers, writers, advocates pushing on the trans issue, making that kind of evasion unsustainable. And now, lo and behold, the last couple years we had a real debate, a debate that the right is in large measure winning. We might – maybe it’s overly optimistic, but I think it’s not crazy to believe that we reached peak trans.
Now, there’s nothing like that happening – except for here, fortunately, and in some other precincts – on the debate over immigration numbers overall. And another reason we’re not seeing the kind of debate we should is just the sheer irresponsibility and numbers coming over the border illegally. Now, illegal immigration is a hugely important issue. We all write and talk about it all the time. It’s one of the issues I rely on the Center’s work for, but it’s not the only immigration issue. But because it’s so easy, it’s what Republicans have gravitated to. The late, great Congressman Sonny Bono, Republican congressman, was asked once, you know, what do you think of illegal immigration? He was like, well, it’s illegal, right? Now, turns out that was a naïve point of view, but that’s the easy thing to say. So this is – this is just naturally where Republican advocacy goes.
And I think one reason for the political power and potency of Donald Trump is he seems like a comprehensive restrictionist. He kind of plays like a comprehensive restrictionist, but he’s not. He’s really a super border hawk. He’s overwhelmingly focused on stopping numbers from coming over the border, and then, you know, throughout the 2016 campaign and at times during his presidency he would say we need more illegal immigration, you know? And right afterwards one of his aides, obviously, sir, no, that’s not your position. He’s like, no, it’s not? No, no, it’s not your position. But, obviously, he’s not always very careful about policy or numbers.
I have a friend who – I knew an advance guy for Trump when he did a big rally in Virginia in 2016. And Trump was back in the green room in Roanoke or wherever it was and was curious about the number of people out there and asked this aide, how many people are out there? He said, I think, sir, I’ve never seen so many. It’s packed to the rafters, 3,000 people. Trump’s like, 5,000 people? That’s great. And then he gets on the phone: Jimmy, I got 10,000 people out there. So anyway, that’s Trump. But even he is not focused on this number, on this overall number.
And this is just hugely consequential for our society. And the beginning of wisdom on it, the beginning of having a debate on it, is telling the truth and informing people about what’s happening in a responsible and careful way, and that’s what Steve and his colleagues have done.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Rich.
ROY BECK: Well, I want to touch on both of your points. The situation, have we been here before? And, Steve, I’ll take – I agree with you and disagree with you about, well, we’re in uncharted territory. We have been here, basically, before twice: 1890 and 1910. The percentages were almost – just barely below what we are right now. So that’s good. We have – we have some history to see, well, how did we do last time?
Now, what’s uncharted is the fact that it’s continuing, it’s continuing to go up, because after 1910 we had World War I, which pretty much ended immigration for three or four years. It picked back up again, but then in 1921, 1924 Congress passed a law and Calvin Coolidge signed it – actually, I guess Harding signed the first one and Coolidge signed the second one – to end the Great Wave, so the percentages did not get above where they are now.
So what was it? What was it like last time? Well, I began writing, researching, speaking on this immigration issue pretty much full-time in the early ’90s. Throughout the ’90s, I don’t think there’s ever a(n) audience that wasn’t a total border hawk type audience where somebody didn’t speak up – and often more than one – and say, I don’t know what the problem is; as a percentage of the population, foreign-born is not much more than half of what it was at its peak. Of course, that’s – (laughs) – showed the idea the trend was going this way, so to basically say we shouldn’t be concerned about this trend because it’s at this point.
The question is, in real policymaking, you want to kind of think, well, where are we headed? Well, those kind of people – and I would say most people in Congress, most politicians, most media – that was the point, not concerned about where we’re headed. It was like, well, where are we right now? Well, we’re just – we’re just barely half of what we were at the peak. And of course, there’s the – the implication is everything was great. We’ve been here before. I mean, we’ve had twice as much. Things were great when we were at – what was it? – 14.8 and 14.7 percent. Well, it doesn’t take much to look at history and know things weren’t great. So this is – I want to talk a little bit about where we were in 1890 and where we – in the 1890s and the 1910s, when we were at – we’re just below where we are now.
I’ll start off by saying that between 1890 and 1910, that area was studied by these great economic historians, Hatton and Williamson from Ivy League schools. They are at sort of the end of their careers now, but they put their life into studying economic history. And this is an astounding statistic. It’s a number that they worked at, from all of their efforts, that the level of immigration between 1890 and 1910 held back urban wages for Americans by 34 percent. So Americans in 1910, the workers – and that includes the immigrants too – were making 34 percent less than they would have been making if not for that Great Wave of immigration. So there were real economic consequences.
But I guess the American people were OK with that. Well, no, they weren’t OK with that. The great immigration historian John Higham, who’s usually quoted by immigration cornucopians, loved immigration, but he was a realist, too, and he was a true historian. His take on that period when we were here before at these kind of percentages was that from 1890 through the 19-teens that immigration, that high level of immigration, created – and I’m going to get the words here – “immense cultural divisions and violence across the country” and also precipitated the greatest success of the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan had its greatest success and was a nationwide movement not after the Civil War, not in the 1900s – 1800s, but was – it was by the 1910s. The social-economic disruption that was caused by having in 1990 (sic) 14.7 percent of the population foreign-born and having risen so quickly to that point was violence, cultural division, well – and an increase in various kinds of racial hatred. This is not – this is not totally out of synch with what’s happened between 1990 and 2010 and 2020.
So we’ve been here before, and we should not be shocked by where we are. Do the politicians – and we’ve been here before, too, with the politicians ignoring this the whole time. Well, that’s – this is uncharted territory, Rich, because this is – there’s never been a time that the politicians have been this quiet about looking at it or that the news media. News media was full of coverage on this issue. Politicians talked about it all the time. Between 1897 – seven years after we hit that first peak in 1890 – between 1897 and 1924, either the House or the Senate 18 times passed legislation to stop the Great Wave. Eighteen times. Four times, they both did it in the same year. And Grover Cleveland vetoed the first time, Taft – Cleveland, a Democrat. Taft, a Republican, vetoed it a second time. And then Wilson, a Democrat, vetoed it two more times. So the American people, through their representatives – other than the presidents – they recognized what was going on. It was a bad thing. And it’s a bad thing now.
I want to say just – and I’ll kick it back to you, Mark – (laughs) – I want to pick at – you know, it was hard to – it’s hard to find something to pick at at Steve’s work. So I just want to say, you know, his using immigration for all foreign-born, you know, some people, it’s a little much. You know, it’s like immigrants – I’m sorry, immigrants for foreign-born. Immigrants is a – that’s a legal term, and you’re allowing illegal aliens to be called “immigrants.” So I want to state that. But for the sake of brevity, you do that.
But this is interesting. I’ve sort of been sensitive to the lawyers who say, oh, they’re not – that’s not all immigrants. So I’ve been using “migrants” for a few years, and the news media has – I kind of like the fact that they’ve – they’re using “migrants” more than calling illegal aliens “immigrants” all the time.
But I was in a – speaking to a grassroots rally last month in Chicago, South Side of Chicago. You brought up – (laughs) – what’s going on there. And these are African American communities in an African American community house. Well, what’s happening there? They’re losing their community facilities. Their educational facilities are being overrun. All kinds of things are being used to house and take are of all of these migrants that are coming through in various ways.
Well, I got my comeuppance on using the term “migrants.” A woman stood up in the crowd, and the crowd was cheering her on, and goes: Those are not migrants. These people that are being housed, that the mayor is forcing us to house in our centers, those aren’t migrants. We are migrants. So that was interesting. And then – and other people spoke up, says: We’re migrants. Because they consider themselves migrants because their families migrated from the South in the Great Migration.
Well, semantics can sometimes get you off – you know, you get too many things. But it was interesting to be reminded that – and I ask people. How many people here in this auditorium, your families migrated in the Great Migration that happened between World War I and 1965? Well, almost every single hand went up. They are children of migrants. That’s the way they consider themselves.
And that’s the last point, is that when the politicians, media, religious leaders, Black leaders, union leaders finally had a majority push to stop the Great Wave of migration and stop this percentage from going up as far as it’s gone now, to stop that trend, we got a wonderful pause. Not a total pause, but you know, cut in annual immigration by about two-thirds, and it allowed the Great Migration. This – people who think that keeping this train going is somehow another humanitarian, it means –
MR. CAMAROTA: You mean allow the Great Migration from the South.
MR. BECK: Yeah. Not the – not the immigration wave, but the Great Migration from the South that allowed – it was –
MR. CAMAROTA: Because those jobs were there.
MR. BECK: They could go north, they could go west, and they had huge economic progress until the latest immigration wave began in the 1880s (sic; 1980s). So the – one of the most important things that anybody who’s concerned about the disproportionate level of poverty and near poverty in our African-American population, the most important thing that could happen would be tightening the labor market and stopping this trend that Steve has written about.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Roy. Channeling Ronald Reagan, I paid for this microphone so – (laughter) – I’ll make a couple of comments.
First, my first thing is, Roy, when you were talking about the trend and we’re only halfway to the – you know, to the peak and we’re fine –
MR. BECK: Back in the – yeah, the ’90s.
MR. KRIKORIAN: – yeah, back in the years, back in the ’90s – it reminded me of the – you know, the joke about the guy who jumped out of a building – (laughter) – and halfway down somebody says, how’s it going? Well, great so far. (Laughter.)
So one question I wanted to ask – maybe, I mean, Rich, you cover politics, you know, obviously, daily, but really for anybody. Roy said that, you know, the silence – and you mentioned it, too – of elected officials is sort of remarkable on this. We have a presidential election coming up. What are the – what have the Republican presidential candidates said about immigration? Are there differences among them? What’s the story?
MR. LOWRY: Well, they’ve said very little except for, again, on the border. And look, there’s a robust debate on the border, which is great. You have the Biden administration taking fire from its own party on the border because the situation is so unsustainable. But on this issue, the overall number including legal immigration, we’re just up against, you know, an almost unbreakable wall of conventional wisdom that says it is almost by definition good and can’t be questioned. And that assumption is just deeply embedded in our politics across both parties and just hard to break. I don’t think there’s – there hasn’t been a question in any of the debates about legal immigration, right? I don’t know if –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Not that I know of, no.
MR. LOWRY: You know, DeSantis might have a policy for more skills; I’m not sure. But it’s the – that I don’t know – (laughs) – is telling enough that this issue has had just zero prominence.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. Next year is going to be the hundredth anniversary of the 1924 immigration bill that Coolidge signed, and that basically it didn’t stop immigration but it dialed it back and it ended the Great Wave. One of the charges against the law is the way it reduced immigration because it used these national origins quotas where there were a certain number per year allowed from Italy and a certain number from Ireland and what have you, and the point was ostensibly to maintain the ethnic balance of the country, that sort of thing. How much do you think that this – Roy, you’re more the historian here, but whoever wants to weigh in – how much do you think that has colored and shaped the discussion about, you know, other new – current legislation to reduce immigration?
MR. BECK: Well, usually the winners of a – of a battle write the history, but for the most part the losers of that battle in 1924 wrote the history. And it did have a racial component, not directly but because it was related to the percentage of every ethnic group in the country at various times. And it did focus on the who as well as the how many. The fact is, is that it was the how many that mattered, that really mattered. That was what saved – that’s what – that’s what, well, not saved, but rescued – rescued the descendants of American slavery for the next 50 years, is they had their – was the – was the reduction in the numbers. So I think –
MR. KRIKORIAN: In other words, if they had been Irish or Italian, it wouldn’t have made one difference one way or the other.
MR. BECK: Yeah, but the fact – but the fact that you can – you can point back and say, look, we’ve done this before and it was racial or ethnic or what – the fact is, you don’t have to do it that way. That’s the – that’s the point.
And there are indications that, you know, Coolidge did have a problem with the bill because of the Japanese part of it. It was a little more complicated than just that he’s concerned about the Japanese; there was a treaty, you know. But his interest was overall the numbers. You know, at that point it was OK to talk about maintaining a culture in the United States. And so there’s a lot of concern about that, does the United States have a culture. You know, we can’t get people to talk about numbers. I mean, right now pretty hard to say that there is an American culture that we want to preserve, that you would cut for that. But, yeah, it’s undercut us.
But I think what we have to look at is what were the results of that bill, not what were maybe all the intentions. But again, you had the top progressive religious leaders, almost all of the Black leaders – I’m not aware of any Black leader that was opposed to it – and the unions were totally behind it. So it’s not exactly like you’re talking about some right-wing piece of legislation.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. So in a sense it’s almost, I mean, with those caveats of sort of flipping the – a reversal of the road to hell is paved with good intentions, you can end up with good policy based at least partly on bad intentions.
MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah. But there’s no reason to revisit that kind of position.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. Of course.
MR. CAMAROTA: You could just restructure U.S. immigration policy to bring the numbers down, to lessen the impact on the less-educated labor market, to facilitate assimilation, to take the pressure off of schools and hospitals and physical infrastructure, to lessen the social service costs, and so forth. There’s no reason you would have to mention at all the ethnic composition. I don’t –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
MR. BECK: Has a single – has a single member of Congress –
MR. CAMAROTA: Ever mentioned that? No.
MR. BECK: – ever suggested doing it by race or ethnicity?
MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah, I don’t – no one wants that.
MR. KRIKORIAN: No, not that I –
MR. CAMAROTA: Right, so no one wants that.
MR. BECK: It’s a total strawman.
MR. CAMAROTA: Right, exactly. So it’s just a strawman.
MR. KRIKORIAN: It is a strawman that’s, you know, got a lot of straw in it. (Laughter.)
MR. LOWRY: Well, and another thing that’s happened is just the suspicion where opposition to high numbers that used to used to exist on the left – union sentiment and the rest – has just totally collapsed. So this is why, you know, your experience out in Chicago is so important. If you could reunite some of that opposition from that part of the political spectrum, it could create a little bit of a permission structure for Republicans to talk about it more as well.
MR. BECK: And for some – and for some Democrats who – I mean, it takes – it would take a tremendous amount of courage for a Democrat to speak up right now, a Democratic officeholder to speak up right now, even though the polls show that on many of these issues the majority of Democratic voters, they want to end chain migration, and they want to bring the numbers down, they want to end the visa lottery, they want mandatory E-Verify. But they’re not – for all kinds of other reasons, that’s not going to make them vote for a Republican, even though the Democrats are against all those things they’re for, the Democratic officials.
MR. CAMAROTA: Can we – actually, Mark, can we revisit one other aspect about the past that I touched on? And since Roy brought it up and you’ve always been thinking about it, I’m interested, the idea that, look, when immigrants arrived in the past when we were at 15 percent before, they were arriving in an America with a lot of self-confidence about what we wanted from the immigrants. Now, you’ve made a lot of this in the past. In fact, I would say you’re the person who’s developed this argument the most, and I think it’s worth talking about it. One of the ways in which immigration is different today is that America is so different, right? No one brings up assimilation because we don’t even have an agreement on what we want from the immigrants. And what that means is immigrants are arriving in a society where they get all kinds of conflicted messages.
So there are other ways in which it’s different, too, right? You have technology facilitating travel and communication and things like that. But this fact, that the elites had an idea that Brandeis was tapping into – people didn’t react to Brandeis’ speech and say: Oh, that’s horrible. What do you mean? We have no national aspirations. We have no national ideas or culture. That’s not what people said. They said: Yeah, that sounds right. We can have immigrants, but this is what we would expect. That’s all gone.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right, right.
MR. CAMAROTA: And doesn’t that mean immigration is fundamentally different today because the country is so fundamentally different?
MR. LOWRY: But it was also – it was so – that effort, Americanization effort, was so comprehensive. You know, you had voluntary leagues do it and you had companies doing it. You had everyone distributing, you know, English language pamphlets and educating people after hours about America. It’s like, can you imagine Apple and Meta doing that today, right? It’s completely a different world.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right, right. And it’s a point, is that our – or, I mean, it’s a point I was making, is that our elites have basically given up on the idea or rejected the idea of assimilation. And that’s kind of what I – is a political question I wanted to ask on is – how central is this issue of not just immigration in general, but insisting on continued high levels of immigration, how central is that to the disconnect – the political disconnect, the consequences of which we’re seeing, between the public at large and our leadership classes? “Elites” people use, but frankly, having watched that hearing with three presidents of top universities, I’m not sure “elite” is an adjective I would use anymore. (Laughter.) But the leadership classes of not just the United States, really the Western world – business, government, et cetera – really are disconnected from the interests and concerns of the public. And this issue on the level of immigration seems to be one of the key areas where that –
MR. LOWRY: Yeah. So, you know, you talked about the political turmoil they had around these high levels and how we haven’t seen it or even any debate, but there is a level of turmoil about this – subterranean, maybe, in America; certainly you see it in Europe. But there are three big issues that I think, you know, maybe opening for Trump, where there is this disconnect you’re talking about: trade, China, and immigration.
Trade policy has changed. China policy has changed. Biden’s basically accepted Trump’s China policy. What hasn’t changed is immigration. You know, tougher rhetoric around the border, but not that broader debate that I think gets to the more fundamental disconnect you’re talking about.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And even the tougher rhetoric is accompanying a huge increase –
MR. LOWRY: Yeah. Right.
MR. KRIKORIAN: – in the number of people being waved into the country.
This is a question – it sounds kind of wonky, but a lot of people who follow the issue are concerned about this. Are there 20 million, 30 million, 40 million illegal aliens or not? In other words, how reliable is this government data that we’re basing all – because we’re not making any of this up. You’re just slicing and dicing something that anyone out there could just download the data and do this to.
MR. CAMAROTA: That’s right. Look, we can’t say for certain. And the way in which the data is constructed has limitations. It does miss people. And remember, without going into too much detail, all modern surveys, you’ve never seen a survey – whether it’s, you know, whether Americans like this soap or this shampoo or who they’re going to vote for – are all weighted based on what the person taking the survey thinks is the actual distribution of people in the country. There’s no such thing as a truly random survey anymore. There are, but not that matter.
So this data is all weighted. And the question is, are the weights constructed in such a way as to capture what’s happening or what’s happened? And the answer is probably not. They probably do miss some people. The weights are a problem.
And then there’s just the problem of finding the immigrants. But I would tell you that they do find in the survey – they ask people when did you come, and they find lots of people say, yeah, I just came. And then a lot of those people are from Latin America with very modest levels of education. So we know we’re picking up a lot of people. Based on all the prior research from Pew or Migration Policy Institute or the Center for Migration Studies or the Census Bureau itself and others, we are picking up a lot of illegal immigrants.
And when you do that – I’m going to explain very briefly how you estimate illegal immigration, and it’s way more complicated. You look at the – but here’s – ready? It’s this is the foreign-born number, so it’s 50 million. And we think, based on how many people we’ve actually let in and estimates of outmigration; there’s 40 million legal immigrants; the difference between the two is your base number for illegal immigration, which you then would underestimate it. That’s not how everyone does it, but that is a very mainstream way. That’s how the government did when it used to put out more regular estimates.
So when you do that kind of calculation, you get the kind of number that the illegal population now is probably 12, 13 million. But I think what throws people off is, A, but it doesn’t seem like it’s grown, but they forget all the people who get deported, go home, die, and we legalize people constantly. And that population cannot be added to by births. Yes, there are 4, 5, 5 ½ million children of illegal immigrants in the United States born here, but they’re all U.S.-born and by definition are not illegal immigrants. That’s a different question of whether we should give automatic citizenship to the children born of illegal immigrants.
Final point. If there were 20 million illegal immigrants in the United States, we would expect that for things like birth data – when we look at Census Bureau data and we look at birth data, they’re not that out of whack. If there were lots more people in the United States, we would expect them to have children. Now, maybe they’re all celibate and they don’t have children, but one would expect children. Another area would be school enrollment. When you look at Census Bureau data and compare it to administrative data, you don’t get that big of a difference. So that would tend to suggest that the Census Bureau’s data – whether it’s the monthly data we’re using here, they have a big annual survey – those things probably provide a pretty sound basis for thinking about illegal immigration.
Could the number be bigger than we think? Yes. Could it be a million, maybe even 2 million bigger than we think? Yes. Could it be 10 million bigger than we think? Boy, that’s very hard to believe given the administrative data. We don’t see those kids in public schools. They’re not showing up in emergency rooms in those kinds of numbers. We have other data from other countries that doesn’t say it. We don’t have birth data that show that. So it seems extremely unlikely. I would say never say never, but I’m extraordinarily skeptical of that perspective. I think the number is around now probably close to 13 million.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So sort of last question here, really for anybody: What’s the solution? Is an immigration moratorium the way to go? What does an immigration moratorium even mean? You know, what should we do, basically? Because we’re at the end of this year, so on the hundredth anniversary of the 1924 immigration law that shut off the Great Wave, what should we be doing? Roy, you want to take a first whack at it?
MR. BECK: Well, there’s been a lot of controversy over the decades in the immigration restrictionist movement about whether you should do sort of zero-based planning or do it by categories. You know, my opinion is, is that, just like you’re not going to get the federal government – Congress – to start each year at zero and then just build a budget from there, they’re going to start with last year’s budget. You know, that’s the way they start. And I think we have to – I think we have to deal with categories. So it is a bit – it does have to be somewhat about who.
I think the key thing right now is to – somebody said this – you know, first thing is to acknowledge that this is a – acknowledge that this is historic. Number two, have the debate about where are we headed and do we want to head there. Number three, what I hope – and I think the people – the American people are here – this is enough and we need it to – we need that percentage to start going down. We’ll be a better, stronger nation, and the people who are here as foreign-born will be better off as well as – as well as all the Americans.
And at that point, you say, OK, if we’ve got to slow it down, where do you – where do you cut? And you know, I know it’s ancient history now, but Bill Clinton’s – you know, he nominated Barbara Jordan as the chair, the Republicans and Democrats formed the so-called Barbara Jordan commission, and they had pretty much the answers that are still there, which is you don’t – chain migration does nothing for the national – for the American people, for the national interest. The visa lottery doesn’t. So you chop those out. There’s a couple other things there. You knock the numbers down by about a third right away and start to see how – and you know, it starts to be incremental.
We really ought to – the problem is we think we can only do something like this every 30 or 40 years. We ought to be more like Australia. Not that Australia has a great immigration policy, but they do look at this every couple years.
MR. KRIKORIAN: They revisit it constantly, yeah.
MR. BECK: They revisit and – you know. So that – I think that’s – to be practical, that’s maybe the best we could hope for.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Any thoughts, Rich?
MR. LOWRY: Yeah. I would just say I’m not the expert that you, Steve, or Roy are, but I think the thin wedge to get into the question of numbers is skills, because the popular imagination is we’re overwhelmingly letting in, you know, computer scientists who are going to start the new Google. And we’re just not. And I think when you confront people with that fact, say we can choose anyone, we’re not anti-immigrant, you know, it’s just this current system makes no sense, that might be the most politically saleable way to get into this.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah.
MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah. I mean, I would say, look, short term, you’ve got to restore things like the migration agreements we had with the Central American countries. You obviously need to restore Remain in Mexico. You need to be using expedited removal. There are a bunch of things we could do.
We, obviously, long term need asylum reform. You can’t use a system that was designed 40 years ago, 50 years ago for a tiny number of people in an era of mass travel, mass information, and mass migration. You just need a different system. You can’t let – so we have an asylum system that’s totally dysfunctional now. If you were to apply for asylum today, you wouldn’t get a hearing, maybe, for 10 years in court. So, you know, it’s a situation that’s untenable. So you have to restore that – the control over the border, dramatically deter people.
Start immediately by deporting people, or removal is the technical term – people who are here who’ve already had a day in court. Remember, our system is so weak, so unrobust, whatever terms you like, that we don’t even make people who’ve had their day in court – usually many days in court – and have been ordered removed by an immigration judge, we don’t actually remove those people. They’re called the so-called deportation absconders. That’s hundreds of thousands of people.
The other things you’d need to do is to have an E-Verify. Americans overwhelmingly support the idea of employers being forced to verify that new workers are legally here. We actually collect that data and we don’t enforce it. Would that solve everything? No. Are there ways of beating it? Of course. But it would have a huge impact, and then we could ratchet it up.
So I guess other points are, as Roy said, get rid of chain migration and the lottery, and look at each category hard with the goal of trying to figure out what’s best for the country rather than letting special interests dominate this debate, which is usually what happens. But of course, you’d need a debate to actually do any of that – a debate we don’t have.
MR. LOWRY: You need to have a debate to have a debate.
MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah.
MR. BECK: And I just want to say Steve has raised almost you have to say the over word – the overworked word, but there are a number of existential questions that Steve has raised in his paper about who we are as a nation, what is a nation. You’ve done a good job of pulling all that together.
MR. LOWRY: Hear, hear.
MR. BECK: Thanks.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, thank you, everybody. The paper that Steve was talking about, that we’ve all been talking about, is on our website at CIS.org. And if you tuned in late, you can watch this whole panel. A recording of it is also going to be on our website, CIS.org. And I’ll just put in a plug for our podcast, Parsing Immigration Policy, weekly interview podcast on immigration. It’s in all the usual podcast places. And that’s it for now. Thank you for tuning in and thanks to the panelists for participating.