Yale Law Journal, May 1996 105 n7 p1963-2012
Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster. (book reviews) Peter H. Schuck.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT Yale Law Journal Company Inc. 1996
Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster. By Peter Brimelow.(*) New York: Random House, 1995. Pp. xix, 327. $24.00.
Peter H. Schuck(dagger)
It's a damn good thing for Peter Brimelow and his son, Alexander James Frank Brimelow, that Alexander was born in this country in 1991. Peter, a recently naturalized Briton, obviously loves the boy and wants him to live in the United States with Peter and his Canadian wife. But if Alexander had been born elsewhere, he would not be an American citizen, and if his dad had his way with our immigration policy, perhaps none of the Brimelows, dad included, could have entered as immigrants. The Brimelows are fortunate that the law did not and does not reflect Peter's radically anti-immigration prescriptions. And so, I shall argue, are the rest of us. Part of the allure of this high-spirited,(1) chatty, often personal,(2) but otherwise uncharming book is that the author acknowledges such ironies. Indeed, he skillfully exploits them to construct a case for radical reform of immigration policy that verges on total elimination of immigration to the United States. Thus, he ruefully tells us that he feels "slightly, well, guilty that [Alexander's] fellow Americans had so little choice" in conferring a citizenship that Alexander, like many children of illegal aliens and temporary visitors, acquired through the fortuity of birth on American soil.(3) He shrugs off the prospect (now happily hypothetical in his own case) that when Congress adopts his proposal to cut off legal immigration entirely, even the nuclear family of an American citizen could not immigrate to the United States. Had that been the law when he came, he says in his amiable, no-big-deal style, "I would probably be writing a book on Canadian immigration policy right now."(4)
Although it is tempting to dismiss this book as another ideological tract, one to which only the already-converted will attend, that would be a mistake.(5) The book must be taken seriously, first, because it is already influencing the public debate on immigration.(6) Alien Nation has grand ambitions. It not only raises fundamental questions about immigration's effect on the past, present, and future of American society (which is common enough in this era of apocalyptic politics) but also proposes to answer them (which is more unusual). Brimelow wishes to jettison the basic structure of our immigration policy established by the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965.(7) The 1965 law abolished the national origins quotas, which had been in effect since 1921,(8) replacing them with a system that allocated hemisphere-specific limits among seven preference categories (based on skills, family relationships, and refugee status) and in which all countries of origin in the eastern hemisphere were subject to the same 20,000-immigrant limit.(9) The immigration reform laws enacted in 1978, 1986, and 1990 preserved the essential structure (while altering the details) of this system.(10)
Brimelow proposes to end this system in favor of "a drastic cutback of legal immigration."(11) This proposal is perhaps the only instance of understatement in a book suffused with hyperbole. Calling his plan a drastic cutback is rather like calling Jack the Ripper unfriendly. Brimelow would stop all immigration immediately (but temporarily) and seems to propose a permanent termination of all family-based, refugee, and asylee immigration.(12) Presumably, he would permit only skills-based immigration, but he does not indicate how many of these immigrants he would admit. Of all the reform proposals advanced during this season of discontent, Brimelow's are surely among the most radical.(13)
Another reason to take Alien Nation seriously is its assertion that race(14) ought to matter in immigration policy. In the superheated environment in which racial issues are debated (and often evaded) today, they continue to be perhaps the most divisive and incendiary in American society. In the immigration policy context, they are explosive. Until the 1950s, racism pervaded and polluted American public law. Until only thirty years ago, it defined the very structure of our immigration law. Even today, the major receiving nations, all democracies, have embedded ethnocultural favoritism in their immigration and citizenship policies.(15) In Europe, even more virulent forms of racism and xenophobia increasingly taint immigration politics.(16)
Racism in the United States has declined dramatically in recent decades, despite frequent denials of this fact.(17) I believe—although the point is certainly arguable(18) and much turns on difficult definitions—that racism as such no longer plays a crucial role in immigration law; certainly it plays a less significant role than it did before 1965. Even so, immigration fundamentally shapes a number of racially charged policy questions, such as the future level and composition of the population, affirmative action, multicultural education, and legislative districting.(19)
Indeed, when commentators discuss how immigration affects labor markets, public budgets, urban development, political strategy, population growth, and the environment, they frequently refer to statistical data that break down the empirical effects of immigration, such as welfare utilization or fertility rates, by race. The public does not need experts to inform it that the proportion of nonwhites in the population is growing; the "browning" of America is obvious to anyone who walks down the street, rides a subway, or visits a classroom in almost any large city.
Nevertheless, the immigration debate has carefully elided discussion of the normative questions raised by these current and future demographic shifts: Are these changes good or bad for American society? Should they be slowed, accelerated, or left undisturbed? Which kinds of arguments support these evaluations? Our delicate discursive etiquette in matters of race consigns such questions largely to outspoken nativists such as Patrick Buchanan and to those who wish to pursue eugenic goals through immigration restriction.(20)
In more polite, punctilious company, these issues are left to evasive innuendo—or utter silence. Yet if the immigration debate is to have intellectual integrity and contribute to sound policy, this void must be filled. We must somehow learn to discuss racial questions candidly and fearlessly, but also with respect, sensitivity, and humility. This need is especially compelling in the immigration policy debate. After all, three decades after the national origins quotas were repealed, we still select most immigrants according to their national origins. We do so explicitly in our refugee, "diversity," and nation-specific (e.g., Cuban) programs, and implicitly in our family-based and legalization programs.(21) And individuals' national origins, of course, are highly correlated with race.(22)
Brimelow wishes to advance this debate but doubts that he will receive a fair hearing. He expects to be labeled a racist, which he archly defines as "anyone who is winning an argument with a liberal."(23) His prediction, if not his definition, is surely correct. Race is very much on his mind.(24) But is he a racist? Since Brimelow himself raises the question of his own racism and draws the reader's attention to it, a reviewer is tempted to seek an answer. The issue of his motivation, however, is an unwelcome diversion from the merits of Brimelow's claims, and I relegate it to a long footnote.(25)
In the end, the more interesting, significant, and policy-relevant issue is not the attitudes that underlie Brimelow's claims but the validity of those claims. If Brimelow's argument that the 1965 Immigration Act has been a national calamity were correct, we would be extraordinarily myopic and perverse to ignore or deny that fact—even if his argument were infected by racism. For reasons that I shall explain in the remainder of this Review, I believe that his claim is false—or at least premature. But while Alien Nation is a bad book, it is also a valuable one—all the more so because it is so seductively easy to read. On the way to its erroneous conclusions, it makes many important points that are easily overlooked or have been driven underground in current immigration debates. It forces us to think more clearly about how and why his arguments are wrong. And it reminds us to resist the patriotic smugness and national self-delusion that come so easily to Americans and to be vigilant to assure that Brimelow's dire prophecies are not fulfilled.
The book's argument can be reduced to five distinct but related empirical claims whose significance can only be understood in the light of certain normative assumptions about the nature and purposes of American society. The first is a claim about demography; it asserts that immigration to the United States has reached unprecedented levels that are problematic in part because of the racial composition of the post-1965 flow. The second is a claim about carrying capacity; it holds that these high immigration levels are stretching American society's environmental resources (broadly defined) beyond the breaking point. The third is a claim about economic impacts; it contends that the post-1965 immigrants fail to pull their weight in the labor market and drain off scarce fiscal resources. The fourth is a claim about cultural assimilation; it states that the post-1965 immigrants are not embracing American values as completely or as swiftly as their predecessors did. The fifth is a claim about politics; it maintains that the post-1965 immigrants are altering the terms of political discourse in ways that weaken the American polity and call into question its viability as a nation-state. I shall discuss each of these claims in turn.
Brimelow emphasizes that total immigration to the United States, legal and illegal, is "at historic highs."(26) As Brimelow recognizes, the significance and truth of this assertion turn on several issues.(27) Should immigration be measured in absolute terms or relative to something else, such as the total or foreign-born population? Is it more meaningful to measure immigration on an annual basis or over longer periods of time? How many illegal aliens are being counted? Should immigration be measured net of permanent departures by aliens and U.S. citizens, and if so, how many departures are there? Except for legal admissions, which require the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to issue visas, none of these indices is based on hard, reliable data; all can be, and often are, contested.
In absolute terms, legal immigration in 1995, the most recent year for which statistics are available, was 720,000.(28) This represents a decline of ten percent from the 1994 figure of 804,000, which in turn represented a decline of eleven percent from the 1993 total of 904,000.(29) The 1993-1995 decline represents the largest two-year drop in legal immigration since the Depression.(30) This decline, moreover, was a broad one, occurring in five major categories: employment-based admissions, dependents of aliens previously legalized under the amnesty provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), family-based admissions, asylees adjusting to permanent status, and certain special programs (Amerasian children, Indochinese and Soviet parolees, and registered nurses).(31) The 1995 total was the lowest total since 1988, when 643,000 were admitted.(32)
These figures might seem to refute Brimelow's "historic highs" claim, blurring his apocalyptic vision of America being deluged by immigrants. Before reaching that conclusion, however, we must examine the data more closely and from different angles. Admissions figures tend to fluctuate from one year to another, confounding efforts to discern significant trends on the basis of short-term changes. For example, the admissions total in 1991 was approximately 1.8 million;(33) it then declined over the next four years to 720,000 in 1995(34) (when the INS had expected the total to increase again(35)). These fluctuations often reflect temporary special factors, including the evolution of particular short-term programs. The most important example is the legalization program under IRCA. This one-time spike in the admissions totals produced dramatic increases in the admissions totals beginning in 1989 but leveling off in 1992. IRCA legalizations, however, have had little effect on the figures since 1993,(36) and, for political reasons, such a legalization is unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future.
Brimelow, then, is right to focus on longer-term trends. He is also correct to include illegal aliens in the total. Data on the number of illegal aliens are controversial and inexact, although expert estimates have narrowed considerably in recent years.(37) Estimates are based largely on extrapolations from the number of aliens apprehended at the Mexican border and from census surveys. Both methods are problematic.(38) Moreover, the gross category of illegal aliens must be broken down into subgroups for more precise, meaningful policy analysis. For example, different policies are needed to deal with the two, roughly equal, categories of illegal aliens: those who enter the United States illegally ("entrants without inspection" (EWIs)) and those who enter legally on temporary visas but then become illegal when they violate the terms of their visas ("overstays"). As another example, illegal aliens differ in how long they remain in the United States. Many illegals are temporary "sojourners," the duration of whose stays in the United States depends on seasonal, family, and economic factors, or are "commuters" who cross the border frequently. A growing share of the illegal flow from Mexico, however, now consists of "settlers"—mostly women and children planning to live with their families in the United States more or less permanently.(39) Because settlers' prolonged, illegal residence in the United States affects American society in more complex and significant ways than does the residence of sojourners, they pose the greatest challenges to politicians and policymakers.
In discussing illegal aliens, Brimelow is somewhat sloppy with the data, such as they are. Noting both the 1.3 million illegals apprehended by the Border Patrol in 1993(40) and estimates that it catches about one-third of those attempting to cross, he suggests that "a remarkable 2 to 3 million illegal immigrants may have succeeded in entering the country in 1993."(41) But this suggestion ignores two well-known phenomena: multiple apprehensions of the same individuals who make repeated attempts until they cross successfully and sojourners who travel back and forth across the border repeatedly but are sometimes apprehended. Both of these common situations inflate the number of illegals. More important, he cites a "cautious" INS estimate that "300,000 to 500,000" net illegals remain each year.(42) His source for this estimate, however, is an unnamed INS spokesman, and the estimate is higher than the published estimates-300,000 is the figure most commonly used by researchers in the field, including INS researchers(43)—that he could have readily cited.
A similar slippage occurs when he discusses emigration by U.S. citizens and permanent residents, which of course bears on the total of net immigration. The best estimates are that 1.6 million emigrated during the decade of the 1980s, an outflow that has been steadily increasing since the 1940s and equaled the number emigrating during the 1920s.(44) Emigration seems to be accelerating during the 1990s.(45) He seeks to minimize this factor by stating that the post-1965 immigrants are less likely to emigrate than their pre-1920 predecessors, a trend that he attributes to the growth of the welfare state.(46) He may be correct, but the data do not establish his claim. First, the emigration data do not distinguish between noncitizen emigrants who were once immigrants and emigrants who were U.S. citizens (some of whom were never immigrants). Second, the decline in emigration began in the 1930s (if measured in absolute terms) and in the 1940s (if measured as a proportion of immigration).(47) It thus began long before the late 1960s, when Brimelow's two betes noires—the post-1965 immigration and the major growth in the welfare state-occurred. This chronology casts some doubt on his welfare-state explanation for declining emigration rates.
In a sense, however, these are mere details; they do not contradict Brimelow's position that the current level of net legal immigration is, by historical standards, quite high in absolute terms. The 1994 net legal immigration of just over 600,000 (804,000 immigrants minus 195,000 emigrants) is almost three times higher than the annual figures during the 1950s (for Brimelow, the last halcyon period before the Fall), when net legal immigration averaged just over 209,000.(48) It is also almost twice the level recommended by the politically astute, blue-ribbon Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy only fifteen years ago.(49) Even the figure of 600,000 immigrants understates recent growth, of course, because it fails to include illegal immigrants, of whom there presumably were relatively few prior to the mid-1960s and almost none in the early decades of the century.(50) Adding 300,000 resident illegal aliens to the immigrant population each year(51) produces a grand total of at least 900,000 new resident immigrants each year, net of emigration. This number is high indeed, at least in absolute terms.
If we consider current immigration in relative, rather than absolute, terms—that is, new admissions or total foreign-born as a percentage of the total U.S. population—Brimelow's claim that immigration is at historically high levels must be qualified somewhat, as he acknowledges.(52) But even when viewed in these relative terms, the recent inflows have been substantial. Although the legal immigrants who entered in recent years constituted only 3.1% of the total U.S. population during the 1980s (the comparable shares for the first three decades of this century were 10.4%, 5.7%, and 3.5% respectively),(53) the steady accumulation of immigrants over time has produced a growing cohort of foreign-born in the United States. In 1994, over 22 million people, 8.7% of the total U.S. population, were foreign-born.(54) Although the percentage of the foreign-born remains far below the 13.2% share it comprised in 1920, it is the highest percentage since then, and the foreign-born share has almost doubled since 1970, when it was 4.8%.(55) The fact that one out of every eleven persons in the United States is a first-generation immigrant gives immigration a much higher political and media profile today than it possessed only a quarter-century ago, when fewer than one in twenty were foreign-born.
Brimelow, however, does not simply ground his demand for drastic restriction on the size of the post-1965 cohort. He also claims that this newer immigration is fundamentally different from that which preceded it in two other respects: its continuity and its racial composition.
Continuity. One of the book's principal themes is that America has not always been a country that admitted immigrants. The traditional notion that there has been a steady stream of immigrants to the United States is one of those hoary, politically useful (to some) myths. The truth is that immigration to the United States has always come in waves—that is, until Congress unleashed the tsunami of 1965.(56) Beginning in the colonial period, immigration exhibited recurrent cycles of growth and decline. The many peaks and valleys were sensitive to conditions in Europe and job opportunities in the United States. When jobs were plentiful, immigrants came, many only as sojourners; when jobs were scarce, many of the earlier immigrants returned to the old country, and few new immigrants arrived. This punctuated pattern of immigration— occasional spurts followed by short-term "pauses" or longer "lulls"(57)—resulted mostly from the convulsions of war and the business cycle.(58) This pattern was also socially benign. Like the period between meals, the pauses and lulls facilitated digestion, a process that would have been far more dangerous and uncomfortable had the newcomers entered America's maw in large and constant gulps. Americans could more readily accept immigrants, who in turn had the time, space, and incentive to assimilate swiftly into American society.
Like almost every other good thing in Brimelow's account, however, this Edenic paradise of leisurely assimilation ended abruptly in (you guessed it!) 1965. Far from being wave-like, the post-1965 immigration has waxed but
never waned; even now it shows no sign of receding.(59) The flow has been both continuous and continually rising (short-term fluctuations aside). In particular, the business cycle has had little effect on this immigration flow.(60) Brimelow has a ready explanation for this new development: In addition to jobs, the welfare magnet both attracts immigrants and keeps them here.(61) If Brimelow is correct about this—if immigrants' motives have changed and the business cycle no longer disciplines immigration flows—the implications for both immigration and welfare policy would be far-reaching. But is it true?
Brimelow seeks to persuade us with strong assertions and vivid charts that draw our attention to the contrasting peaks and valleys before 1965 and the continuous ramping upward thereafter.(62) The unwary reader, however, should be forewarned: There is less to this evidence than meets the eye.(63) First, the major declines in immigration occurred during periods of either world war (1915-20, 1940-45) or deep economic depression (after 1873 and 1893, and during the 1930s).(64) Because we have managed since 1965 to avoid both of these evils—a point to which I shall return in the Conclusion—Brimelow cannot show that the historical responsiveness of immigration to the business cycle no longer operates. Only a new world war or depression can test his claim.
Second, the pre-1965 trough may not have been as deep as the numbers suggest. No numerical restrictions on immigration from the western hemisphere even existed before 1965, and thus any number of Mexicans could enter the United States legally by paying a fee, passing a Spanish literacy test, and obtaining a labor certification. Presumably, many did not bother to do so and instead entered illegally, which could not have been too difficult at a time when the Border Patrol was much smaller and less effective than it is today. Even if many did not enter the United States illegally, they were not counted in the totals contained in the official statistics, It is, therefore, a delicious irony, unremarked by Brimelow, that the same 1965 Act that he so thoroughly deplores also imposed a numerical restriction very much to his liking.
Third, the charts do not really tell us much about whether the causes of immigration fluctuations changed over time. We know that other things did not remain equal; for example, the legal rules governing immigration were in flux. Shortly after numerical limits on immigration were established in the mid-1920s,(65) the Great Depression drove immigration levels down, and World War II kept them low. Thus, the numerical caps could not really have begun to bite until the late 1940s, more than twenty years after their inception, at which point a different, more complex mix of factors (including massive refugee resettlements) were shaping immigration flows.
Finally, Brimelow's claim that the welfare state explains immigration's relentless rise during the post-1965 period is hard to square with the fact that this ramping up began in the 1950s, long before the Great Society expansion of the welfare state commenced.
Nevertheless, Brimelow might be correct that the business cycle no longer regulates immigration flows as it once did,(66) and that a legally mandated pause in immigration would enable the United States to better integrate the large post-1965 cohort. Such a new pause might facilitate the successful assimilation of this cohort, much as the pre-1920s cohort benefited from the earlier lull. A new pause might also ease immigration-related social anxieties resulting from the constant addition of newcomers.(67) Group mobility theory, the historical pattern of assimilation, and common sense lend some plausibility to this notion. It is intriguing that immigrants themselves—by a large majority—believe that immigration should either be kept at present levels or reduced, and support for this position increases with their time in the United States.(68) Whether immigrants possess some special insight into how large-scale, continuing immigration retards the assimilation of recent immigrants, or simply wish for selfish reasons to pull up the ladder now that they have climbed aboard, is unclear.
The attractiveness of a pause, however, depends in part on how the pause is defined and on its duration. Brimelow's approach is to permit either no immigration or only skills-based admissions (the reader can't be sure).(69) Others, however, will see no magic, and much mischief, in terminating all family-based and humanitarian admissions. For those categories, a more modest reduction in immigration, one that is temporary and whose overall effects can then be gauged, would almost certainly reconcile the competing considerations better than complete cessation.
Brimelow's effort to shift the burden of proof to defenders of immigration by appealing to social risk aversion also relies on a simplistic all-or-nothing approach. On the final page of his book, in a section entitled "What If?," Brimelow argues that immigration's uncertain effects argue for terminating or radically restricting it. If immigration advocates turn out to be wrong, he suggests, we will be left with many disastrous and perhaps irreversible consequences, whereas if the restrictionists are wrong, the worst that will happen is that the United States must deal with a labor shortage.(70) Risk aversion is a perfectly legitimate policy criterion, and if one shared Brimelow's views of immigration's effects, one might well accept this effort to shift the burden of proof. If instead one believes, as I do, that legal immigration is on the whole desirable, the more relevant policy criterion—one that should be particularly congenial to a conservative like Brimelow—becomes "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"—or, more precisely, "if it's just partly broke, just fix that part."
Racial Composition. To Brimelow, the most disturbing aspect of the Fall is the changing racial complexion of the United States. Before 1965, he notes, immigrants came overwhelmingly from the traditional source countries of northern and western Europe. In those glory days, "not all immigrants were alien to American eyes," and "native-born Americans were receiving continuous ethnic reinforcement."(71) But since the abandonment of the national origins quotas in 1965, the vast majority of newcomers have been Hispanic and Asian,(72) with a significant new black inflow from Africa and the non Spanish Caribbean. In what he calls the Pincer Chart,(73) he shows (while acknowledging the uncertainties of long-term demographic projections) that whites, who were 81% of the population in 1790 and 75.7% in 1990, will decline to a bare majority (52.7%) in 2050.(74) Well before then, moreover, Hispanics will replace blacks as the largest single minority group. Brimelow then has the immigration liberal pose the key question: "So what? Why do you care so much about race?"(75) This is the essential question, and Brimelow provides several answers. In particular, he points to the reinforcement and distortion of affirmative action effected by immigration and to immigration's threat to social cohesion. Because these issues impinge most significantly on cultural assimilation and political power, however, I defer discussion of them to Parts IV and V.
II. Carrying Capacity
Continued immigration, Brimelow despairs, will be a demographic and environmental disaster for the United States.(76) Nevertheless, although his warnings are certainly worth attending to, his predictions are highly arbitrary and unrealistic; he aims more to shock than to persuade. Interestingly, his predictions bear a striking resemblance to certain modes of argument—use of simplistic extrapolations from present to future, disregard for the complexity and subtlety of social adaptations, and presentation of stark doomsday scenarios—that conservatives properly mock when environmentalists and other social reformers advance them.
The centerpiece of Brimelow's analysis is a chart that he calls "The Wedge,"(77) which relies on projections developed by Leon Bouvier, a respected demographer and leading immigration restrictionist.(78) Had we terminated all immigration in 1970, Brimelow's "Wedge" purports to show, the U.S. population in 2050 would have been 244 million (i.e., less than the current total). But continuing immigration at present levels, he predicts, will produce a total in 2050 of 383 million, of which 36% will be post-1970 immigrants and their descendants. The "Wedge" consists of the additional 139 million Americans who will have descended from post-1970 immigrants,(79) unneeded and unwanted bodies that will place an unprecedented strain on the natural and human environments. He also predicts that more immigrants, especially those from the Third World whom the post- 1965 rules have brought here, will bring new (and in some cases, old) diseases, high rates of fertility and crime, and low rates of education and skill. They will crowd out the rest of us, swamping our classrooms, extending our slums, polluting our air, and destroying our amenities and communities.(80) These dire consequences, he says, are already occurring.
Straight-line extrapolations from the present could indeed yield 383 million people in fifty-five more years. This is a lot of people, and the prospect of somehow squeezing all of them into our schools, beaches, parking spaces, and housing stock is not a pleasant one. Doing so would surely strain our natural and social environments. But straight-line extrapolations in such matters seldom prove to be correct. For all the scientific gloss of hard numbers, demography is as much art as science. Long-term demographic projections, like economic ones, are necessary and often valuable. Nevertheless, they necessarily assume that human choices are more fixed than they actually are and that the future will therefore be much like the recent past and present (except, of course, for such changes as the demographer can envision and accurately predict). Wise demographers know and say that this assumption is false, but they usually have little choice but to proceed as if it were true.
Demographic projections such as those cited by Brimelow emphasize the population-increasing effects of those immigrant groups whose fertility rates are higher than the fertility rates of natives. These higher rates reflect the greater proportion of immigrants, relative to the general population, who are in their childbearing years, cultural factors, and other causes. When high-fertility groups' share of the immigration stream and of the total U.S. population increases, the projected future population of the United States increases accordingly. This "shifting shares" phenomenon—the larger proportion in the population of high-fertility groups such as Filipinos, southeast Asians, and some Hispanics—drives much of the prediction of future U.S. population growth.(81)
This argument, however, resembles earlier "race suicide" theories that immigration historians and demographers have convincingly debunked by showing that immigrant fertility rates generally converge with those of the native population.(82) The important question, therefore, is how quickly this occurs. It appears that when women from high-fertility countries migrate to the United States, they both reduce and delay their childbearing to the point at which their fertility rates approach the overall U.S. norm. Indeed, compared to demographically similar native women, their rates sometimes are lower.(83) Admittedly, immigrants do accelerate U.S. population growth; since 1980, net immigration has accounted for about 37% of population growth.(84) But the extent and speed of their contribution to that growth in the future are difficult to predict and easy to exaggerate.
Much of Brimelow's concern about carrying capacity seems to relate to the dangers of overcrowding.(85) Even thirty years after the dreaded deluge began, however, the United States remains a country with a relatively low population density.(86) This concern does not simply reflect the vast uninhabited (and perhaps uninhabitable(87)) spaces in the American West. Even America's largest and densest cities are thinly populated relative to other cities in the world, including the most famously attractive ones.(88) Indeed, the population density of New York City is about half what it was in 1910; other major cities are also less densely populated.(89) We have a long way to go before we reach density levels that other Western democracies find perfectly acceptable, even desirable. Our standards of acceptable density may be different from those in Europe, but our standards are not immutable, as the historical urbanization, suburbanization, and "edge city" cycles in the United States attest.
Demographic extrapolations from the present to the future are further confounded by the dynamics of markets, politics, and other powerful social processes that respond to developments that impose widespread social costs, These processes do not sit idly by while change unfolds but instead shape and constrain change, thereby altering its future trajectory. Demographic models cannot readily incorporate this fact, which is nicely captured in "Stein's Law" (stated by economist Herbert Stein): If a trend can't go on like this indefinitely, it won't.(90) Population growth, for example, bids up the prices of housing, education, and other goods; people therefore tend to have fewer children,(91) other things being equal.(92) If increased job competition pushes immigrants' unemployment high enough for long enough, they will tend not to migrate here. If competition for natural resources and other environmental goods becomes more intense, those goods will become more costly, which both rations their use and attracts additional supply; these behavioral responses in turn tend to reduce the price. If policymakers perceive that population growth harms the environment, the economy, and other areas of public concern, they will propose policy changes accordingly.
I am not suggesting that we can blithely count on these responses to eliminate any adverse effects of population growth—far from it. How well society reacts to these developments depends on the quality of information flows, the nature of politics, the efficiency of markets, and other factors. Even if optimal outcomes are unlikely under these conditions, however, Brimelow's dire predictions should be taken with more than a grain of salt. If our politics and markets are supple and responsive enough to react swiftly and intelligently to population pressures and other strains on carrying capacity, the future need not unduly arouse our fears. Indeed, since 1965, our social institutions have performed reasonably well in this regard, refuting the Chicken Littles of environmental pessimism.(93)
III. Economic Impacts
Brimelow acknowledges the rich contributions that the pre-1965 immigrants have made to the American economy.(94) He insists, however, that the post-1965 cohort is altogether different. Relying heavily and uncritically on the work of labor economist George Borjas, he argues that "the effect of the 1965 reform has been to uncouple legal immigration from the needs of the U. S. economy."(95) This claim is actually a composite of four separate claims. The first is that labor market skills play a small and shrinking role in admissions policy. Second, the post-1965 cohort is less skilled than earlier cohorts. Third and related, the post-1965 cohort drains the economy more than earlier cohorts because its members, especially illegal aliens, are more likely to demand public assistance and displace native workers. Fourth, this displacement imposes particularly heavy burdens on current and potential African-American workers.
The first claim is correct. A major theme of the debate surrounding the Immigration Act of 1990 was the need to increase the level and relative share of skills-based admissions.(96) In the end, however, the Act only slightly increased the share of these admissions. In 1994, only 15% of admissions were skills-based; moreover, roughly half of these consisted of skilled immigrants' accompanying family members, who may themselves lack skills needed in the United States. Family ties accounted for 62% of the admissions.(97) Because the 1990 Act substantially increased both the total number of immigrants and the numbers authorized for each immigrant category, the absolute number of skills-based immigrants did grow, thus obscuring how minimally the share of skills-based admissions had increased. Family unity, it appears, continues to trump all other immigration policy values.(98) Pending legislation would increase the relative weight of labor market skills, a reform whose advantages are widely appreciated.(99)
The second claim—that the "quality" of immigrants to the United States has declined since the 1965 reforms—is harder to assess. Good data on immigrant labor markets are hard to come by, and analyses are very sensitive to methodology. More to the point, labor economists disagree about the nature and validity of the data, methodology, and conclusions used by Borjas and other immigration analysts. There are several areas of dispute. One concerns the extent to which the "immigrant" category should be disaggregated. Different subcategories of immigrants—family-based admittees, skills-based admittees, refugees/asylees, age groups, source region or country groups, legals versus illegals—in a given cohort exhibit quite different characteristics. Lumping some or all of these subcategories together can significantly affect the outcome of the analysis. Reliance on census data, which employ rather crude, self-reported ethnic categories and almost certainly understate income, is also controversial.
Several generalizations growing out of labor market research do support some of Brimelow's concerns. Many post-1965 immigrants are highly educated, indeed, far more so than the native population. Many others are more skilled in absolute terms than the immigrants who preceded them, but because the native population's skills have increased even more in absolute terms and because lower skilled groups comprise a larger share of the total immigration flow, the "quality" gap has widened in relative terms.(100) Most of the immigrants who entered illegally—those who qualified for the amnesty under IRCA and those who have entered illegally since then—are low-skilled Mexicans. The education level of Mexican-origin immigrants, even among those who are naturalized U.S. citizens, is very low; overall, it averages about seven and a half years of schooling.(101) Other relatively low-skilled immigrant groups are Asian refugees and the elderly.(102) On the other hand, the recent arrivals also include better educated individuals—predominantly nonrefugees from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—who should help to reduce the gap in the future.(103) This effect, however, will be gradual because their numbers remain relatively low. Again, pending legislation is likely to increase the skill levels of future immigrant cohorts.
Brimelow's third claim is that post-1965 immigrants inflict a net loss on the economy, taking into account the combined effects of their use of public services, their displacement of native workers, their tax payments, and their contribution to productivity. This claim is also difficult to assess precisely, as the existing studies seldom employ comparable definitions, measures, data sets, and methodologies.(104) For example, the outcomes of labor market impact analyses depend on whether the studies assume that particular labor markets (usually metropolitan areas) are closed systems, or whether they instead consider the significant possibility (given the high degree of internal labor mobility in the U.S. economy) that immigrant concentrations in one area induce some native workers to leave that area and discourage other natives who might otherwise migrate there from doing so.
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