To talk about immigrants is to talk about cities. About 1.1 million new immigrants arrive in the U.S. each year, both legally and illegally, and virtually all of them settle in or near a major metropolis. Without this annual infusion, many of these places would seem almost uninhabitable. From their remarkably high rates of small business ownership to, as Thomas Muller puts it in Immigrants and the American City, “their uncanny ability to materialize with umbrellas in the midst of unexpected downpours,” immigrants have propped up dozens of urban areas at a time when hordes of other people are bailing out of them.
They follow a familiar path. During the nineteenth century, immigrants avoided the agrarian South and swarmed into the urban North. Once there, they spurred massive economic development and by the time the Civil War broke out accounted for up to one-half of all factory workers. Muller even interprets the North’s victory over the South as a triumph of immigration. Without so many people and so much industrial power rising out of New York, Boston, and elsewhere, he argues, “at a minimum . . . the conflict would surely have been more protracted.”
Today’s immigrants certainly aren’t preparing for a civil war, but if recent opinion polls mean anything, they may have quite a fight on their hands. The American public has clearly given immigration a thumbs-down for now. Newsweek reports that 60 percent of Americans consider immigration a “bad thing” for the country today. According to a New York Times/CBS News survey, 61 percent think the U.S. should reduce current immigration levels. When Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, only 49 percent of the public felt the same way. In 1965, when Lyndon Johnson abolished the national origin quota system, only 33 percent did. If these indicators represent more than shallow public posturing and instead reveal genuine deep resentments, legislators will soon start clamoring for big reductions in the number of newcomers we allow into our society each year.
No important political figure has yet embraced an explicitly anti-immigrant agenda, but several have come close by raising alarms over public costs. California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, and Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, want the federal government to pick up all expenses related to illegal immigration. Unfunded congressional mandates, they say, have turned current federal immigration policies into a terrible health, education, and welfare burden for state taxpayers. Gov. Wilson caused quite a stir when he suggested a radical reinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment: the government must no longer confer citizenship upon the U.S.-born children of illegal aliens.
Americans have always worried about immigrants becoming public wards, even though, in years past, immigrants could expect very little help from the government. Today, many Americans think immigrants are quickly becoming clients of an overly generous welfare state. Legal entrants, after all, qualify for many of the public services available to the native population. Illegal immigrants are entitled to a variety of benefits as well, including a K-12 education and emergency medical care. The undocumented parents of citizen-children currently constitute one of every seven recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in Los Angeles County. In light of this, Gov. Wilson’s citizenship proposal suddenly seems less radical.
But there is no need for grave concern. “Taking both short-and long-term effects into account, financial burdens on government should not be a pivotal issue in immigration policy decisions,” writes Muller. For every statistic suggesting that immigrants gorge at the public trough, Muller can cite several others that suggest the reverse. Studies based on New York City, for instance, reveal few worries about immigrant costs. The 1980 Census indicates that 13 percent of native-born households received public assistance, compared to only 8 percent of foreign-born households. Among female-headed households, 53 percent of native households receive aid, compared to 38 percent of immigrants. Most immigrants who go on welfare are new arrivals; more established, long-time residents make enormous economic contributions, especially in cities.
New York City, for example, would have lost 1.5 million residents in the 1970s if immigrants had not arrived to cut the loss nearly in half. During the 1980s, the city officially gained just over 250,000 residents, thanks largely to more than 850,000 legal immigrants who settled there. If immigration had ceased in the mid-1960s, Muller speculates, “the city would now have considerably fewer than six million inhabitants.” Fewer people means lower tax receipts, more abandoned schools and housing, and a crumbling infrastructure. Without fresh injections of immigration, New York might have gone the way of Detroit and become a desolate and dangerous urban core surrounded by suburban expatriates. New York certainly has its share of problems today, but it is still a livable city.
Muller suggests that the U.S. grows most skeptical of immigration during an economic downturn, an analysis that, as the country slowly emerges from recession, helps explain current public attitudes. (It also illuminates some of the near-hysterics in California, which receives a big share of the nation’s immigrants and has experienced a longer and deeper recession than the rest of the country. The recent Los Angeles earthquake, which caused up to $30 billion in damage, certainly won’t help the immigrant cause in California.) During economic expansion, Muller says, very few Americans consider their jobs directly threatened by either legal or illegal aliens. “An annual net inflow of 150,000 to 200,000 illegal workers, particularly those without families, is not only tolerable but probably beneficial, at least for the middle class, in all but the worst of times,” he writes.
And in the worst of times, some say, immigration levels manage to adjust. If the U.S. has few jobs to offer, few immigrants will make the trip. Some of those who are already here will leave. Muller, however, doesn’t quite buy this argument. Self-adjusting rates may have worked until the 1970s, he argues, but “[t]he pressures to leave some countries are likely to become so great that even a lack of jobs and poor living conditions in the United States would not be a disincentive.” This point holds some truth—Haitians, for instance, would probably find a Depression-era U.S. economically attractive—but it also fails to consider one of the big global economic developments of the early 1990s, the rapid industrialization of poor countries. While Japan and the West floundered in a mild recession, China and much of the developing world boomed. On a similar note, the North American Free Trade Agreement should significantly improve the Mexican economy. This will, in time, create new and better job opportunities and eventually reduce the incentive to leave Mexico, which currently supplies more immigrants to the U.S. than any other country. Then again, NAFTA could also lessen the need for low-skilled immigrant workers in the U.S., making the presence of some less tolerable than in the past.
Whenever the question of low-skilled work comes up, so does the matter of job competition between immigrants and blacks, even when the immigrants are themselves black. “The streets of the nation’s capital have . . . become focal points of tension between native blacks and African immigrants,” writes Muller. “As the number of taxicab drivers from Gambia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria grows, native drivers come to resent the newcomers moving in on their turf. And on the city sidewalks, American-born blacks complain that vending stands owned by Asians are taking over.” Muller goes on to cite several studies showing that employers overwhelmingly prefer immigrant workers to (native) black workers.
Yet his own studies show that black unemployment lessens in areas with high levels of immigration from Mexico and Korea. This could mean that Mexicans and Koreans travel to areas that offer good employment opportunities for everybody, including blacks. Or it could mean that these immigrants help create jobs for blacks. In either case, it strongly suggests that the presence of immigrants does not directly cause joblessness among blacks. Other data indicate that black household incomes rise in areas with a high percentage of foreign-born, that immigration levels do almost nothing to explain the joblessness of black youths, and that middle-class blacks living in “gateway cities” with many immigrants made significant strides during the 1980s toward reducing black-white income differentials. Immigration does not present a rosy scenario for all blacks, of course—blacks in trade unions often find their contracts undercut by immigrants willing to work for less—but, as Muller shows, the situation is hardly as bleak as it might seem by some accounts.
Fully aware that he speaks to a country going through the immigration jitters, Muller ends his book on a near-perfect note: “Today the clamor at the nation’s gates is ever louder and, to some, more ominous. But the clamor should be a cause of pride, not anxiety; a sign of vigor, not an omen of decline.” We may roll our eyes whenever somebody calls America “a nation of immigrants,” but the phrase remains as true today, thankfully, as ever before.
John J. Miller is Associate Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the New American Community in Washington, DC.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?