The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Steve Bannon once complained that 20 percent of the country is made up of immigrants. It isn’t.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon on Tuesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Of the many interesting quotes in The Washington Post’s look at the politics and rhetoric of Steve Bannon, former Breitbart chairman and now adviser to President Trump, one stood out.

Speaking during an episode of his Sirius XM radio show last March, Bannon complained about the hiring practices of Silicon Valley, a problem that appeared to extend beyond his concerns about illegal immigration.

“Engineering schools,” Bannon said, “are all full of people from South Asia, and East Asia. . . . They’ve come in here to take these jobs.” Meanwhile, Bannon said, American students “can’t get engineering degrees; they can’t get into these graduate schools because they are all foreign students. When they come out, they can’t get a job.”

Bannon asked repeatedly, “Don’t we have a problem with legal immigration?”

“Twenty percent of this country is immigrants. Is that not the beating heart of this problem?” he said, meaning the problem of native-born Americans being unable to find jobs and rising wages.

This quote is the beating heart of the Bannon philosophy: a fervent defense of nationalism — and some ethnocentrism — pegged to economic anxiety.

Bannon didn’t invent this criticism. The effects of immigration on employment are a common subject for debate. For example, here is an essay rejecting the idea of a significant effect on employment and one supporting it. Without wading into that debate, Bannon’s comments are important. Immigrants could face a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation from Trump’s White House, if Bannon’s comments are any guide.

A draft executive order obtained by The Post, for example, indicates that the ability of immigrants to receive public assistance might be curtailed over time, despite poor immigrants using public assistance at lower levels than poor native-born Americans. Yet immigrants who are gainfully employed face the criticism Bannon levies above: taking jobs from native-born Americans.

Bannon overstates the density of immigrants in the U.S. population. Over the past 160 years, the number of immigrants in the United States has risen and ebbed, with the number of foreign-born residents now at a historic high. That’s expected to keep increasing for the next half-century. (Much of the data below comes from Pew’s comprehensive look at immigration published in April 2016. Most projections are from the Census Bureau.)

But, of course, the population of the United States overall has grown a lot, too.

Immigrants made up a little over 13 percent of the population in 2014, according to Pew. That’s expected to near 20 percent — Bannon’s figure — over the next 50 years. We aren’t there yet.

To Bannon’s point, the composition of immigrants is more diverse than many recognize. In recent years, the number of immigrants of Asian descent has neared the number of immigrants who are Hispanic.

This is the crux of the point that Bannon wants to make: that even legal immigration from places besides Mexico and Central America is a “problem” for native-born Americans. He put this concern another way in a conversation with Trump on his radio show in 2015, also reported by The Post.

Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of U.S. immigration laws.
“We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said. He paused. Bannon said, “Um.”
“I think you agree with that,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?”
Bannon was hesitant.
“When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think…” Bannon said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

What Bannon skips over here is that the American civic society grew from seeds planted by immigrants — mostly ethnically white immigrants from Europe who stayed and settled and created the United States as it is today. (The definition of “white” itself has evolved as the immigrant population assimilated. As the Census Bureau explains of its decennial survey: “The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”) That’s the left hump on this graph.

Even in just the last 50 years, the portrait of the immigrant population has changed from being mostly European and Canadian to being Latin American and Asian.

A century ago, the most common nation of origin for immigrants for most states was Germany. Now, it’s Mexico. Either Bannon is okay with the assimilation of the past immigrant population that created the American civic society, or he’s ignoring it. But the speed at which immigrants become Americans makes it hard to ignore.

In some cases, arguments about the effects of immigrants on employment considers second-generation Americans — the children of immigrants. (If you combine the two populations for 2015, it’s about 26 percent of the country.) The density of second-generation Americans in the population will increase alongside the number of immigrants, as we might expect.

But, of course, second-generation Americans are native-born Americans. Everyone not directly and solely descended from true Native American populations is a something-generation American, born of immigrants. They, theoretically, should see their efforts to find employment championed by Bannon. We’ll see if that happens.

The number of immigrants in the United States is smaller than Bannon presented in his “beating heart” comments. That’s not really the issue. It’s the effect of that number, no matter its size, that’s central to Bannon’s politics — and therefore to the new administration. Context and history, then, are critical.