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The Case Against Immigration
By Roy Beck

Chapter One: A Nation of (Too Many) Immigrants?

Since 1970, more than 30 million foreign citizens and their descendants have been added to the local communities and labor pools of the United States.(1) It is the numerical equivalent of having relocated within our borders the entire present population of all Central American countries.

Demographic change on such a massive scale--primarily caused by the increased admission of legal immigrants--inevitably has created winners and losers among Americans. Based on opinion polls, it appears that most Americans consider themselves net losers and believe that the United States has become "a nation of too many immigrants. What level of immigration is best for America, and of real help to the world? Although we often hear that the United States is a nation of immigrants, we seldom ask just what that means. It can be difficult to ask tough questions about immigration what we see nostalgic images of Ellis Island, recall our own families' coming to America, or encounter a new immigrant who is striving admirably to achieve the American dream.

But tough questions about immigration can no longer be avoided as we enter a fourth decade of unprecedentedly high immigration and struggle with its impact on job markets, on the quality of life and social fabric of our communities, and on the state of the environment.

Efforts to discuss these questions alarm some business interests and others who support high immigration. They often express shock that Americans could consider violating what they claim to be the country's tradition of openness by cutting immigration. But they misunderstand U.S. history. It is the high level of immigration during the last three decades that has violated our immigration tradition. The anti-immigration tenor of the times is not nearly so much because Americans have changed as that immigration has changed.

Over the long span of history from the founding of the nation in 1776 until 1965, immigration varied widely but averaged around 230,000 a year. This was a phenomenal flow into a single country, unmatched in world history. It should be noted that during large parts of that period, the United States--with vast expanses of virtually open land--was much better able than today to handle 230,000 newcomers annually. Suddenly in the 1970s and 1980s, at the very time that the majority of Americans were coming to the conclusion that the U.S. population had grown large enough, immigration soared above American tradition, averaging more than 500,000 a year. And it has been running around 1 million a year during the 1990s.

Until recently, policymakers and politicians of every stripe had ignored what public opinion polls found to be the public's growing dissatisfaction with the abnormally high level of immigration. Majority public opinion can be shallow, fleeting, and wrong, but an honest look at major trends during the recent mass immigration shows that ordinary Americans' concerns can hardly be dismissed as narrow and unenlightened:

* Whole industries in the 1970s and 1980s reorganized to exploit compliant foreign tabor, with the result that conditions have deteriorated for all workers in those industries.

* Long trends of rising U.S. wages have been reversed.

* Poverty has increased.

* The middle-class way of life has come under siege; income disparities have widened disturbingly.

* Aggressive civil rights programs to benefit the descendants of slavery have been watered down, co-opted, and undermined be- cause of the unanticipated volume of new immigration. A nearlyŠ half-century march of economic progress for black Americans has been halted and turned back.

* The culture--and even language--of many local communities has been transformed against the wishes of their native inhabitants. Instead of spawning healthy diversity, immigration has turned many cities into caldrons of increased ethnic tension and divisiveness.

* A stabilizing U.S. population with low birth rates (like other advanced nations) has become the most rapidly congesting industrialized nation in the world (resembling trends in Third World countries). Vast tracts of remaining farmland, natural habitat, and ecosystems have been destroyed to accommodate the growing population. Environmental progress has been set back by the addition of tens of millions of new polluters.

* Numerous organized crime syndicates headquartered in the new immigrants' home countries have gained solid beachheads of operations. Law enforcement agencies have been confounded just as they thought they were near victory over the crime organizations that other ethnic groups had brought with them during the Great Wave.

It is common when discussing those negative trends to focus on individual immigrants, skills, education, and morals, their country of origin, culture, and race. If one side points out that some immigrants are prone to crime and destructive behavior, others note that most immigrants arrive with high motives, good character, and laudable behavior. Some observers fear that the volume of non-european immigration threatens to swamp America's cultural heritage; others welcome an ever more multicultural society. Nonetheless, the chief difficulties that America faces because of current immigration are not triggered by who the immigrants are but by how many they are.

The task before the nation in setting a fair level of immigration is not about race or some vision of a homogeneous white America; it is about protecting and enhancing the United States' unique experiment in democracy for all Americans, including recent immigrants, regardless of their particular ethnicity. It is time to confront the true costs and benefits of immigration numbers, which have skyrocketed beyond our society's ability to handle them successfully.

* * *

The cumulative effect of years of high immigration has taken a while for Americans to comprehend. But in the 1990s, many Americans have awakened to a rather startling realization: The unrelenting surge of immigration above traditional levels is transforming communities throughout the United States into something their residents often don't like or quite recognize as their own.

The unprecedented flow of immigration has dramatically reshaped the social and ecological landscape up and down America's coasts, and it has spilled over into the hinterlands, carving new economic and culturalŠchannels in the Ozarks Hills, Wisconsin's little northwoods cities, Atlanta's outlying towns, the Rocky Mountains, and the Kansas-Nebraska-Iowa plains. Millions of new immigrants now pulse through the economic arteries of most urban areas, from New York City to Dodge City, and of an increasing number of non-urban regions, from North Carolina fishing villages to North Arkansas mountain hamlets.

None of this has been inevitable. Legal immigration into this country has quadrupled over the traditional American level for only one reason: Congress and the president made it happen.

Legal immigration could be stopped with a simple majority vote of Congress and a stroke of the president's pen--as early as next month, if they desired. Or it could be increased just as quickly. The volume of legal immigration is entirely at the discretion of Washington.

Nobody ever intended for such an onslaught when the immigration laws were changed in 1965; the huge increase in numbers was an accident. But for nearly three decades during various efforts to control illegal immigration, Congress stood by as the much larger legal immigration soared ever upward and as citizen opposition rose correspondingly.

Finally in 1993 and 1994, a few lawmakers of both parties--but outside their parties' leadership--proposed major cutbacks (of two-thirds to three-fourths) in annual legal immigration. They shocked everybody, including themselves, by drawing almost 100 supporters from among the 535 members of Congress.

Then, in 1995, more modest reductions (of about one-third) were proposed independently by two key Republican subcommittee chairmen, Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, and by a bi-partisan federal commission led by former Democratic congresswoman Barbara Jordan. President Bill Clinton endorsed the concept. The emerging centrist consensus, however, quickly drew strong opposition from several top Republican congressional leaders (especially free-market libertarians) and from the Democrats' liberal wing, all of whom wished to protect current high immigration levels or increase them.

The United States entered 1996 with Congress assessing the effects of the unprecedented foreign influx of the last thirty years and trying to determine how drastically annual immigration should be cut.

Despite the loud outcry from immigration advocates that something draconian was being considered, a one-third reduction would leave legal admissions still near the level of the 1880-1924 Great Wave. Even after a one-third cut in 1996, the number of immigrants would be triple the average who entered during America's golden immigration era between 1925 and 1965. In that time of far lower immigration, immigrants enjoyed more popularity and a higher and quicker success rate than at any other time in American history.

Given the three decades of inertia that had made any rollback seem impossible, the leaders who proposed cutting legal immigration by around one-third have to be lauded. But they have approached theŠissue by starting with the current unprecedented immigration peak, determining that it is harmful to the country, and then asking what can be cut. If instead they were designing immigration policy based on what is best for the American people, they would start at zero and ask what level of immigration actually is needed by the nation. The final number in that exercise would be far lower-and far closer to what the American people most desire.

The country's grateful reaction to a cut of merely one-third might be similar to that of residents of a Mississippi River town after a flood has crested in the upstairs bedroom and then receded to the living room downstairs: "Conditions arc improved, but we're still flooded."

This self-inflicted flooding of the past three decades has undercut ambitious efforts during the same period to create a society of more fairness and opportunity for all Americans. Strong evidence amasses that the levels of immigration after 1965 have eroded the country's ability to achieve some of its most cherished goals. Many politicians and pundits have said it is hyperbolic to suggest that the single phenomenon of renewed mass immigration could so negatively affect the country. But major demographic upheavals, like the Baby Boom after World War II, touch every aspect of a nation's fife and reverberate for decades. Certainly, the more than 30 million people added by immigration policy during the last three decades qualify as a major demographic phenomenon.

There have been many impediments to reaching some of our nation's highest goals. Immigration has not been the only cause--and not usually the major cause--of various societal problems. But research from numerous sources converges to show that the new massive volume of immigration has played an important."spoiler" role in efforts to reach at least four of America's goals: (1) a middle-class society; (2) equal opportunity for the descendants of slavery (3) harmonious and safe communities; and (4) a protected and restored natural environment.


Today, Americans live in a society of widening economic disparity, with an increasing gulf between poor and rich, and fewer and fewer people in the middle class. This is a reversal of our egalitarian dreams of a society in which all who were milling could find a job, and in which even those who performed the lower-skilled tasks needed by society would earn an income that could support a family in modest dignity.

The Council of Economic Advisors told the president in 1993 that "immigration has increased the relative supply of less educated labor and appears to have contributed to the increasing inequality of income. . . ."(2) That was consistent with a United Nations report on the effect of immigration on the industrialized nations. It concluded that immigration reinforces existing gaps between rich and poor.(3)

Nonetheless, immigration definitely brings some benefits to a nation. In fact, most Americans may have benefitted as consumers because the immigrants have kept the price of labor lower, which may have lcd to lower prices than otherwise would have occurred. But consumers also tend to be laborers drawing those depressed wages. According to the UN report, it is only for the upper crust that the financial benefits of immigration tend to outweigh the losses. And that serves to increase income disparity.

Who wins and who loses? A glance through the roster of immigration winners quickly finds business owners who have followed a low-wage labor strategy. Land developers, real estate agents, home mortgage officials, and others who tend to profit from population growth are winners. Owners of high-tech industries have lowered their costs by importing skilled immigrants who will work at lower wages than college-educated Americans. People who can afford nannies, gardeners, and housekeepers have benefitted from lower costs. Americans who prize cultural diversity are among the non-financial winners. Others have won by having the security, prestige, or pay of their jobs enhanced by the high immigrant flow. That would include immigration lawyers, refugee resettlement agency personnel, officials of immigrant-advocacy groups, and educators and other social services employees who work with immigrants.

Unfortunately, the roster of immigration losers is much larger and includes some of America's most vulnerable citizens: poor children, lower-skilled workers, residents of declining urban communities, large numbers of African Americans, the unskilled immigrants who already are here and face the most severe competition from new immigrants, and even some of America's brightest young people, who lose opportunities to pursue science-based careers because of some corporations' and universities' preferences for foreign scientists and engineers.

Also among the losers from immigration are all Americans who prefer to live in a more middle class and less economically polarized society. Under low-immigration conditions from 1925 to 1965, the United States enjoyed increasing egalitarianism. But by the middle of the 1980s, it had a larger gap between the rich and poor than could be found in any other major industrialized nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly every community receiving substantial numbers of immigrants has experienced increased disparities among its population and diminished cohesiveness. Even many Americans who would gain financially from high immigration into their community have come to oppose it because of the changes it would bring; they don't want to create a community of rising disparities, even if they would make more money. Consider the recent examples of Clay County, Alabama, and Clay County, Iowa.

In Alabama, the county chamber of commerce helped organize business, civic, and educational leaders in 1995 to discourage an Arkansas corporation from using immigrant labor to expand its existing poultry-processing operations in rural Clay County. Asked if it wasn't a little strange to have a chamber of commerce opposing local economic and population growth, executive director Carolyn Dunagan said: "I don't know about other place's, but here when it comes to a choice between quality of life and growth quality of life is the most important." The Clay County leaders acted out of two primary concerns: (1) The importation of immigrants likely would hurt the county's black workers, harming their already modest economic position; and (2) the impoverished, Deep South county was having enough trouble trying to create a cohesive culture out of its black and white residents, without adding foreign cultures and languages into the mix and contributing to a population growth unlikely to pay its own way.

Mayor Irving Thompson of Ashland, the county seat, told me that many townspeople believed the corporation was preparing to recruit immigrant workers in response to recent protests by local black employees over working conditions. "The fear," high school history teacher Mark Tucker said, "is that the next time black workers walk out over a labor problem, they'll be replaced by Third World workers." It is not a frivolous fear; replacing black employees--more than any other Americans--with foreign workers has become somewhat commonplace around the country under Washington's expanded immigration programs.

In Clay County, Iowa, the economic enticements were greater. An outside corporation sought a zoning change to allow it to start up operations in an abandoned plant in Spencer, the county seat. An enraged citizenry crowded into the high school fieldhouse in an emotional demonstration before the city council, winning unanimous approval to block the corporation.

Why would they kiss good-bye 350 new industrial jobs for the city of 11,000? In a word: immigration. The proposed operation was in an industry with a long track record of drawing foreign workers. Local advocates for the new jobs accused opponents of being racist. Opponents, though, noted that the community had freely embraced refugees over the years, and that their concern about an influx of foreign workers was that the experience of other cities showed an unacceptable change in a previously egalitarian way of life.

The most telling reason Spencer citizens gave for blocking the new jobs was: "We don't want to become another Storm Lake."

Until the 1980s, Storm Lake--less than an hour's drive to the south--had been like a twin to Spencer: neighboring agricultural county seat, same size, similar history and economy, a shared bucolic, safe, midwestern lifestyle with excellent schools, and the same epic prairie sky of uninhibited expressiveness. But a corporation similar to the one just blocked in Spencer moved into Storm Lake and immediately began attracting foreign workers. The steady flow soon turned Storm Lake into one of the scores of new immigration hubs created by federal immigration mandates since 1965.

The unrequested changes to fife in Storm Lake followed patterns similar to those in many new-immigration cities. Overnight, Storm Lake schools were dealing with the cultural ramifications of a student body that now is one-fifth immigrant (predominantly Laotian and Mexican) and with the challenges of teaching in different languages. New facilities have been needed to handle the growing population of high-fertility foreign families with their low incomes and low tax payments. Some Storm Lake residents have lost their jobs to immigrants; more have seen their wages depressed because of the loosening of the labor market and the immigrants' lower expectations. The immigrants have tended to occupy housing units in higher densities than natives and have settled in enclaves, changing the character of neighborhoods and causing some elementary schools to be disproportionately filled with newcomers. For the first time, parts of town became undesirable in the real estate market based on which schools had high populations of students who didn't speak English. A community which previously had little reason to think in terms of haves and have-nots became a starkly stratified society.

Especially unsettling--but to be expected in a community of wide disparities, transience, and separate cultures--has been the deterioration in Storm Lake residents' sense of safety. The crime rate soared above that of the rest of Iowa. It is four times higher than crime in Spencer, its former twin.

To a visitor from a coastal city, where the national trend toward economic stratification has been visible longer, Storm Lake still can seem like a delightful place to live. But to those who knew the city before, the changes have been difficult to accept. "It breaks my heart to see what has become of my hometown," said Mary Galik, a Storm Lake native who moved to Spencer.

Given a choice, there was nothing about the creation of sharp disparities in the Storm Lake population that Spencer's citizens wanted to risk duplicating. Even main street merchants did not oppose efforts to block the new industry. As business owners, they favored the new plant because it would have increased their retail sales, explained Bob Rose, program manager of the merchants' economic growth organization. But as parents and grandparents, the merchants did not look favorably on economic development that might endanger what they saw as Spencer's special midwestern small-town culture and quality of fife.

Nationally during the last two decades of high immigration, the richest 20 percent of Americans have enjoyed some economic improvement and the richest I percent have-reaped strong increases of income. But the average wage for most American groups has declined.

No scholar suggests that increased immigration is the chief culprit in America's overall decline in wages. The economist Paul Krugman, of Stanford University, says the obvious central cause of the disappointing economic conditions for the American majority since 1973 is the drastic drop in the rate of growth in output (productivity) per worker. But the experts are uncertain about precisely why productivity growth has dropped so low and stayed there.(4) Clearly, though, Congress picked a terribly inappropriate period of U.S. history to be increasing the number of U.S. workers through immigration.

At the same time immigration was snowballing in the 1970s, the labor market was being flooded with baby boomers who were reaching employment age and with a big increase in married women seeking jobs. Based on recent research by several economists, it would appear that the big increases in the labor supply probably contributed to the drop in productivity growth, and definitely worked against efforts to improve it after it did drop.

Research by the economist Paul Romer explains that the problem with a large increase in the number of workers is that it tends to result in a lower amount of capital investment per worker. It is the capital investment per worker, along with technology, that is the most important ingredient in increasing per capita output, according to Romer's study, published in the authoritative National Bureau of Economic research journal. Thus, immigration during the last two decades, by greatly increasing the labor supply, would seem to be undermining capital investment per worker, the very process that could send wages upward again.

Romer's research flies in the face of today's immigration advocates, who insist that the federal government must continue to run a high-immigration program in order to boost the economy. Adding workers usually does increase the nation's overall economic output, but not by enough to improve the circumstances of the average worker. "In fact, what the data suggest is that labor productivity responds quite negatively to increases in the labor force," Romer maintains. Looking across American history, Romer found that when the growth in number of workers went up (through high immigration and fertility), there was a decline in the growth of per capita output--just as has occurred during this latest time of high immigration and depressed wages.(5)

Studies by Harvard's Jeffrey G. Williamson have found that during those same periods of high immigration, the United States became less of a middle-class society and experienced its highest degree of economic disparity--just as is happening during the current period of high immigration.(6)

It isn't difficult to see how an abundant supply of new foreign workers could retard wage increases. U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich fretted in 1994 that constant supplies of foreign labor have enticed many employers to continue relying on low-paid, low-skilled jobs, instead of making technological improvements and then training workers for more productive, higher-paying jobs.(7)

A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study concluded that immigration was responsible for roughly half the decline in real wages for native-born high school dropouts in the fifty largest metropolitan areas during the 1980s. The study found that immigration accounted for 20 to 25 percent of the increase in the wage gap between low-skill and high-skill workers.(8) And economists Timothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson declared in 1994 that all standard mainstream. Economic models predict migration will tend to lower wages where immigrants settle.(9)

Because the United States has had a surplus of workers, even the profits of the small recent growth in per capita productivity have not been passed on to the workers. Krugman has noted that when the number of workers surges, "the way that a freely functioning labor market ensures that almost everyone who wants a job gets one is by allowing wage rates to fall, if necessary, to match demand to supply." Most of the profits from recent increased productivity have gone to Americans in the top 1 percent of income.(10) According to the research of immigrant economist George Borjas, high immigration during the 1980s helped facilitate a massive redistribution of wealth--more than $100 billion a year--from American workers to the upper class.(11)

The trend in this country during the previous decades of low immigration had long been toward higher wages, less poverty, and a larger middle class. Beginning with the shortage of workers during World War II, more and more Americans found that the toil of their labor earned them middle-class status. The number of Americans in poverty declined for decades. That happy circumstance came to a halt in 1973. Except for minor variations, the number of impoverished Americans has been increasing ever since.

The United States now routinely violates what Washington policy analyst Norman Ornstein has concluded is an implicit, national bi-partisan compact. In words similar to Bill Clinton's during his first presidential campaign, Ornstein says the compact holds that "if people play by the rules, working hard and doing their jobs, they will not have to five in poverty."(12) But his contention has become increasingly difficult to uphold as inflation-adjusted wages have declined for Americans without college degrees and even many with degrees.

What to do about the millions of Americans mired in poverty or struggling just above it? "The best way to help these young unskilled workers is through supply-side interventions," maintains labor professor Robert M. Hutchens of Cornell University. Initiatives that limit immigration of workers "can promote an environment where academic underachievers have at least some opportunity for upward mobility," he adds.(13)

No studies suggest that halting immigration would immediately put middle-class wages into t-he pockets of a large percentage of today's poor. But America's poor and its working class are not among the net winners of an immigration policy that brings in people who can compete directly with them in the job market. If the nation desires a return to a more middle-class economy, it is difficult to understand why its government would allow more than a nominal flow of immigrants at this time.

© 1996 Roy Beck

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