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The U.S. cannot afford to turn against immigration
Bringing in new recruits is not charity, nor is it a luxury. It's a necessity.
I’ve always been a staunch advocate for more immigration to the United States. And for the four years of the Trump presidency, I felt like the winds were at my back — the backlash against Trump’s xenophobia was fueling a major uptick in Americans’ support for immigration. Every poll showed that the nation was trending toward a greater desire for openness, even during Covid:
But despite the fact that pro-immigration sentiment looked like it was on a smooth, multi-decade uptrend, there was always the nagging worry that at least some of the more recent rise was merely a reflection of thermostatic politics — the tendency of voters to oppose the policies of whoever is in power at the time. And in 2021, a few polls started to confirm this fear — with Biden in power instead of Trump voters were suddenly saying positive things about immigration restriction.
Now a year and a half later, those polls look like they were no fluke. Here’s the chart above, updated with two more years of data:
A more detailed Gallup survey this month shows the shift clearly. The desire to decrease immigration levels has bounced back to pre-Trump levels among Democrats and political independents, while it’s way up among Republicans.
These survey results prompted Axios to declare that “America is turning against immigration”.
The thermostatic bounce-back is disappointing, but not particularly surprising. Nor does it sound the death knell of an open approach to immigration — restrictionist sentiment reached a peak in the 1990s, but while that did result in harsher policies toward immigrant use of welfare benefits, it failed to put a dent in actual inflows of people.
We may luck out once again. In 2022, immigration returned to the levels that prevailed before Trump took office.
But we have to make sure that trend doesn’t reverse again. Immigration has always been a core U.S. strength, but right now the country needs new recruits even more than we usually do.
Why we need immigration now more than ever
One reason we need immigrants is to keep our population young. Despite a very small post-pandemic uptick, the country’s total fertility rate has fallen well below the replacement level over the past decade and a half:
This puts us slightly below the fertility rates of Denmark and France, and slightly above the UK and Germany. In other words, the America fertility exceptionalism of the 1990s and early 2000s is now a thing of the past.
Everyone is talking about China’s demographic challenges these days. Well, bad news: Those same problems are going to hit the U.S. equally hard unless we sustain robust levels of immigration. Not only does immigration directly increase our population by bringing young workers over to support our growing legions of elderly folks, but it also increases fertility because immigrants tend to have more kids.
Without immigrants, our population will grow older and older on average. Each worker will need to work more days out of every year just to support the growing ranks of the elderly. Productivity will probably fall as well, and multinational companies will be less willing to invest in a shrinking U.S. market.
And the problem created by shortages of high-skilled immigrants will be especially acute. As Alec Stapp and Jeremy Neufeld wrote in a Noahpinion guest post last year, immigrants are absolutely essential to U.S. innovation and technical leadership:
Despite making up just 14% of the population, immigrants are responsible for 30% of U.S. patents and 38% of U.S. Nobel Prizes in science. A team of Stanford economists recently estimated that nearly three quarters of all U.S. innovation since 1976 can be attributed to high-skilled immigration.
Immigrants’ contributions in the business world are comparably impressive. Recent analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy found that 55% of billion-dollar startups in the U.S. were started by immigrants…
Today, defense-related industries disproportionately turn to international talent to find workers with advanced STEM degrees. And there is nothing new about the idea that attracting the best and brightest can be a major strategic asset — it has been a major benefit to U.S. security from the Civil War through WWII, the Cold War, and beyond.
Restrictionists’ response to this is to just wave their hands and mumble some sort of pablum about educating our own people more instead. This is fantasy. Not only do those restrictionists have no idea how to improve U.S. education, this “solution” neglects the brute fact that America has only 4% of the world’s population — the global talent pool is always going to be bigger than the local one, just due to sheer size.
That’s not to say that “low-skilled” immigration (a term I really dislike, btw) is bad. We need that too. Research continues to show that immigration of manual laborers doesn’t hurt the wages or the job prospects of the native-born. And even uneducated manual laborers who move to a new country to win a better future for themselves are a highly selected set, which is why the kids of poor immigrants tend to be very upwardly mobile. But pound-for-pound, high-skilled immigration is the highest priority, especially because of strategic considerations and the need to stay ahead in the tech race.
When people ask me for a specific case showing how much we need skilled immigrants, I point them to artificial intelligence. AI systems will be crucial to precision weaponry in the not-too-distant future — if China’s AI is much better than ours, their forces will have the ability to wipe ours from the battlefield. That will encourage very dangerous conflict, and will also cause the era of American power to draw to a close. So AI research is incredibly important.
When you look at where the top AI researchers were born, you see that a plurality were born in China — 29%, compared to 20% for the U.S. (Note that the U.S. produces more per capita; China is just much bigger than we are!) But when you look at where the top AI researchers work, the U.S. runs away with the contest, with 59% to China’s 11%:
In general, “brain drain” is not a real thing — the circulation of ideas and capital generated by immigration benefits the sending country as well as the receiving country. But in the case of the AI race, the U.S. is in danger of falling behind if we don’t retain our ability to welcome China’s best and brightest.
Unfortunately, Chinese immigration has become the particular target of Cold War 2 hysteria. Texas just proposed a bill to ban Chinese, Russia, Iranian, and North Korean citizens from buying land in the state. Ostensibly the bill is aimed at all of the U.S.’ Cold War 2 rivals, but everyone knows who the main target is here; North Koreans are not exactly going to be snapping up houses in Plano. Meanwhile, a 2021 Pew poll found a majority of Americans supporting limits on Chinese students studying at American universities, with even 42% of Democrats in favor.
I understand that slinging accusations of xenophobia gets people’s back up and makes them feel cornered. But fear of the other is exactly what this is. This is that!
I know that China is our rival, and their spy balloons are creepy, and they steal our intellectual property, and their diplomats are jerks, and we might go to war with them over Taiwan. Anyone who reads my blog knows that all this is very much on my mind! But that’s absolutely not a reason to treat Chinese immigrants as invaders or spies. In fact, quite the reverse — the fact that Chinese citizens would rather live and work in America than in the country of their birth is a powerful endorsement of our system and an indictment of China’s system. If we mistreat those people who came here seeking freedom, and close our gates, we don’t just forfeit valuable researchers — we forfeit our all-important image as the shining city on a hill.
So, to sum up, immigration isn’t an optional luxury for America at this point, nor is it a form of charity we dole out to the world at our own expense. It’s a necessity. We need continued robust immigration flows, especially of high-skilled immigrants, in order to keep our nation both prosperous and secure.
Border chaos just isn’t worth it
So, I’ve been talking about anti-immigration sentiment as a function of “thermostatic politics”. But it’s important to remember that the concept of thermostatic public opinion isn’t just about which party is in control of the Presidency; it’s also about policy. One reason people’s opinions shift is that they feel — rightly or wrongly — that the people in power have taken things too far.
Of course, I don’t think Biden has taken immigration policy too far in a permissive direction — I think we need a lot more immigrants, as I mentioned above. But there’s one area in which Biden’s policies probably did unnecessarily trigger a backlash, and that’s the approach toward the asylum-seekers streaming in over the southwestern border.
In the years before the pandemic, border crossings declined a lot. This was mainly because immigration from Mexico dried up, as fertility rates fell and economic prospects improved in our neighbor to the south. In 2021 and 2022, however, apprehensions spiked enormously, reaching record highs. There was an increase in Mexicans crossing the border, but most of the rise came from people from other countries:
The reason this is happening is because of asylum requests. The way U.S. asylum law works is that if you show up at the border requesting asylum, you’ll either have to wait a long time outside the U.S. for your request to be heard, or you’ll be denied entry outright. But if you manage to cross the border illegally and then turn yourself in to the Border Patrol, you’re on U.S. soil, so you’re legally entitled to request asylum. During the time that you’re waiting for your asylum hearing, you’re typically allowed to stay in the U.S. If you decide not to take your chances on the hearing, you can always not show up, and stay in the U.S. as an unauthorized (“illegal”) immigrant.
Making it easier to apply for asylum by crossing the border illegally rather than presenting yourself at a point of entry naturally creates a ton of disorder at the border. Scenes of that disorder have now penetrated deeply into the American public’s consciousness, and even news outlets with a generally pro-immigration stance now freely describe the situation as a “crisis”.
Americans do not like crises. Although they do like immigration, they don’t like the idea that their government is not in control of its own borders. This sentiment is clearly visible in a recent NPR poll, where 40% of Democrats, and a majority of Americans overall, said that the situation can at least somewhat accurately be described as an “invasion”.
It’s worth remembering that Trump quelled the border disorder with a large spate of restrictive policies that forced many asylum seekers to wait outside the country even if they had managed to cross to U.S. soil, and which made asylum much harder to get. Biden repealed most of those policies. Correlation isn’t causation, and the end of the pandemic probably had an effect here too, but it’s not exactly difficult to draw a line from permissive policies toward border crossing and an increase in border crossing. The American public is mad at Biden over this, and it’s fueling a backlash against immigration in general.
Responding to this pressure after two years of chaos, the Biden administration finally responded in January by getting a bit tougher — increasing the rate of expulsions of asylum-seekers, while also making it easier to apply for asylum in an orderly, legal way. (Update: See Alex Nowrasteh for more details.) The tightened restrictions may have contributed to a fairly steep drop in border encounters in February:
(Update: Biden is about to implement another, even more powerful rule that would automatically deport people who cross the border illegally seeking asylum.)
Naturally, activists and some progressive Democrats are quite upset by Biden’s move. But Biden simply saw the way the political winds were blowing. The equilibrium of the U.S. border as a sort of wink-wink fiction, where getting past the Border Patrol is a sort of game where an expedited asylum application is the prize, is simply not one that the U.S. public will accept in the long term.
If the U.S. is going to increase immigration, a long-term bargain must be struck, where increased border security is paired with increased legal pathways to immigration. The Senate passed such a bargain in 2013, but it was killed by the GOP-controlled House (the infamous “Tea Party Congress”). From Wikipedia’s summary:
If enacted, the bill would have made it possible for many undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and eventually citizenship. It would have increased border security by adding up to 40,000 border patrol agents. It also would have advanced talent-based immigration through a points-based immigration system. New visas were proposed in this legislation, including a visa for entrepreneurs and a W visa for lower skilled workers. It also proposed new restrictions on H1B visa program to prevent its abuse and additional visas/green-cards for students with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees from U.S. institutions. The bill also included a $1.5 billion youth jobs program and repealed the Diversity Visa Lottery in favor of prospective legal immigrants who are already in the United States.
A modernized version of this bargain wouldn’t necessarily contain the exact same provisions. Its treatment of border security would have to involve permanent reforms to the way asylum is handled, rather than just beefing up the Border Patrol. It would have to encourage orderly asylum-seeking, while strongly discouraging the practice of crossing the border and turning yourself in. But in general, the 2013 Senate bill should be the outline of a bipartisan compromise on immigration.
The alternative to that sort of compromise is for immigration policy to continue to see-saw every four or eight years, between xenophobic restrictionism and benign neglect, without ever giving Americans a system they feel comfortable with. That is not an alternative I would choose, but it seems like the likeliest outcome if immigration policy is abandoned by the center and left as a battlefield between maximalist activists and Trump-style nativists. Immigration is too important to the future of the country to allow that to happen.