Immigration: There’s a BIG Difference between Then and Now!

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When examining the facts, Democrats are stuck in the past on immigration and not examining the crucial facts related to modern day immigration.

After the depression of the 1890s, immigration jumped from a low of 3.5 million in that decade to a high of 9 million in the first decade of the new century. Immigrants from Northern and Western Europe continued coming as they had for three centuries, but in decreasing numbers. After the 1880s, immigrants increasingly came from Eastern and Southern European countries, as well as Canada and Latin America. By 1910, Eastern and Southern Europeans made up 70 percent of the immigrants entering the country. After 1914, immigration dropped off because of the war, and later because of immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s.

The reasons these new immigrants made the journey to America differed little from those of their predecessors. Escaping religious, racial, and political persecution, or seeking relief from a lack of economic opportunity or famine still pushed many immigrants out of their homelands. Many were pulled here by contract labor agreements offered by recruiting agents, known as padrones to Italian and Greek laborers. Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, Bohemians, and Italians flocked to the coal mines or steel mills, Greeks preferred the textile mills, Russian and Polish Jews worked the needle trades or pushcart markets of New York. Railroad companies advertised the availability of free or cheap farmland overseas in pamphlets distributed in many languages, bringing a handful of agricultural workers to western farmlands. But the vast majority of immigrants crowded into the growing cities, searching for their chance to make a better life for themselves.

Immigrants entering the United States who could not afford first or second-class passage came through the processing center at Ellis Island, New York. Built in 1892, the center handled some 12 million European immigrants, herding thousands of them a day through the barn-like structure during the peak years for screening. Government inspectors asked a list of twenty-nine probing questions, such as: Have you money, relatives or a job in the United States? Are you a polygamist? An anarchist? Next, the doctors and nurses poked and prodded them, looking for signs of disease or debilitating handicaps. Usually immigrants were only detained 3 or 4 hours, and then free to leave. If they did not receive stamps of approval, and many did not because they were deemed criminals, strikebreakers, anarchists or carriers of disease, they were sent back to their place of origin at the expense of the shipping line.

For the newcomers arriving without family, some solace could be found in the ethnic neighborhoods populated by their fellow countrymen. Here they could converse in their native tongue, practice their religion, and take part in cultural celebrations that helped ease the loneliness. Often, though, life for all was not easy. Most industries offered hazardous conditions and very low wages–lowered further after the padrone took out his share. Urban housing was overcrowded and unsanitary. Many found it very difficult to accept. An old Italian saying summed up the disillusionment felt by many: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.” In spite of the difficulties, few gave up and returned home.

When considering the economics of immigration, there are three related but distinct issues that should not be confused. First, immigration makes the U.S. economy (GDP) larger. However, by itself a larger economy is not a benefit to native-born Americans. Though the immigrants themselves benefit, there is no body of research indicating that immigration substantially increases the per-capita GDP or income of natives.

Second, there is the fiscal impact — taxes paid by immigrants minus the costs they create for government. There is general agreement that less-educated, lower-income immigrants are a net fiscal drain; and more-educated, higher-income immigrants are a net fiscal benefit.

Third, there is immigration’s effect on the wages and employment opportunities of native-born workers. Basic economic theory predicts that immigration should create a net gain for natives, but to do so it redistributes income from workers in competition with immigrants to workers not in competition and to owners of capital. Theory also predicts that the size of the net gain will be tiny relative to the size of the economy and the size of the redistribution. Because the least educated and poorest Americans are the most likely to be in competition with immigrants, they tend to be the biggest losers from immigration.

Putting aside economic theory, the last 13 years have witnessed an extraordinary situation in the U.S. labor market — all of the employment gains have gone to immigrant workers. This is extremely puzzling since the native-born account for about two-thirds of the growth in the working-age population, and should therefore have received roughly two-thirds of the employment growth. Even before the Great Recession, a disproportionate share of employment gains went to immigrants even though natives account for most of the increase in the working-age population.

Key Findings from Research:

Impact on Aggregate Size of Economy

  • George Borjas , the nation’s leading immigration economist estimates that the presence of immigrant workers (legal and illegal) in the labor market makes the U.S. economy (GDP) an estimated 11 percent larger ($1.6 trillion) each year.
  •  But Borjas cautions, “This contribution to the aggregate economy, however, does not measure the net benefit to the native-born population.” This is because 97.8 percent of the increase in GDP goes to the immigrants themselves in the form of wages and benefits.

Impact on Wages and Employment

  • Using the standard to textbook model of the economy, Borjas further estimates that the net gain to natives equals just 0.2 percent of the total GDP in the United States — from both legal and illegal immigration. This benefit is referred to as the immigrant surplus.
  • To generate the surplus of $35 billion, immigration reduces the wages of natives in competition with immigrants by an estimated $402 billion a year, while increasing profits or the incomes of users of immigrants by an estimated $437 billion.
  • The standard model predicts that the redistribution will be much larger than the tiny economic gain. The native-born workers who lose the most from immigration are those without a high school education, who are a significant share of the working poor.
  • The findings from empirical research that tries to examine what actually happens in response to immigration aligns well with economy theory. By increasing the supply of workers, immigration does reduce the wages for those natives in competition with immigrants.
  • Economists have focused more on the wage impact of immigration. However, some studies have tried to examine the impact of immigration on the employment of natives. Those that find a negative impact generally find that it reduces employment for the young, the less-educated, and minorities.

Immigrant Gains, Native Losses

  • Recent trends in the labor market show that, although natives account for the majority of population growth, most of the net gain in employment has gone to immigrants. 
  • In the first quarter of 2013, the number of working-age natives (16 to 65) working was 1.3 million fewer than in the first quarter of 2000, while the number of immigrants working was 5.3 million greater over the same period. Thus, all of the employment growth over the last 13 years went to immigrants even though the native-born accounted for two-thirds of the growth in the working age population. 
  • The last 13 years have seen very weak employment growth, whether measured by the establishment survey or the household survey. Over the same time period 16 million new immigrants arrived from abroad. One can debate the extent to which immigrants displace natives, but the last 13 years make clear that large-scale immigration does not necessarily result in large-scale job growth.

Fiscal Impact

  • The National Research Council (NRC) estimated in 1996 that immigrant households (legal and illegal) create a net fiscal burden (taxes paid minus services used) on all levels of government of between $11.4 billion and $20.2 billion annually. This has not changed.
  •  The NRC also found that the fiscal impact of immigration depends heavily on the education level of the immigrant in question.
  • At the individual level, excluding any costs for their children, the NRC estimated a net lifetime fiscal drain of -$89,000 (1996 dollars) for an immigrant without a high school diploma, and a net fiscal drain of -$31,000 for an immigrant with only a high school education. However, more educated immigrants create a lifetime net fiscal benefit of +$105,000.
  • A just-released study from the Heritage Foundation found that the average household headed by an illegal immigrant used nearly $14,400 more in services than it paid in taxes, for a total fiscal drain of $55 billion. 
  • The Heritage study is absolutely clear that the fiscal costs associated with illegal immigrant households is directly related to their educational attainment. They find that illegal immigrant have on average only 10 years of schooling.
  • The importance of education. 59 percent of households headed by an immigrant who has not graduated high school access one or more welfare programs, and 70 percent have no federal income tax liability. In contrast, 16 percent of households headed by an immigrant with bachelor’s degree access welfare and only 21 percent had no federal income tax liability.
  • In a study for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), we found that if illegal immigrants were legalized and began to pay taxes and use services like households headed by legal immigrants with the same education levels, the annual net fiscal deficit would increase to $29 billion, or $7,700 per household at the federal level.
  • Illegal immigrants with little education are a significant fiscal drain, but less-educated immigrants who are legal residents are a much larger fiscal problem because they are eligible for many more programs.

For this reason amnesty increases costs in the long run. Heritage’s just-released study confirms the finding that amnesty would substantially increase costs over time.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and are not not necessarily either shared or endorsed by iPatriot.com.

Bill McAdory

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