If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will
David Frum, 03/13/2019
PART THREE - The Wrong Debate
"We wanted workers, but we got people instead.” So quipped the Swiss writer Max Frisch about the guest workers who came to northern Europe seeking economic opportunity in the aftermath of World War II. Yet when immigration is the subject, policy makers tend to concede the microphone to the economists—precisely the profession that looks at people and sees workers instead.
From an economic point of view, immigration is good because it encourages specialization and thus efficiency. In a low-immigration world, an American accountant might have to pay $25 or $30 an hour for yard services by American-born landscapers. At that price, she might choose to do the yard work herself. If higher immigration lowers the price of landscaping work to $10 to $12 an hour, she may hire a landscaper and devote her newfound free time to extra accounting work. Instead of leaving the office at 5 p.m. to cook dinner for her family, she can stay until 6 o’clock and order from Postmates as she drives home. Or she can buy more services than she otherwise would. A lower bid from an immigrant-employing contractor might allow her to renovate her kitchen this year rather than postponing it to next year.
But all of this only happens because lower-earning immigrants displace the Americans who used to do the work at higher costs. You may ask, “So what happens to those displaced Americans?” The economist’s answer is that, pressed by immigrant competition, displaced American workers are driven to “upskill.” Perhaps a former landscaper learns some Spanish, and thus can act as the foreman of a crew of immigrants. Perhaps he shifts to sales or design work. Either way, the economic models say, everybody is better off.
You may further ask, “Does this really happen? Don’t at least some displaced American workers end up unemployed or underemployed, unable to find work at anything close to their old wage level? Aren’t both American-born men and American-born women of prime working age less likely to work today than in the 1990s?”
Yes, all of that is true. But when workers quit the workforce, they disappear from the statistical samples on which the economic models are built. Labor-force statistics count only those in the labor force. If an American-born landscaper successfully upskills to foreman, his higher pay is recorded and measured. If an American-born landscaper retires early on a disability benefit, his lower income is not recorded and not measured. From a labor economist’s perspective, he has ceased to exist. Immigration’s economic costs and benefits will be calculated without reference to him.
The battles over the accuracy of the models of immigration’s economic effects are as protracted and vicious as any in the social sciences. We can’t settle them here, and don’t need to. Instead, let’s focus on what economists generally do agree on.
First, adding millions of additional immigrant workers every decade makes the American economy in the aggregate much bigger than it would otherwise be.
Second, immigration contributes very little to making native-born Americans richer than they would otherwise be. In 2007, in the course of arguing the economic case for more immigration, George W. Bush’s White House tried to quantify the net economic benefits of immigration to native-born Americans. The advocates’ own calculation yielded a figure of $37 billion a year. That’s not nothing, but in the context of a then–$13 trillion economy, it’s not much.
Third, the gains from immigration are divided very unequally. Immigrants reap most of them. Wealthy Americans claim much of the rest, in the form of the lower prices they pay for immigrant-produced services. Low-income Americans receive comparatively little benefit, and may well be made worse off, depending on who’s counting and what method they use.
And finally, while the impact of immigration on what the typical American earns is quite small, its impact on government finances is big. Estimates from the National Academy of Sciences suggest that on average, each immigrant costs his or her state and local governments $1,600 more a year in expenditures than he or she contributes in revenues. In especially generous states, the cost is much higher still: $2,050 in California; $3,650 in Wisconsin; $5,100 in Minnesota.
Immigrants are expensive to taxpayers because the foreign-born population of the United States is more likely to be poor and stay poor. Even when immigrants themselves do not qualify for a government benefit—typically because they are in the country illegally—their low income ensures that their children do. About half of immigrant-headed households receive some form of social assistance in any given year.
Assertions that federal tax revenue from immigrants can stabilize the finances of programs such as Medicare and Social Security overlook the truth that immigrants will get old and sick—and that in most cases, the taxes they pay over their working life will not cover the costs of their eventual claims on these programs. No matter how many millions of immigrants we absorb, they can’t help shore up these programs if they’ll need more in benefits than they can ever possibly pay in taxes. If a goal of immigration policy is to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, it would be wise to accept fewer immigrants overall, but more high-earning ones, who will pay more in taxes over their working years than they will collect in benefits in retirement. Under the present policy favoring large numbers of low-wage earners, the United States is accumulating huge future social-insurance liabilities in exchange for relatively meager tax contributions now.
Yet the true bottom line is this: Neither the fiscal costs nor the economic benefits of immigration are large enough to force a decision one way or the other. Accept the most negative estimate of immigration’s dollar costs, and the United States could still afford a lot of immigration. Believe the most positive reckoning of the dollar benefits that mass immigration provides, and they are not so large that the United States would be crazy to refuse them.
For good or ill, immigration’s most important effects are social and cultural, not economic. What are these effects, then? Some are good, some are bad, and some depend on the eye of the beholder.
IMMIGRANTS ARE MAKING AMERICA SAFER.
Generally, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans do. And although the children of immigrants commit crimes at much higher rates than their parents do, some evidence suggests that cities with higher percentages of immigrants have experienced steeper reductions in crime. President Trump speaks often about the victims of crime committed by undocumented immigrants, but the years of high immigration since 1990 have seen the steepest declines in crime since modern record-keeping began.
IMMIGRANTS ARE MAKING AMERICA LESS SELF-DESTRUCTIVE.
Asians, who comprise the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant group, are half as likely to abuse drugs or alcohol as other population groups are. Only one-fifth of Hispanic households own a firearm, as opposed to one-half of white households.
The severest self-harm, suicide, is very much a problem of the native-born. Suicide rates have surged since 1999. But white people commit suicide at nearly three times the rate of ethnic minorities. The states with the highest percentages of immigrants have suffered least from the suicide surge; the states with the lowest percentages have suffered most.
IMMIGRANTS ARE LOWERING AMERICA’S AVERAGE SKILL LEVEL.
In 2007, ETS—the company that administers the SAT—warned of a gathering “perfect storm”: “Over the next 25 years or so,” it said, “as better-educated individuals leave the workforce they will be replaced by those who, on average, have lower levels of education and skill.” This warning shows every sign of being fulfilled. About 10 percent of the students in U.S. public schools are now non-native English speakers. Unsurprisingly, these students score consistently lower on national assessment tests than native speakers do. In 2017, nearly half of Hispanic fourth graders had not achieved even partial mastery of grade-level material. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, these children are at significant risk of dropping out of high school.
But here’s something more surprising: Evidence from North Carolina suggests that even a fairly small increase in the non-native-speaking presence in a classroom seriously depresses learning outcomes for all students. The nation has undertaken important educational reforms over the past generation. In many ways, that commitment has yielded heartening results. Yet since about 2007, progress has stalled, and in some cases even reversed. Cuts to state budgets during the Great Recession bear some of the responsibility. But so does immigration policy. The Hechinger Report, from Columbia University’s Teachers College, observes that the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress “was the first time that white students dropped below 50 percent of fourth-grade test takers. Hispanics now account for 26 percent of the fourth-grade population, up from 19 percent 10 years ago. Disproportionately poor, and sometimes not speaking English at home, Hispanics tend to score considerably lower than white students.”
IMMIGRANTS ARE ENABLING EMPLOYERS TO BEHAVE BADLY.
Most jobs are becoming impressively safer, year by year. You may think of mining as a uniquely hazardous industry. Yet in 2006, after a tragic sequence of accidents, Congress enacted the most sweeping mine-safety legislation in a generation. In the decade since, mining fatalities have declined by two-thirds.
Mining, however, is an industry dominated by native-born workers. Industries that rely on the foreign-born are improving much more slowly. Forestry, fishing, and farming are three of the most dangerous industries in the United States. They are 46 percent reliant on immigrant laborers, half of them undocumented. (Documented and undocumented immigrants together make up only 17 percent of the U.S. workforce as a whole.) Building and grounds maintenance is surprisingly dangerous work: 326 people died in 2017. Some 35 percent of grounds workers are immigrants. About 25 percent of construction workers are immigrants, but immigrants supply almost half the workers in the most dangerous areas, notably roofing and drywalling. When so many workers in a job category toil outside the law, the law won’t offer much protection.
America was built on the revolutionary idea, never fully realized, that those who labor might also govern—that every worker should be a voter. The struggle toward this ideal has been slow, arduous, and sometimes violent. The immigration surge has had the effect of setting this ideal back. Half a century after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the United States has again habituated itself to employing workers who cannot vote and therefore cannot protect their interests or even their lives.
IMMIGRANTS ARE ALTERING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AMERICANS AND THEIR GOVERNMENT, AND MAKING THE COUNTRY MORE HIERARCHICAL.
Visitors to the United States used to be startled by the casual egalitarianism of American manners. “Have you ever realized to yourself as a fact that the porter who carries your box has not made himself inferior to you by the very act of carrying that box?” Anthony Trollope asked readers back home in Victorian England. If not, brace yourself: “That is the very lesson which the man wishes to teach you.”
That lesson may no longer be getting taught. In 1970, almost every U.S. resident was a U.S. citizen, enjoying all the political and civil rights of citizenship. Today, in immigration-dense states such as California, Texas, New Jersey, and New York, at least 10 percent of residents are not citizens. These people occupy a wide array of subordinated legal statuses. Some are legal permanent residents, lacking only the right to vote. Some are legal temporary residents, allowed to work but requiring permission to change employers. Some hold student visas, allowing them to study here but not to work. Some, such as the Dreamers, and persons displaced by natural disasters in the Caribbean or Central America, may have entered the country illegally but are authorized to remain and work under a temporary status that can continue for years or decades.
America is not yet Dubai or Qatar or ancient Athens, where citizenship is almost an aristocratic status rather than the shared birthright of all residents. But more and more of the people who live among Americans are not on equal legal footing with Americans. They cannot vote. They cannot qualify as jurors. If they commit a crime, they are subject not only to prison but to deportation. And because these noncitizens are keenly aware of those things, they adjust their behavior. They keep a low profile. They do not complain to the authorities if, say, their boss cheats them out of some of their pay, or if they’ve been attacked on the street, or if they are abused by a parent or partner at home.
Heavy immigration has enabled the powerful—and the policy makers who disproportionately heed the powerful—to pay less attention to the disarray in so many segments of the U.S. population. Because the country imports so many workers, employers do not miss the labor of the millions of men consigned to long-term incarceration. Without the immigrant workers less prone to abuse drugs than the native-born, American elites might have noticed the opioid epidemic before it killed more Americans than died in the Vietnam, Korean, and Iraq Wars and the 9/11 attacks combined. The demand for universal health coverage might gain political force if so many of the uninsured were not noncitizens and nonvoters. None of this is immigrants’ fault, obviously. It is more true that America’s tendency to plutocracy explains immigration policies than that immigration policies explain the tendency to plutocracy. Managing immigration better is only one element of restoring equity to American life. But it is an essential element, without which it is hard to imagine how any other element can be achieved.