Immigration: Taking the Long View


We often hear that America is a “nation of immigrants.” A more inclusive and accurate picture of who lives in our nation would specify not only the descendants of entrepreneurs, adventurers and people seeking religious freedom who founded our country and volunteered to come here, but also the Native Americans they displaced, and those descended from slaves who were brought here very much against their will. It would also include multiple waves (e.g. German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Greek) of people from different parts of the world who came to escape hardships ranging from famine to active political persecution. Broadly defined, with the exception of Native Americans, we are all descended from “immigrants” but with vastly different backstories. And, with the exception of black Americans who continue to face structural as well as cultural racism in America, “white” immigrants have historically been able to assimilate within a generation or so. Interestingly, over time, many ethnic groups that were not considered “white” when they came to our shores are now accepted as part of the “white” populace.

The percentage of immigrants in our population has varied over time both up and down from 10% in 1850 to nearly 15% in 1890 and then down to 4.7% in 1970 and back up to 13.5% in 2015. The absolute size of the immigrant population has increased steadily since 1970 due to the abolishment of national-origin admission quotas by Congress in 1965, a time of great economic prosperity in America.[1] So, in terms of the percentage of immigrants in relation to the overall population, the last few years have pushed us close to historic highs. This population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, persons on certain temporary visas, and the unauthorized.

People want to come here because social and economic conditions are relatively better than those they are leaving behind. This is true even though America is failing to offer the same upward mobility to its own people that it once did.[2] An increasing number of white people, particularly men, live in poverty and are unable to find or qualify for jobs that provide a sustainable livelihood.[3] Wages have not increased in real terms since the 1970s.[4] The life expectancy of people born in America today is barely higher than that of their parents and the rate of increase has slowed way down.[5] At the same time, we have largely disinvested in public health, public education, and public infrastructure.

Given the economic stagnation and backsliding that working class and many middle class white Americans are experiencing, in stark contrast to the upward mobility they were brought up to expect, it is hardly surprising that we are seeing a backlash against immigrants. Although the primary motivations for coming to America have changed very little over the centuries, the dominant countries of origin have. The “why” is much the same; it’s the “who” that is different. In 2015, 1.38 million foreign-born individuals moved to the United States, a 2 percent increase from 1.36 million in 2014. India was the leading country of origin for recent immigrants, with 179,800 arriving in 2015, followed by 143,200 from China, 139,400 from Mexico, 47,500 from the Philippines, and 46,800 from Canada. In 2013, India and China overtook Mexico as the top origin countries for recent arrivals.[6] In other words, the majority of today’s immigrants to the United States are not “white.” For decades we have been told that we are in the midst of transformation from a country that is predominantly “white” to one that is not. Now, some are suggesting that assimilation over several generations may result in more people of Asian and Hispanic descent identifying as “white” over time, much like their predecessors.[7]

The backlash over immigration is a symptom, not a cause. The cause is our lack of investment in helping all our people transition to a 21st century economy. Given the extent of our disinvestment, results of which can be seen in the opioid and obesity epidemics, crumbling roads and bridges, dilapidated cities, lack of access to broadband services, polluted natural resources and more, we have ample opportunities to strengthen our economy through targeted productive investments, including investments in social skills like tolerance. This won’t happen until we have the political will to rein in the unproductive speculative investments in finance, real estate and insurance that exacerbate the gulf between the 1% and everyone else.

Until we do, some proportion of our citizenry is likely to continue to blame the “other” for the circumstances in which they find themselves, often through no fault of their own. Ironically, the situation of the dispossessed in America is not dissimilar to that of those who wish to come here from other countries that do not provide economic opportunities, are politically oppressive, or suffer natural catastrophes. For the most part, they too are caught in circumstances beyond their control.

Fortunately, notwithstanding today’s political backlash, there is some evidence that we do adjust to and accept difference given sufficient time and exposure to it. For example, over time we have seen significant (if not complete) shifts in attitudes toward women, inter-racial marriages, and non-hetero sexual orientations. Therefore, it seems possible that, over time, we will come to value the contributions of all immigrants who wish to tie their futures and the futures of their families to America. Perhaps the “melting pot” will not melt down but be resurfaced of stuff strong enough to hold us together. Perhaps the questions we should be asking are not about how to “crack down on” immigration, but rather how we can get better at integrating the current wave of immigrants for the betterment of our society and economy as a whole? How do we get better at working together, instead of at cross purposes, to create a fairer and more just society that benefits us all?

This is the first in a series of articles on immigration published by Better Angels and The American Moderate as part of their inaugural writers’ symposium