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Could Reducing Immigration Really Boost Immigrant Integration?

Maybe, But There’s a WAY Easier Way to Do This

Lyman Stone
Jan 15, 2016 · 18 min read

In his recent “ten theses on immigration,” Ross Douthat, of whom I’m a fan, echoed the arguments made by Reihan Salam (which I commented on earlier this week) regarding reasons to be skeptical of the benefits from immigration. He raises some interesting points, and I won’t respond to most. But there’s one I really want to hammer: the question of whether cutting off immigrant inflows could actually help immigrants by increasing the rate at which they integrate. The answer, as I’ll show, is “Yes, but…” And the “but” is “but reducing immigration generally is a ridiculously bad way to accomplish that goal.”

So let me phrase the argument Douthat/Salam seem to be making in a more formal way.

By cutting off immigrant inflows, immigrants will be forced to mingle more with natives in their personal and economic lives, absorbing more of the native culture. In other words, high immigration alongside a high foreign-born share of the population enables “replenishment” of foreign populations that retards integration.

They don’t make the associated argument, that this increased mingling will also accelerate the “foreignization” of the native culture, so let’s avoid that for now. Nobody cares apparently if pizza is “ethnic cuisine” or not.

Let’s start by elaborating on the alleged mechanism of integration.

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Family, Friendship, War, and Commerce

How to Make Foreigners Natives

Four things basically drive integration: family, friendship, war, and commerce. Of these probably family and war are the most effective “integration drivers,” while friendship and commerce have the fewest barriers or cost to achievement.

But first, let me define “integration.” I don’t care about language, religion, or economic class. I care purely about politics for this post which, as you’ll see, fully encapsulates language, religion, race, class, etc. Specifically, I view an immigrant as “integrated” when both that immigrant and the preponderance of natives view themselves as “one people.” When the national “we” refers to a specific Italian-American for that immigrant in their own mind as much as for the minds of most natives, then that immigrant is integrated. So integration is not just what the immigrant does, but what the natives do. It’s a form of convergence. This is not quite the standard definition, which tends to place all the onus of change on the immigrant. I think the immigrant is most likely to make the vast majority of the change (especially regarding language and political norms), but natives change too (especially, historically, regarding “physical culture” like food and dress).

Friends and Family. I lump these together as “social integration.” The most powerful form is immigrant-native marriage and childrearing. This binds immigrants and natives together with the strongest bond society has available, and forges a new kind of immigrant-native American. Theoretically, the more immigrants there are in society, the higher the odds are that immigrants marry or befriend immigrants, and thus this form of integration is slowed down. And there’s good empirical evidence of this as well, especially at the local level. Immigrants who reside in immigrant-majority neighborhoods are vastly more likely to marry other immigrants and have immigrant-majority social circles, even after years of residing in the United States. Their U.S.-born children are also more likely to marry 1st or 2nd generation immigrants. So the density of immigrant settlement relative to social circles can slow down the process of immigrants and natives coming to view one another as “one people.”

War. This could also be called “external crisis.” Having some kind of common threat binds people together, if they don’t crack and kill each other. War, whether the civil war in the United States or WWI or WWII, can serve as a powerful crucible through which immigrants and natives come to view each other as one team, life or death. Thus, war or other external crisis can drive immigrants and natives to view each other as “one people.”

Commerce. Over a long period of time, shared commercial interaction can drive integration. Immigrants and natives develop a shared vocabulary of materiality, they adopt each others’ lingua franca, they work with and for one another, they develop trust and mutual interest. If nothing else happens, commerce may never break down ethnic barriers completely, but it can go a very long way to creating a nation where everybody at least gets along and the threat of nativist politics is very rare.

So those are the key drivers of immigration. Neither commerce nor war depend on anything we can impact via immigration policy. Whatever our border controls and visa standards, it won’t change the likelihood of a major war, and immigrants will still be immersed in American market capitalism. So really, the only form of integration we can target using immigration policy is friends and family or what I’ll call social integration. And that basically comes down to the density of the foreign-born population.

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How Dense is the Foreign-Born Population?

A Nation of Foreigners

So, the key statistic is the foreign-born share of the population, right? The chart below provides my estimate (revised from my “History of Immigration” post, by the way) of the foreign-born share of the population of the future United States.

So according to that chart, integration should have been hardest in our early colonial history, in the 1850s-1920s, and in the 1990s to today. Well, the early colonial history is sort of its own beast, and you could actually argue that the American Revolution reflects a failure of immigrant integration into the British nation… but lets ignore that period.

The 1850s to the 1920s, then, are the key period when integration should have been really hard, because there were so gosh darn many immigrants. But that’s not historically what happened. The worst nativist outbreaks were in the 1840s, and the Know-Nothing party peaked in the early 1850s. In other words, anti-integration sentiment among natives was strongest while the foreign-born share was rising, not while it was high, but stable. I’m going to return to this. The 1870s to 1900s did see some extremely strong reactions against Asian immigrants, but, crucially, all Asians in the US never amounted to more than 0.3% of the population before 1950. So the nativist backlash was not against the large populations of foreigners, but against the small but rapidly growing populations of foreigners. And even then, the “nativist” response was largely by recent immigrants themselves.

Many people attribute the falling foreign-born share of the 1920s-1950s to the restrictive immigration laws passed in the 1920s. And yeah, those laws are the main reason. But the foreign-born share didn’t peak right before the quotas passed in 1924: the foreign-born share’s last pre-1920s peak was in 1909, meaning the foreign-born share had been falling for about 15 years by the time strict quotas were passed. Those quotas came in the wake of WWI which, as I said, wars can help immigrants and natives come to view each other as one people. It appears this now united people united around the idea of not letting anybody else join.

But again, the key point here is that the restrictions came after the foreign-born share was already in decline, not as a response to high foreign-born levels. In other words, the large foreign-born share seems to have been more-or-less accepted after the Civil War, and after WWI the people now united by war simply imposed rules making sure new immigrants looked like them. So at least the native “willingness to accept” immigrants seems to have little tie to the foreign-born share of the population.

I don’t have data on intermarriage rates, but many historians do find that intermarriage rates rose after the 1920s. Again, whether that’s because of WWI and the Great Depression, or because of quotas, isn’t totally clear, but quotas seem like a reasonable-enough hypothesis, on face value, if we look at just the national foreign-born share.

But that’s a silly variable. Why should we look at all the foreign-born? The argument for social integration isn’t that foreigners marry foreigners, it’s that Italians marry Italians, Mexicans marry Mexicans, Greeks marry Greeks. So what matters is not the foreign-born share of the population, but the foreign-born share of the population of groups with high immigrant inflows (i.e. replenishment).

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How Dense Are Specific Foreign-Born Populations?

Many Nations of Foreigners

The chart below shows my estimate of immigrant inflows by nationality since 1820. For the record, the data is really spotty and I could easily be off by substantial margins. I also estimate a higher number of immigrants total than most researchers for a number of reasons I won’t go into here. So you should take my estimates with a grain of salt; but they should pretty well capture the broad scale of movement for the big nationalities. I’m only going to show a few select countries, but follow the link to the original and you can track my estimates of total immigration for every country for every year going back to 1820! Wahoo!

As you can see, Mexico dominates the scale. But I should note that, if you combine all European immigrants in the years before 1920, you actually do get pretty well above the Mexican numbers in recent years, so keep that in mind. Also keep in mind we’re talking about major differences in population.

For the next two charts, I’ll look at these same countries by decade from 1850–2010, because those are the years for which we have Census data. The chart below shows each group of foreign-born immigrants as a share of the total population, 1850–2010.

Notice anything? Here’s what I notice: German and Irish immigrants are the only groups to ever rival the Mexican share of the population today. Want to know something else fun? Anti-German societies persisted into the 1910s, then obviously were prominent during WWI and WWII. Germans were criticized for being insular, for maintaining their language, for being Lutheran, for being anti-prohibition, and for being Catholic (yes, Catholic and Lutheran: any stick is good enough to beat the Germans). Irish, meanwhile, experienced rampant discrimination early in the period, and suspicion of the Irish easily bled over into suspicion of Catholics generally all the way into the 1950s. But here’s the key point: these groups, and their social norms, were targeted in a way that, say, Hungarian immigrants or even Russian immigrants were not. We still tell stories about Irish and German troubles with integration because it took a long time and was really hard.

And it’s true, it was hard because immigration was high. The chart below shows these same groups, with decadal total immigration displayed as a percent of U.S. total population.

Irish and German immigration was insanely high in the 1830s-1850s. Migration from the UK hit levels near the Mexican rates of the 1990s before declining, while Italian and Russian migration came close in the 1900s, but, holy cow, the Irish and the Germans. The above data shows the total inflows for the decade after the year specified (so 1820 refers to 1820–1829), divided by the Census population in the first year. It’s not an annual rate.

So yeah, these really high inflows alongside really high nationality-specific migration rates probably did have something to do with the rise of nativist politics and the decades-long timespan it took to integrate them.

So there may have been a case for restricting Irish and German immigration in 1840. And in 1920, when quotas were set that enabled continued high Irish and German migration if migrants wanted to, Irish and German populations had declined to levels comparable to Italians, Russians, British, Mexicans, and others.

Meanwhile, Russians, Hungarians, Austrians, and Italians integrated pretty quickly (mob-issues aside; that’s probably as much a product of immigration during peak urbanization and on the cusp of prohibition anyways). They weren’t more culturally similar than the Irish or the Germans; in many ways they were less culturally similar to U.S. natives. Now, maybe they did integrate faster because of the quota system cutting off inflows. but immigration was already falling in the 1910s. That’s mostly a product of WWI disrupting migration, but even in 1920–1924, immigration did not return to the levels of the 1900s. In other words, even without quotas, immigration was probably falling for these groups. But perhaps more importantly than rises and falls, none of these groups ever had inflow rates as high as the peak of Irish or German immigration, or even Mexican immigration; and none of them every had nearly as large a share of the total U.S. population.

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21st Century Migration

Fewer Mexicans, More Asians

So let’s look at the 21st century. As is clearly evident, Mexican migration has dominated the story. Mexicans are now in the running for biggest foreign share of the population ever, and have already blown away the standing record since 1900. Inflow rates in the 1990s (and I impute the nationality of illegal immigrants, dividing it among Mexicans and Central Americans based on DHS apprehensions data) reached levels also not seen since the great Irish and German migrations of the 19th century.But times they are a-changin’.

The Mexican immigration rate has fallen by 2/3 since the 1990s.

I project migration in the 2010s assuming that trends 2010–2014 remain the same, so that 2010 number is still changing. But at least through the first half of the decade, Mexican migration is way down. And so is Central American migration, despite some upticks in illegal immigration. Now I’ll admit my imputation may be bad here: I suspect I’m actually overstating Central American immigration in the 1970s and 1980s, and understanding in the 2010s, so I wouldn’t read too much into that decline. But the point is, Hispanic immigration is in decline. Meanwhile, emigration is rising (as I discussed in my previous post).

So who’s rising? Well, you can see that Indians and Chinese have seen rising immigration rates, as have non-Cuban Caribbeans, especially Haitians. This is a big deal. This suggests that growth in immigration is likely to come from Indians, Chinese, and non-Cuban Caribbean people. These groups’ inflow rates aren’t that big right now so they have tons of upside potential (especially given the population of China and India). Meanwhile, if you go back and look at the total population chart, you’ll notice that the Indian and Chinese share of the population is rising, but still way under 1%. There’s a ton of space before these groups start hitting the danger zone around 2+% of the population.

In other words, although Mexican immigration may have hit levels that imperil social integration, it now appears to be declining. Aggressive deportation seems likely, meanwhile, to chip away at the resident population. The result should be that Mexicans return to the integration green zone within a decade or two, a much faster “snapback” than Germans or Irish. This, of course, assumes that aggressive deportations and border control continue.

While there may be some justification for curtailing Mexican immigration in order to facilitate integration, Chinese, Indian, or Caribbean immigration could be greatly boosted without imperiling social integration.

That’s especially the case if it’s non-Hispanic Caribbean immigration from the Francophone, Anglophone, or Dutch Caribbean countries.

Overall, then, the remedy apparently favored, if not always explicitly proposed, by Douthat/Salam, a restriction or reduction of immigration, is a bit silly. We don’t need to curtail immigration, we just need to curtail Mexican immigration. Let me be clear: I’m not calling for the re-institution of country quotas as in 1924. But setting some time-limited cap for one country until such a time as the share of the U.S. population born in that country declines to a certain point is radically different from just blocking out huge sections of the world. If we capped legal immigration of any form from Mexico at, say 75,000 legal immigrants per year instead of the current 125,00 to 200,000 per year, while also maintaining the current border regime, we would see an even faster snapback of the Mexican-born population share. Meanwhile, you could take the 50–125,000 visas saved and give them to Chinese, Indian, or African immigrants who, as an added bonus, may be more likely to be skilled immigrants.

Douthat and Salam are correct that cutting inflows of a given immigrant group can help that immigrant group integrate, which is ultimately good for everyone. But the jump from that to any reduction in immigration is simply unfounded when you actually think about how social integration works, and what the data tells us about that. And, as I’ll show at the end, we could absolutely make good use of more immigrants.

And as one last fun graph, the below number tracks the Herfindahl-Hirschman index for all inflows into the United States since 1820. Higher numbers mean immigration is very concentrated on a few nationalities, lower numbers mean immigration is coming from more diversified sources. As you can see, we’re entering a period of diversified sources. Periods of undiversified sources, by the way, also seem curiously correlated with outbreaks of nativism. Which shows yet further that maybe-just-maybe we could handle boosting immigration.

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Crowded Gateways

The Changing Geography of Immigration

Immigrants before the 1930s arrived exclusively by boat, or across the land border with Mexico or Canada. The vast majority arrived by boat, and through just a few ports, most notably New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The period from 1850 to 1950 saw explosive urban growth in the US, and immigrants led that growth, again largely because that’s just where they could end up. But they weren’t evenly concentrated across cities, but were densely packed in a few. And those cities were in a few states. I’ve written on “gateway cities” before.

Concentration matters. The foreign-born share doesn’t matter except as a proxy variable for the average social circle of an immigrant. If we had 20% foreign-born, but each immigrant’s 4 closest relations were natives, the integration outlook is very different from 5% foreign-born where foreigners refuse to associate with natives, or vice versa. We can’t directly measure the social circules of immigrants today, but we can at least get a better look at the issue by looking at the geographic distribution of immigrants. Geographic concentration may be as good or better an indicator of likelihood of integration as the foreign-born population share.

So let’s look at the distribution of the foreign-born population by state.

I introduced you to the Herfindahl-Hirschman index for inflows. Here it is for concentration of the foreign-born by state, and also for the total population of the United States. High numbers mean immigrants (or people generally) disproportionately live in one state, low numbers mean they’re about evenly spread out. As you can see, immigrants are more concentrated than natives, but both groups have seen sort of a U-shape, with the least concentration in the 1890s to 1910s. Immigrants were far more concentrated in the 1850s-1870s than before that, then got more concentrated until the 1940s, when concentration was about stable. This rising concentration to the 1940s mirrors growing general population concentration.

And then there’s a spike to 1990. Holy cow; immigrants were super-concentrated in the 1990s, at unprecedented levels. That creates real risks for integration. So in the 1990s, we had high inflows, a high and rising foreign-born population, and unprecedented concentration of the foreign-born population. Bad news for integration.

Luckily, we’re not stuck in the 1990s.

Since the 1990s, the geographic concentration of immigrants has plummeted, even as the concentration of the whole population has risen.

In fact if you take the relative concentration foreigners vs. total, the concentration of immigrants is at its lowest level since 1930. In other words, geographic concentration of foreigners poses less of a risk to integration than at almost any time in living memory.

Now that said, I haven’t broken concentrations out by nationality, and, as we’ve said, that’s what really matters. So it could be that nationality-specific concentration trends are different. But this post is long enough for one day, and I’ll leave the more granular geographic concentration data to someone else.

Don’t Reduce Immigration

Restructure and Raise It

In a Twitter exchange after my last post, Reihan Salam suggested to me that I misrepresented his view, that he doesn’t actually favor reducing immigration. I’m skeptical of that given that almost everything I’ve ever read from him on the topic amounts to (very thoughtful) commentary explaining why immigration is risky, costly, or would benefit from being reduced. But whatever the case, certainly many people want to lower immigration. If Reihan actually doesn’t want to lower it, great.

But where we do agree is the need for restructuring of immigration. Reihan argues for, essentially, a skills-oriented points-based system like Canada or Australia have. I dislike that idea because I think unskilled immigration is a actually still a good thing, broadly speaking. But where I do agree with Reihan is that the U.S. could benefit from shifting away from immigration of populations unlikely to integrate well. While individual Mexican or Hispanic immigrants can certainly integrate well into American society, and are doing so at extremely rapid rates far above what previous waves of immigrants have shown, the extremely large population and proximity to the source suggest continuing to control and reduce immigration from Mexico especially may be beneficial. I know this will, again, be anathema to many of my non-conservative readers. But like I said above, I don’t see it as a permanent measure. As soon as the Mexican-born population has fallen to more reasonable levels, we lighten up again.

And of course the big difference here is I want those Mexican immigrants replaced: by Indians, by Chinese, by Caribbeans, by Africans. The question of integration here isn’t about language or religion or skills or politics, but purely about hedging the odds that immigrant social circles will be dominated by immigrants. Thus the only relevant concern is a given immigrant’s likelihood of being embedded in a community composed overwhelmingly by immigrants of the same nationality.

I’ve been critical of state-specific visas before, but it’s worth noting that if immigrants were regionally tied and these visas were distributed without respect to existing foreign-born populations, and if states were given restrictions on what share of immigrants could be brought in from a single country, then such state-specific visas could rapidly boost integration. But again, that would require movement controls that are, to be quite clear, awful.

The U.S. has had waves of immigrants, and has handled them all differently. Right now, the US is coming down off a wave of fairly high, and very demographically lopsided, immigration. We can come down hard by clamping down on all immigration, or come down soft by promoting and facilitating more balanced immigration. Policies that aim to manage the size of specific immigrant ethnic groups through immigration controls, and that are aimed towards making sure a specific nationality doesn’t become so large that its size becomes a barrier to integration, make some sense. But that set of policy tools, and their attendant rationales and costs, is quite different from those needed if the goal were to reduce immigration generally. Commentators serious about restructuring immigration rather than purely reducing it have a duty to start talking about the actual policies they favor to carry out that restructuring. What quota is preferred for Mexican immigrants? How many fewer families visas should be given? And what groups should receive those reallocated visas? I’m fairly straightforward here: curtail Mexican immigration, possibly Central American to a lesser extent, and give the “spare visas” to Indians, Chinese, Africans, etc (whose home countries are, in many cases, even poorer and more destitute, so the ethical claim is at least as strong).

I for one would like to see higher immigration; possibly just control Mexican/Central American migration at current levels, but give a greatly increased number of visas to Asian and African immigrants.

For my previous post about deportation and emigration, click here.

If you like this post and want to see more research like it, I’d love for you to share it on Twitter or Facebook. Or, just as valuable for me, you can click the recommend button at the bottom of the page. Thanks!

Follow me on Twitter to keep up with what I’m writing and reading. Follow my Medium Collection at In a State of Migration if you want updates when I write new posts. And if you’re writing about migration too, feel free to submit a post to the collection!

I’m a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliott School with an MA in International Trade and Investment Policy, and an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I like to learn about migration, the cotton industry, airplanes, trade policy, space, Africa, and faith. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research. More’s the pity.

Cover photo source.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.

Lyman Stone

Written by

Global cotton economist. Migration blogger. Proud Kentuckian. Advisor at Demographic Intelligence. Senior Contributor at The Federalist.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.

Lyman Stone

Written by

Global cotton economist. Migration blogger. Proud Kentuckian. Advisor at Demographic Intelligence. Senior Contributor at The Federalist.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.

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