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December 1996, Volume 3, Number 12

The Atlantic: Can the US afford immigration?

The November 1996 Atlantic includes two immigration articles. Historian David M. Kennedy asks "Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?" and economist George Borjas discusses "The New Economics of Immigration."

Kennedy begins by noting that two extremes have framed US views of immigrants. On the one hand, immigrants have been often praised for being the best of their societies, the risk-takers attracted to the US by opportunity and freedom. The other extreme, common at the beginning of the 20th century, is that immigrants are inferior to US-born residents--supply-push factors such as overpopulation and joblessness push them toward the US. Both views see immigrants as individuals choosing where to live.

Two supply-push factors in Europe, says Kennedy, were responsible for mass US immigration in the 19th century--population growth--Europe's population doubled from 200 million to 400 million in the 1800s, even after 70 million people emigrated--and the agricultural and industrial revolutions that displaced rural and urban peoples.

Kennedy then turns to three factors that he thinks helped to integrate immigrants in the US; their relatively low numbers, rapid economic growth, and the varied composition and broad dispersal of the immigrants throughout the US. The 15 percent foreign-born persons enumerated in the 1910 Census were less than the 18 percent foreign-born in Australia, or the 20 percent foreign-born in Canada, or the even higher percentage of foreign born in Argentina at the turn of the century. According to Kennedy, the diversity of immigrants meant that no group could forever maintain its cultural identity and none could gain political power over more than a city.

Kennedy argues that the same two supply-push factors--population growth and economic change--are pushing migrants from Mexico and other countries to the US at the end of the 20th century. Kennedy asserts that the US can absorb the number of immigrants arriving. However, Kennedy says that unskilled immigrants do not have the same economic payoff for US natives that they did a century ago.

Kennedy then turns to Mexico, the source of about one-fourth of US immigrants over the past 15 years. He notes that the Hispanicization of the American Southwest is sometimes called the Reconquista and goes on to speculate that the prospect of continuing migration from a neighboring country is unprecedented and that it is far from clear whether geographic proximity will serve to speed integration or isolation.

George Borjas says that immigration policies can be compared by how they resolve two fundamental questions: how many immigrants the country should admit and what kinds of people they should be. According to Borjas, there is now a consensus that:

1. The relative education or skills of successive immigrant waves have declined over much of the postwar period, i.e., the gap between the average years of schooling of native-born adults and recent immigrants has widened from about 0.4 years to 1.3 years.

2. Many recent immigrants will never earn as much as similar US-born residents and, as they crowd into the low wage labor market, immigration may account for as much as one-third of the drop in the wages of unskilled US workers. The net economic benefits to the US from immigration are about $7 billion per year, according to Borjas, about what the US spends on the Interior Department, or $30 per person per year.

3. Households headed by recent immigrants are more likely to receive some type of welfare assistance than households headed by US-born persons. Unskilled immigrants are likely to have children who also have below average levels of schooling.

Borjas goes on to divide the world's people into three groups--natives, immigrants and the persons left behind, and asks how immigration affects the size of the economy after immigrants enter and the distribution of income. Immigration slows wage increases, but increase the size of the economy; a 10 percent increase in the labor force is associated with a three percent drop in wages.

Borjas agrees with Briggs and many other economists that the number of immigrants admitted annually should be linked to conditions in the US economy.

Furthermore, Borjas suggests several immigration policy goals and ways to achieve them. If the goal of immigration policy is to increase the per capita income of the native population, then immigration policy should encourage the entry of skilled workers.

Both articles are available at />
Maolain, Ciaran. 1996. European Directory of Migrant and Ethnic Minority Organizations. Utrecht: ERCOMER. or />
This directory includes a listing of over 9,000 community organizations, support organizations, anti-racism groups, private and government agencies and research centers arranged by country.

Geyer, Georgie Ann. 1996. Americans No More: The Death of Citizenship. Boston. Atlantic Monthly Press

This book argues that Americans are gradually losing their sense of citizenship. According to Geyer, it is too easy for foreigners to become naturalized US citizens.

Klusmeyer, Douglas B. 1996. Between Consent and Descent: Conceptions of Democratic Citizenship. Washington. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Contact

This monograph traces citizenship from ancient Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions.

National Research Council. 1996. Statistics on U.S. Immigration: An Assessment of Data Needs for Future Research. Committee on National Statistics and Committee on Population. Available from National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. N.W., Box 285, Washington, DC 20418.

This report calls for the inclusion of questions on nativity and parental nativity in the Census, and that more socio-economic data be added to the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) files so that researchers can more easily study immigrant integration.