Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The statistical side of immigration

 Immigration has been on my mind a lot lately for a lot of reasons. There was the Trump-killed immigration reform bill, the ongoing humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border, and the tragic murder of Laken Riley to name a few, but immigration policy is one of those issues where it seems like both sides often talk past each other and may not even be speaking the same language. It’s always good to understand the underlying facts about an issue, so with that in mind, let’s delve into the statistics behind our current immigration situation. 

On immigration as with many other issues, I’m reminded of Ronald Reagan’s observation, “The trouble with our Liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so.” These days Reagan’s quip applies to both parties and I’m not even going to begin to assess which side knows more that isn’t so. Both cling to conventional wisdom that is often wrong and immigration is often a good case in point. 

Ellis Island’s great hall, taken by me in 2017. I highly recommend the Ellis Island tour and museum. Despite the reputation of the screening at Ellis Island, only two percent of immigrants were turned away. (David Thornton)

For example, not long ago I wrote about how the evidence shows that immigrants - legal or otherwise - are less likely to be involved in violent crime than native-born Americans. Despite occasional high-profile crimes such as the murder of Laken Riley, violent attacks by immigrants are relatively few and far between. That isn’t just me saying that, there are a number of studies that debunk the notion of a violent crime wave perpetrated by immigrants. 

Princeton study from 2020 found that “Relative to undocumented immigrants, US-born citizens are over two times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.”

Alex Rowestah described a paper that he coauthored for the Cato Institute in 2020, noting that, “The illegal immigrant criminal conviction rate was 45 percent below that of native-born Americans in Texas.” Keep in mind that Texas is a border state with a large population of illegals. 

An even more recent example is a 2023 National Bureau of Economic Research study led by Stanford University economist Ran Abramitzky. This study examined data going back to 1870 and found “As a group, immigrants have had lower incarceration rates than the US-born for 150 years. Moreover, relative to the US-born, immigrants’ incarceration rates have declined since 1960: immigrants today are 60 percent less likely to be incarcerated (30 percent relative to US-born whites).”

Further, there is a big concern about the possibility of terrorists or insurgents crossing the border to carry out attacks on the US. I used to worry about this, but we are now more than two decades past September 11 and I’m not aware of a single terrorist attack that has been connected to an illegal border crosser. 

There are periodic reports of people on the terrorist watch list being captured at the border, but CBS News gives some context to these reports. First, these cases are few in number, only 227 on the Mexican border in 2023, and the suspects weren’t necessarily let into the country. Further, there is no data on what prompted the person’s placement on the list, but it could be actions or associations of a family member or friend rather than the immigrant himself. There is no data on where or what group these people are associated with, but last year a human smuggler with ties to ISIS was arrested in connection with illegal immigration into the US. Despite his terrorist connections, there was no evidence of any terror plot. Finally, there are more terror suspects identified crossing from Canada than from Mexico. In 2023, there were 432 suspects flagged on the northern border, almost twice as many as on the southern border. 

It seems likely that if this strategy was one that terrorist groups considered viable, they would have tried it over the past 20 years. But there are easier ways to insert terrorists into the US than having them walk through a heavily patrolled desert. These other options include coming into the country legally and radicalizing native-born Americans.

So the evidence does not support the claim that immigration is dangerous by its very nature, but what about the economic impact? If you want to get an accurate picture of immigration, I can recommend a recent series of podcasts by Freakonomics. The three-part series (plus some additional bonus episodes) starts at episode 580. I’ve been a fan of Freakonomics for a long time for its objective look at a variety of issues, but partisans won’t appreciate the show because it gives an objective look at a variety of issues instead of being an echo chamber that reinforces what they think they know. 

In one of the immigration episodes, the Freakonomics crew talks to Zeke Hernandez, a business professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and the author of the upcoming book, “The Truth About Immigration.” Hernandez, himself an immigrant, lays out a plethora of surprising facts about immigration. Here are a few:

  • Globally, about 3.6 percent of people live in countries they were not born in

  • In the US, 14 percent of the population is foreign-born

  • The average illegal immigrant in the US has been living here for 10-14 years

  • 21 percent of children born to native-born Americans become high-wage earners

  • 35 percent of children born to immigrants in the US become high-wage earners

  • 8 percent of Americans live in poverty

  • 13 of immigrants in the US live in poverty

  • Immigrants are responsible for 40 percent of US patents (23 percent as inventor of record and 13 percent in other roles)

  • 66 percent of green cards go to family-based applicants

  • 18 percent of the US workforce is composed of immigrants

  • The average American receives $8,000 in welfare benefits while the average immigrant receives $6,000 (less for illegal immigrants)

That’s a lot to digest, but there’s more. In an earlier episode in the series, Leah Busan, an economics professor at Princeton pointed out that current immigrants typically have the same rates of success as previous waves of immigration. They typically report higher rates of church attendance than native-born Americans and often have a strong sense of family and community. Even more surprising, Busan revealed that current immigrants have relatively high levels of education and wealth compared to their countrymen who stayed home. 

As Busan put it, “It's quite interesting because in the modern period, immigrants from almost every country in the world to the US are more educated and come from wealthier backgrounds than the typical person in their home country. So in that sense, economists call those immigrants positively selected. Historically, that's actually not true. Historically, the Statue of Liberty actually got it right that immigrants from Europe were the tired, poor huddled masses. They tended to either be from the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum or just average for their home country. So when we see children of immigrants getting ahead a hundred years ago, it's probably not because of positive selection, but for today that certainly could be the case.”

When Donald Trump said that other countries were not sending us their best, he was wrong. The immigrants coming to America are often from the upper levels of the population in their old country. 

The image of immigrants being the dregs of society or, dare I say it, “poison” is off the mark. These days the stereotype of a doctor in the old country coming to the US to work as a janitor or lawn care worker may be closer to the truth. Or the innovators who come from India, Pakistan, or South Africa like Elon Musk and start businesses that turn into major corporations. 

Today’s immigrants often punch above their weight economically. They are often educated people who fill much-needed roles in high-tech companies or become entrepreneurs that help to grow the economy. They have a slightly higher poverty rate than native-born Americans shortly after arrival, but that trend reverses quickly. In fact, I have to wonder if some of the resentment against immigrants may not be because Americans see the new arrivals surpassing them financially within a few short years. 

One of the big problems with our current immigration system is that we turn many of these science and technology workers away and force them to settle in competing countries. Canada is actively recruiting tech-savvy immigrants, many of whom were rejected for immigration to the US. Others might end up in more adversarial countries like China and Russia. 

At the same time, fewer American students are seeking degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The problem starts in the lower grades and continues through college. It will be difficult for the US to maintain its technological advantage in the future without a well-educated workforce. We make the problem worse by refusing to accept qualified and highly-educated immigrants.

There is research that backs up the notion that immigrants are a net positive. Forbesdetailed several such studies from sources such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Wharton School of Business. The gist is that more workers means more productivity and a larger GDP. That’s especially true of skilled workers, but an immigrant with a high school degree represents an average lifetime net positive effect of $128,000.

But there are also costs associated with immigration. The irony is that the costs are not shared equally. States and districts where immigrants first arrive incur the higher costs in helping immigrants to assimilate. These include items like bilingual schooling and English courses for adults. Legal immigrants such as green card holders also qualify for federal benefits. Those extra costs diminish as immigrants assimilate so areas in the interior where immigrants migrate after acclimating to the new country see higher benefits and lower costs from immigration. 

Particularly in the entry areas, there can also be economic impacts on commodities like housing and wages. Higher demand for housing can drive up prices while too many workers in the labor pool can drive down wages. To put it another way, immigration pays off in the end, but there are front-loaded costs that are real and significant. 

The flip side of the labor question is that some industries have a difficult time finding American workers at any price. When the Trump Administration reduced the number of H2-B temporary work visas, Maryland’s crab industry faced a crisis as it lost half its workforce. Crops have been left in the fields to rot from California to Georgia when migrant workers have been unavailable to pick them. Many American industries depend on immigrant labor. 

When it comes to assimilating those migrants, it is often stated that current immigrants maintain their national identity and don’t assimilate like immigrants of previous generations. Research shows that this is not true. Numerous studies have found that modern immigrants assimilate at similar rates as those in the past. The exact time to assimilate depends on what metrics are being used but many immigrants are considered fully assimilated within about 10 years to two generations.

I have seen this personally. When we lived in Texas, we lived next to a family of first-generation Mexican immigrants. The father barely spoke English and the mother spoke passable English, but the children were fluent. Their son was a high school football player who later joined the Marines. The American dream is real. 

One factor that probably helps with the process of assimilation is that the US does something well, albeit perhaps unintentionally. By putting many immigrants into the workforce immediately, immigrants assimilate faster than if they are forced to wait until they speak the language and meet a larger number of bureaucratic hurdles. But it’s also true that modern immigrants have a higher rate of English proficiency than immigrants of the past. 

Finally, there is the question of the US birthrate, which has been falling and is far below replacement level yet the US population is still rising. It is because of immigration that we don’t face the problem of a declining population that many countries such as Russia and Japan face. Immigration has helped America maintain its strong economy and dominant place in the world. 

None of this means that I am for open borders or don’t feel the need for border security, however. I’m pro-immigration, but I’m also pro-border security. I’m among those who say that we need security (not necessarily a border wall) with a “big beautiful door.” I remain convinced that a great many Americans want to bar the door to prospective Americans. 

I’m reminded of something that I read a long time ago about the “American gene.” Americans are largely a self-selected group. We are comprised of people whose ancestors had the gumption to leave their home countries and cross the ocean, often never to see their homes and families again. (I’m not going to say ancestors of slaves lack that gumption either. There are a great many success stories of former slaves and their descendants.) It takes a special kind of person to step out into the unknown like that, but modern immigrants also have that special something, that drive to succeed and better one’s position in life. 

That is what makes America exceptional.

From the Racket News

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