Truth About US Immigration

By Nancy Qian
Special to The Times Kuwait

It is becoming increasingly apparent that immigration will be a major issue for voters in this year’s US presidential election. Since President Joe Biden took office in 2021, more than 6.2 million people who did not have permission to enter the United States have attempted to cross the border from Mexico, and more than two million have been allowed to remain while they await an immigration hearing.

This marked increase from previous years has become a major source of controversy. While Biden’s critics claim, dubiously, that immigrants are driving up crime rates and taking Americans’ jobs, some Democrats are doubling down on calls to decriminalize illegal border crossings altogether. The first group accuses the second of undermining national security, while advocates of decriminalization accuse immigration hardliners of racism and xenophobia. With Americans arguably more divided than at any time since the Civil War, US politicians are peddling simplistic rhetoric about an immensely complex issue to stoke fear and anger, deepening the country’s political polarization.

But there is good news for the American people: The truth about immigration is far less frightening than what some politicians and media figures want you to believe. For starters, immigrants are much less likely to commit crime than US citizens. Nationwide, illegal immigrants tend to be incarcerated at a much lower rate than native-born Americans. In Texas, for example, illegal immigrants, in 2018, were 45 percent less likely to be convicted of a crime than native-born Americans. And the crime and incarceration rates for legal immigrants are even lower.

Republicans often point to a 2021 US Department of Justice report showing that federal arrests of non-US citizens increased by 234 percent between 1998 and 2018, while those of US citizens rose by only 10 percent. But this increase was driven entirely by arrests for immigration-related offenses. If those are removed, arrest rates of non-citizens increased by only 5.1 percent. In other words, when it comes to crimes that Americans can also be arrested for, such as theft or assault, the increase was lower for immigrants than it was for citizens.

But the other side of the debate also deserves some criticism. There is nothing necessarily xenophobic or bigoted about wanting to strengthen border security. Every country has a legitimate interest in controlling who enters its territory, just as every family has a right to decide who may enter their home. You can open your arms to your neighbors without removing the locks from your doors. This is common sense.

Immigration need not be a partisan issue. During Barack Obama’s presidency (when Biden was vice president), the US deported more than 5.3 million people, or around 2.65 million per term, which is more than the two million deported during Donald Trump’s one term.

Nor is the economic relationship between immigrants and natives as ‘zero-sum’ as many assume. Although immigrants do compete with some Americans for jobs, the benefits they bring far outweigh the harms. One such benefit is tamer inflation. With around three job openings for every two job seekers, America urgently needs more immigrant labor. Industries such as construction, agriculture, and hospitality consistently rely on immigrants. When these jobs go unfilled, restaurants and other small businesses serve fewer people, and fewer homes are built. These outcomes translate into higher prices for Americans and lower US competitiveness vis-à-vis other economies such as China.

Economists typically find that immigration expands overall opportunities, raises wages, and lowers prices. After all, if a factory in the US cannot find workers at globally competitive wages, it will go out of business or move to a location where labor is cheaper, such as Mexico or China. Low-wage immigrant labor not only helps to keep the factory in the US. It also means that there will be more workers paying for housing, food, health care, and consumer goods, thus creating more jobs and raising wages for other American workers.

For demographic reasons, America’s need for immigrant labor will only increase over time. In 2008, the US fertility rate dropped below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman of child-bearing age, and it has been falling steadily over the past decade, reaching 1.7 in 2021. Fewer births mean fewer workers in the future. An ever-smaller working population will have to support a larger retired population.

One concern is that low fertility leads to economic stagnation. Japan’s fertility rate dropped below replacement level in the 1970s, and its GDP and average income both stopped growing by the mid-1990s — not least because it remained wholly opposed to immigration. In China, now the world’s second-largest economy, low fertility has become one of the biggest challenges for long-run growth.

The US has long been an exception precisely because its openness to immigrants has allowed it to keep growing robustly despite falling fertility. A steady stream of mostly healthy, young, eager workers from abroad has been key to maintaining economic dynamism. When managed properly, immigration benefits immigrants and native-born citizens alike.

But proper management calls for a thoughtful, evidence-based discussion, not hysterics. When cooler heads prevail, it is possible both to maximize the benefits of immigration while still maintaining border security and supporting workers in sectors that immigrants may enter. If US politicians are serious about serving the American people’s interests, they will abandon the overheated rhetoric and start doing their jobs.

Nancy Qian

Professor of Economics at Northwestern University, is Co-Director of Northwestern University’s Global Poverty Research Lab and Founding Director of China Econ Lab.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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