A Sliver of Agreement on Immigration

The heated debate over immigration in the 2016 presidential campaign is part of a broader rift. On the one side is a narrow majority of Americans, 51%, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey released last week, who believe that America’s culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. On the other side are the 48% who believe the opposite.

According to the PRRI survey, which I and my colleagues at the Brookings Institution helped design, every Democratic-leaning subgroup of the electorate believes that our way of life has gotten better; every Republican-leaning group disagrees. This election is nothing less than a referendum on two generations of American cultural change.

Immigration exemplifies this sharp divide. Forty-six percent of Americans believe that the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional customs and values, while 44% say that this surge strengthens American society. Seventy-three percent of Republicans see this trend as a threat; only 29% of Democrats agree. More than six in 10 (62%) white working-class Americans see immigration as a threat, compared with only 34% of whites with a college education. Black Americans are evenly divided, 46% to 46%, and a surprisingly large share of Latinos (37%) view high levels of immigration as a threat.

It is all too easy for those who see today’s immigration as a source of national vitality to dismiss contrary views out of hand. They should resist this temptation. Instead, they should work harder to understand why people who disagree with them think as they do—and the extent to which the facts warrant their concerns.

In September, for the first time in nearly two decades, an expert committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine delivered a comprehensive report on the economic and social consequences of immigration. The report pointed out that after peaking at 15% during the first two decades of the 20th century, first-generation immigrants as a share of the U.S. population declined by two-thirds—to less than 5%—by the mid-1960s. The 40 years of a highly restrictive law adopted in 1924 witnessed the assimilation of myriad streams of immigration from central and southern Europe into the broad group of “white ethnics” and with it the strengthening of a common culture.

The passage of the immigration reform bill in 1965 reversed these trends. Over the next five decades, first-generation immigrants as a share of our population tripled to 14%, roughly the level that triggered the anti-immigrant reaction a century ago.

As the National Academies of Sciences report points out, this renewed flow of immigrants has benefited the country in numerous ways. Without immigration, for example, the growth of the U.S. labor force would grind to a halt, and fewer people of working age would be available to support Social Security, Medicare and other programs for older and retired Americans.

At the same time, immigration has created some unanticipated problems. Although immigration strengthens the fiscal condition of the federal government, the reverse is true for states and localities, which must spend more to educate immigrants’ children and to provide the social services on which low-income families disproportionately rely.

In the past two decades, the children of immigrants have surged to 21.5% from 13.6% as a share of K-12 students. Although today’s immigrants steadily improve their command of English, they do so more slowly than in previous generations. And the flow of less-educated workers, especially from Mexico, has depressed wages for lower-skill workers, including African-Americans and older immigrants.

By contrast, skilled immigrants benefit all jurisdictions—and the economy as a whole. Not only do they contribute more in taxes than they consume in services; they are more likely than native-born citizens to earn patents and start new businesses.

There is little that policy makers can do to assuage those who yearn to restore a mostly white population. If we slammed shut the doors of immigration tomorrow, Asian and Hispanic Americans would continue to increase their share of the U.S. population for decades to come.

But there are some things we can do to take the edge off the reservations many people reasonably harbor about the consequences of current policy. For example, the federal government could do more to assist states and localities bearing disproportionate financial burdens for immigrants’ education and social services.

Our immigration laws should be reoriented to favor immigrants with higher skills. Forcing the talented young visitors we educate at our best schools to go home after they receive their degrees makes no sense whatever. And our laws should put more emphasis on rapidly acquiring not only English-language proficiency but also basic civic competence.

There is no way of quickly defusing this explosive issue. But if those who favor immigration reform acknowledged the skeptics’ legitimate concerns and reflected them in legislative proposals, the odds of a productive conversation would increase.