The Immigration Catch-22: Economics, Demographics, and Right-wing Populism
The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to participate in all of our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment — George Washington, 1781.
Sitting above the desk where I write is an otherwise unobtrusive shaving cup, maroon and white, its age belied only a small chip on the top. Shaving cups are a relic of a past age, and mine is no different: it was the first object purchased in the United States by my great-grandfather after his arrival from Eastern Europe, sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century. He arrived in the New World hoping to receive the solace of toleration in respite from the prejudices of the Old.
Like millions, his hopes were rewarded in the colorful maelstrom of Progressive era America. Today, though, it is not only the shaving cup that is antiquated: the succor of the immigrant finding a gentle welcome on our shores is also increasingly a relic of a bygone age. Immigration has become ground zero of the national debate, spilling over the rims of decency into the cesspool of racial authoritarianism. The Trump administration has been vacuously cavalier about wide swaths of public policy, but deadly serious on its overarching goal of restricting immigrant levels. As I write, the largest question roiling the body politic is whether the government shall ever reopen without the President receiving funding for his beloved Wall, the personification of “Mexico’s not sending its best people” morphing from rhetoric to reality. Whether terrorizing children to dissuade their parents, attacking so-called chain migration, or issuing rules to make it more difficult for immigrants to gain green cards and for green-card holders to gain citizenship, the Administration has done all it can to roll out the unwelcome wagon to would-be Americans.
The President’s offense to would-be immigrants, matched only by his offenses to the proper use of the English language, is the clearest example of the schism within the nation today. For the proponents of immigration restriction, the recipe is simple: a pinch of terrorism on the border, a dash of drastic immigration reduction, let simmer, and voila — a return to the America of ethereal boyhood dreams. That America, of course, is largely white. Whether stated outwardly or not, the looming question of demographic eclipse drives the tribal break in American culture, and leaves wide swaths of an anxious population open to the siren song of authoritarian populism. That much is fairly clear. What bears further introspection is just how closely tied immigration is to core governmental questions we wrestle with on a daily basis, and how intractable the problem really is.
The United States has seen three distinct waves of increasing immigration. First, between 1850 and 1860, the percentage of foreign born spiked from 9.7% to 13.2%, mostly Irish and Germanic Catholics arriving in a heavily Protestant land. Later, in the long era beginning with Chinese laborers in the 1870s and cresting on a wave of Eastern and Southern Europeans in 1920, the percentage of foreign born reached its apex at 14.4%: more immigrants arrived on US shores between 1901 and 1920 than came from the founding of the nation through 1900. Today, we live in the third great wave, which began ticking up in the 1970s and has increased dramatically after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Each era, separated by time, nevertheless bears truth to the idea that each action has an equal and opposite reaction. In earlier eras, the rapid rise in the tongues of other lands spoken on American streets fueled the upheaval of backlash politics. The 1850s saw the rise of a virulent anti-immigrant party, immortalized in history as the Know-Nothings, the fervor of which was co-opted only by a more urgent national crisis. Mostly forgotten today, the Know-Nothings briefly comprised 1/8th of the entire electorate. Later, the 1880s rise of Chinese immigration gave rise to Congressional exclusion of the entire race. Shortly thereafter, the turn of the century great inflow of the teeming masses of Southern and Eastern Europe resulted in, by 1920, a red scare, and by 1924, the extinguishing of the lamp of refuge by Congressional act. In calling for the passage of strict immigration restrictions, Sen. Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina stated succinctly, “The time has come when we should shut the door and keep what we have for what we hope our own people to be.” And so it was. Quotas were established in 1924 to keep immigrants to America from pure racial stock. In the interwar years, quotas for immigrants from Northwest Europe and Scandinavia comprised 86.5% of permitted immigrants. Immigrants outside of Europe- one might call them “shithole countries,” were Calvin Coolidge infected with the bile of his latter-day successor — were allotted just 2.3% of all immigration.
In each case, the opposition to immigrants has an unsurprisingly modern resonance. In 1894 the Immigration Restriction League was founded by Boston Brahmins dedicated to the proposition of saving “the nation by preventing any further inroads on Anglo-Saxon America by strangers.” Such sentiment is different in kind but not substance from the modern backlash, most recently exemplified by FOX’s Jesse Watters’ statement on July 30 that the administration today wants only the “best and brightest immigrants, not some guy’s uncle from Zimbabwe.”
Today is the third great spike in our nation’s foreign born. The percentage of foreign born reached its nadir in 1970, when just 4.7% of the population was foreign born, with the majority of those of European extraction. That number has jumped to 13.5%, with the majority from Latin America and Asia. Only hubris explains our apparent surprise that we face now the similar traps of backlash which bedeviled our ancestors.
The backlash is powered by the bile of anxiety and grievance, stoked by the fires of right-wing populism. A recent Gallup poll revealed an astounding 22% of respondents view immigration as the biggest problem facing the country- this, in a nation where we have casually accepted gofundme sites as a proper way to pay for insulin. The average over the past 17 years has been just 5%, but led by an astonishing 35% of Republicans, the country at large has been triggered — to use a modern term — to believe that we live in an era of unprecedented immigration emergency. The President, of course, guided by the Mephistophelian, flop-sweated visage of Stephen Miller, has delighted in the triggering. Whether advising “Chuck” and “Nancy” that the situation on the border is a crisis, or whipping up fear with rallies proclaiming a lurching invasion, Trump is never as consistent as he is in conflating migration with darkening clouds over national security.
His followers largely agree. The most common response by immigration opponents is a simple one: dramatically restrict immigration, and, although stated more euphemistically than Sen. Smith stated nearly 100 years ago, restrict it to those of a racial stock similar to that which we perceive as our own. The National Front in France calls for “France for the French.” Right wing populism here clearly calls for “America for the White Christian” in no less strident terms.
“Keep out the foreigners” has been the siren song of fervent nationalism for as long as nationalism has existed. Yet it is not that simple. America has not chosen its immigration policy in a vacuum. Whether they understand it or not, going back to the restrictions of the days fondly remembered by the MAGA crowd will not bring back the days of a chicken in every pot. In fact, quite the opposite.
As it stands now, and regardless of the merits of either diversity or homogeneity, the America of 2018 needs immigrants. Low birth rate for native-born Americans is the belt which cinches together vastly different strands of discontent powering the populist revolt. Without fanfare, the CDC reported in May that the US birthrate had sunk to its lowest amount in 30 years. Even women in their 30s, an age cohort which had bucked the national trend of decline, declined sharply in 2017. Look closer, and you will see the backbone of the rise of white tribalism: the birthrate of 1.76 children per women is below the replacement level of 2.1. While recent birthrates have slowed for all racial groups, whites as a group are aging. The median age of a US-born Hispanic citizen is 19; for whites, it’s 43. Even more stark — the most common age for a white in the United States is 56. For Hispanics, it’s just 9. Looking forward, immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for an astounding 88% of U.S. population growth through 2065, assuming current immigration trends continue. The baby bust of US native-born women has profound cultural effects. This, at bedrock level, is what the Charlottesville marchers mean by “you will not replace us.”
The effect isn’t just demographic. The slowing of birthrate reduces population, slowing economic growth, creating a spiraling cycle of decline. In a 2011 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “The Implications of Population for Economic Growth,” the authors concluded that the projected population age structure of the aging United States will decrease labor force participation and savings, which will result in “modest declines in in the rate of economic growth” for the foreseeable future; a modern economy needs prime age workers to grow. Where the birth rate declines, therefore, a nation faces the choice to accept higher levels of immigration to offset the declining birthrate and power higher growth, or accept a decline in economic prosperity.
With a declining, aging, population, the resultant decline of economic growth squeezes the resources available for domestic spending on such programs like Social Security, Medicare, and education. That in turn acts as rocket fuel for the very forces occasioning decline in the first place. With less security in retirement, workers work longer, leaving fewer opportunities for younger workers of child-bearing age, and therefore causing a turn away from the decision to have children. Where education spending declines, the birthrate follows, the higher cost of raising children prompting their nonexistence. Such slowdown provides additional oxygen for the politics of declinist grievance as groups battle over the diminishing spoils of the state.
A clear way to offset the decline in birthrate is higher levels of immigration. The flip side, however, is that accepting higher levels of immigration into rich, majority white nations, prompts the all-too familiar backlash. In the earlier eras, the backlash was solely focused on closing the golden door to the nation entirely- we could, for example, see progressives both fighting for governmental regulation of trusts and child safety laws while simultaneously seeking immigration restriction. In the modern era, however, researchers have found that increasing immigration levels prompt whites to adopt conservative positions on a wider variety of issues than generally thought. A 2014 study published by the Association for Psychological Science found that exposing whites to the perception of demographic decline causes them to swing to conservative positions unrelated to immigration, such as favoring higher military spending and opposition to health care reform. Even with higher economic growth from immigration, therefore, political gridlock preventing resources from being used on social spending is the natural result.
At the corner of economics and demographic lies the catch-22 of modern American life. A lower birthrate — natural in richer democracies — causes the choice of either lower growth or higher immigration. In either case, and whether occasioned by politics or resource scarcity, the result is a decline in social spending, therefore tearing at the fabric of shared society, increasing the inequality that prompts widespread anger, making life harder still for the working men and women already caught in the vise of a post-industrial economy, and accelerating the decline of the native birthrate which helped initiate the issue in the first place. Caught in the middle, politicians have generally focused on accepting higher levels of foreign born citizens rather than accept a declining growth rate, the latter usually a death knell for re-election. Traditionally, that trade off has not been such a volatile fault line; the previous Republican president, George W. Bush, ran in part on his positive relationship with Mexico. Immigrant fearmongering existed, largely focused on illegal immigration, but politicians generally accepted an increasing number of immigrants, and principally from nations, mostly in Latin America and Asia, distinct from the dominant racial group.
Our politics have been warped around the refusal to understand the trade-off. In 1988, the entire Republican platform concerning immigration spanned three sentences. In 2016, the Republican platform spent eight invective-laded paragraphs on immigration and stated blatantly “In light of the alarming levels of unemployment and underemployment in this country, it is indefensible to continue offering lawful permanent residence to more than one million foreign nationals every year.” What changed was not unemployment — lower in 2016 than 1988 — -but demographics. The foreign born population in 1988 hovered around 7%. There was no need to MAGA at the time because that percentage, while higher than its historic 1970 low, was approximately the same as it had been in 1950. American native-born, particularly whites, recognized the country around them and saw no need for fear or hostility.
Times have changed. America requires immigrants so long as its birth rate remains as low as it is. Our entire economic model, with prime age workers powering growth and paying for the care of those who have aged out of the work force, depends on the growth of that population. Yet even with high levels of immigration, the number of Americans between 25 and 54 is the same as it was a decade ago. Building the wall, not only physically but metaphorically against immigration levels commensurate with our recent past, would cause a net decline in prime age workers, which would cause the progressive death spiral discussed above.
We should note here that misogyny is no doubt woven into the story here as well. The populist revolt, after all, has a distinctly male tinge. It’s no coincidence that US birthrates declined after the triumph of women’s liberation, which democratized both birth control and employment opportunities. It’s also no surprise that men, particularly white men, are increasingly expressing opposition to the twin forces of feminization of the workforce and the browning of the nation in general. The decline in the birthrate is markedly tied to both.
In either case- low immigration and low growth, or higher growth but higher immigration — right wing populism gains the oxygen it needs to encroach on liberal democracy. Soon, the previously unthinkable becomes possible. Caught in a web of confusion and anger, right-wing nativism continues to lash out at the easiest target. In a summer op-ed, Michael Anton- infamous for the 2016 “Flight 93 Election” argument — argued that birthright citizenship, one of the hallmarks of the American melting pot and specifically stated in the 14th Amendment, was erroneously accepted as constitutional when the intent was the opposite. His historical argument has been savaged by right and left, but it was not written as scholarship. It was written to begin to broach the idea in America of depriving even native-born citizens of citizenship. The President picked up on it, proclaiming in October that he could end birthright citizenship with the stroke of a pen: “But now they’re saying I can do it just with an executive order.” The Trump administration’s recent initiative to denaturalize citizens who allegedly lied on applications, causing the potential review of 17 million naturalization petitions, once unimaginable, follows the same path. Even US citizens have been denied passports on the dubious grounds of potential fraud in their birth certificates, the demented fruit of birtherism writ large. President Trump’s statement — “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility”- rates as one of the few times he speaks honestly as to his intention. That he does not understand our immigration Catch-22 is just as clear as his hostility to the immigrants who arrive on our shores.
So, how do we break the catch-22? In short, we can’t. Political reasoning cannot cure cultural anxiety. Yet that does not mean we cannot look for openings to reach for positivity. Raising the native birth rate is the obvious first place to start, and could in theory have some resonance for both right and left. There is some evidence that higher family benefits public spending has an impact on the birthrate. OCED data shows that among the highest spenders on family benefits are Great Britain, Denmark, Ireland, and Sweden. Not coincidentally, those four, along with France, lead the EU in birthrate. The United States spends just .688 % of its GDP on family benefits public spending. Sweden, by comparison, spends 3.7% of its GDP. For its money, Swedes get 480 days of paid parental leave, a monthly allowance for each child until age 16, free schooling for children through age 18, free college for its citizens, and heavily subsidized healthcare. In America, by comparison, 1 in 4 women did not receive prenatal care in first trimester, and 1 in 4 mothers were back at work within two weeks of giving birth. Medicaid, which funds half of all births, is a budgetary piñata demagogued by the right as a giveaway to the undeserving, permanently under attack by Congressional Republicans. The total student loan debt load, mostly held by individuals of child-bearing years, now exceeds $1.5 trillion dollars. If one wanted to create a social system in which individuals were incented to forego children, you could hardly do worse.
One might argue that the United States cannot afford programs like that of the Swedes, and that spending on such programs would doom economic growth. Yet as discussed, economic growth is already going to fall through the trap door of an anti-immigrant program. We can have population decline or we can have economic growth. We cannot have both.
As for cost, currently, we spend approximately $127B per year on family benefits public spending. If we spent at the Swedes’ rate, that number would jump to over $688B. Finding 560 billion dollars in our annual budget appears virtually impossible. Yet the tax plan passed last year will cost, by the estimate of the nonpartisan CBO, some $500 billion per year. Further, the Trump administration’s increase in military spending over the final Obama budget amounts to some $160 billion. Funding a Swedish model of family support would not be impossible. It is rather a decision to deem it impossible through the prism of our political system that renders any pro-family, pro-growth policy a distant chimera.
The data is not clear cut that even such a program would dramatically increase the native birthrate, in that birthrates in Europe remain low despite the spending. Nor, of course, would any program increasing the native birthrate in any way justify the injustice of the current Trumpist approach to immigration, which exists as a sucking ethical sinkhole. But the continual estrangement of Americans from one another is a national emergency, and untreated, will further stretch our republic past the breaking point. As it currently stands, we must have immigrants; one wonders, with increasing alarm, the effect on our tottering republic if immigration restrictions prompt a marked slowdown in the economy. If right and left can agree that a pro-growth family platform would benefit the country, the reasons — for the right the possibility of economically neutral immigration restrictions, for the left the benefit of humane, pro-worker, and pro-mother policies- do not need to match.
That the right would not accept Swedish level spending and the left would not accept the dramatic immigration reductions beloved by the right is certainly true. What also is true is that even a modest attempt to raise the native birth rate with pro-family policies could be a beneficial first step toward mutual trust and positive public policy. There is reason to believe that a compromise is at least plausible, and that pro-family policies might be the lone exception to the anti-social spending paradox described herein. Hungary’s autocratic Viktor Orban, a Trump favorite, recently implemented a startling pro-family program: up to five free IVF cycles for couples having trouble conceiving; three full years of parental leave, subsidized childcare, and housing subsidies per child. We know Orban’s goal is the same as that promoted infamously by Congressman Steve King, who stated last year that we cannot “renew our civilization with someone else’s babies.” Without accepting the injustice of such a racially-charged goal, we can, plausibly, agree on a beneficial policy nonetheless. More, and theoretically important to the right, it is at least plausible that a pro-family public policy can reduce the abortion rate by reducing the financial burden of childbirth, particularly to low-income women.
A rise in the birth rate won’t solve the catch-22 so long as immigration opposition is racially based, but it can ameliorate some of the anxiety and build a fairer society in the interim. The paramount goal is to repair the breach in our institutional framework and once again build a nation in which swaths of our citizens do not view a foreign autocracy as closer in values than those held by their fellow Americans across the political divide. Speaking in an earlier era, Senator Charles Sumner observed in 1870 that “[t]he heathens and pagans do not exist whose coming can disturb our institutions. Worse than any heathen or pagan abroad are those in our midst who are false to our institutions.” Truth then: truth now, as well.