In "The Case Against Immigration," journalist Roy Beck argues that current immigration policies are damaging all segments of U.S. society (including recent immigrants), except the elite that benefits from an abundance of underpaid labor.
"Since 1970, more than 30 million foreign citizens and their descendants have been added to the local communities and labor pools of the United States," Beck writes. "Its the numerical equivalent of having relocated within our borders the entire present population of all Central American countries."
According to Beck, the results have been devastating: plentiful, cheap immigrant labor has distorted business decisions in a way that has slowed productivity growth, depressed wages, reduced worker benefits, and dramatically shifted hiring from native-born Americans to foreign workers in a number of both lower-paid and higher-paid occupations. African-Americans have suffered disproportionately in the current wave of mass immigration, which has knocked large numbers down the economic ladder as employers have chosen immigrants over African-American workers. The middle class has been eroded and middle-class opportunity has declined significantly. Crime and ethnic tensions have risen in areas of high immigration. Potentially irreversible damage has been done to the environment. And U.S. population growth has exploded at Third World rates.
"The Case Against Immigration" seeks to shatter many popular, romantic, myths that have confused recent debates. Beck offers a new interpretation of American history: that Americans never have approved of immigration -- or benefited from it -- except when the numbers were a fraction of the present level. And although the Great Wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is often cited as a positive example of why the country should be able to handle the current, even greater wave, Beck writes that the depressed wages, social unrest, and disintegrating cities that were the actual results of that mass immigration. Assimilation has been slow. It is taking nearly a century for the descendants of the Great Wave immigrants to catch up with the descendants of the native-born white Americans of that time. The rise of both groups into the middle class -- and the entry of black Americans into the economic mainstream -- could not begin until immigration rates were lowered in 1925.
As Roy Beck writes, "The federal government's current immigration program primarily benefits a small minority of wealthy and powerful Americans at the expense of significant segments of the middle class and the poor. Attempts to protect the current level of immigration by wrapping it in the language of tradition or humanitarianism generally distort both history and the practical realities of our own era."
What precipitated the current crisis? Immigration rates skyrocketed far above traditional levels from the unintended consequences of reform legislation passed in 1965, and from relaxed rules for refugees from Communist countries during the Cold War. In addition, Beck says our immigration policy has abused the concept of "temporary refuge."
According to "The Case Against Immigration," arguments for sustaining today's historically high levels of immigration come mainly from a powerful group of conservative business interests and leaders of civil libertarian and religious groups. But Beck says their premises are wrong. He argues that technically trained workers are not in short supply in the U.S., and that high U.S. immigration fails to bring humanitarian relief to -- and often harms -- the sending countries of the Third World. He adds that immigrants do not fill jobs Americans won't do, but instead flood occupations, drive down working conditions and wages, and create workplace cultures that often bar native-born Americans from access to jobs.
Beck's prescription is for Washington to base immigration policy on how many immigrants the nation actually needs. "Officials should start the process at the zero level and add only the numbers that actually will help the majority of Americans." (p.244) According to his calculations, the United States should continue unlimited immigration for spouses and minor children of citizens, and to set a cap of 50,000 to cover all other admissions-- refugees, those seeking political asylum, persons with extraordinary skills, special-situation parents, and any other category that might arise.
That adds up to around 250,000 immigrants a year-- compared to around one million now. Only then, Beck says, can the U.S. achieve steady and significant economic progress for all Americans, especially the middle class.
A question from Joseph A. McDonald of Burlington, VT:
First, how do U.S. immigration policies compare with those of other nations, specifically European countries? Isn't the U.S. much more lenient, allowing many more immigrants in each year? Second, how would lowering immigration rates by 50% affect the unemployment rate in this country?
Roy Beck responds:
You may be surprised to hear that a 50% cut is not nearly enough to provide the relief that American workers deserve. Only cuts in legal immigration of 75% to 90% are likely to bring noticeable benefits to wage earners in the near term. The reason is that legal immigration in the 1990s has been running four and five times higher than traditional levels. Our legal immigration dwarfs that of the rest of the world. Congress is considering cuts of only around 25% in the current, unprecedented level. The country's grateful reaction to a cut of merely one-quarter might be similar to that of residents of a Mississippi River town after a flood has crested in the upstairs bedroom and then receded to the living room downstairs:
"Conditions are improved, but we're still flooded."
The key problem is not unemployment but wage depression due to a chronic surplus of workers. Radically altered immigration policies since 1965 have flooded the United States with more than 30 million immigrants and their descendants. Studies by Berkeley economist Paul Romer have found that throughout U.S. history the growth of per capita output has declined when the growth in number of workers from high immigration or fertility went up.
With labor surpluses since the early 1970s, U.S. industries have not had the traditional pressures to improve output per worker. Thus, wage stagnation and depression. High immigration has denied America the tight-labor conditions that, during most of its history, enabled the United States to be a land of ever-increasing opportunity for ordinary people. This country is so full of recently arrived foreign workers, poorly educated and unskilled native-born workers, and adults being pushed off welfare that it will take some time for the labor market once again to tighten even if immigration were cut to zero. That is why we need to cut as close to zero as is politically possible.
Various economists have published their finding in scholarly journals in recent years showing that wage increases accelerated and income disparity narrowed after sharp cuts in immigration, such as during WWI and between 1924 and 1965.
A question from Terry Griffin of Hillsboro, OR:
The mix of immigrants
I'm not convinced that the number of legal immigrants we allow is in itself a problem, but I've heard compelling arguments that our method of determining who is eligible may result in significant economic distortions. Currently eligibility is determined primarily by one's family ties to legal residents with little or no accounting for labor skills and the needs of the labor market. Would a switch from a family-based policy to a skill-based policy address some of your concerns?
Roy Beck responds:
You are correct that most immigrants come without regard to U.S. labor needs. The flow is weighted by new family-connection priorities in favor of low-skilled workers. Thus, low-skill American workers bear the worst of the extra job competition. But switching the numbers to skilled immigrants would simply shift the pain to higher-skilled American workers. We already take tens of thousands more skilled immigrants than we need. Industries eager to gain professional employees at cheaper costs have been the most powerful lobbying force against restrictive legislation now before Congress.
But most of their arguments for why 265 million Americans are incapable of being trained and motivated to perform the country's most challenging tasks are insulting and display a callous disregard for the tens of thousands of unemployed and underemployed U.S.-born engineers, computer programmers, scientists and Ph.D.graduates of nearly every field. The constant flow of foreign professionals is one of the reasons industry and academia continue to make such inadequate attempts to finally bring significant numbers of American women and blacks into the sciences.
It also is useful to remember that immigration's chief threat to U.S. eco-systems, bio-diversity and other environmental resources is not based on who the immigrants are but how many. The current level of immigration is projected to add another 130 million people to this country over the next half-century. It does not much matter whether the immigrants are skilled or unskilled, the numbers will be devastating environmentally.
A question from Paul Henriques of Tokyo, Japan:
Why is there a sudden need to restrict immigration now? Are the current crop of immigrants any less worthy of admittance to the U.S. than our ancestors were? Weren't there calls in the past to restrict immigration just as vehement in the past and for many of the same reasons?
Is there an absolute upper limit to the population of the U.S.? Can distinctions be made as to the quantity and quality of the population?
Isn't anti-immigration nothing but another form of racism?
Thanks for your consideration.
Roy Beck responds:
There is no sudden need to restrict immigration. Rather, the need has been there ever since the numbers started rising after 1965. It is the high level since 1965 that has violated our immigration tradition. The anti-immigration tenor of the times is not nearly so much because Americans have changed as that immigration has changed. In researching the immigration history of this country, I repeatedly found that most Americans have a distorted sense of it. We do not have a tradition of openness toward and acceptance of mass immigration in this country, as is often suggested. The key factor in whether the public had a benign or malevolent view of immigration was the size of the flow. The majority of the American public never approved of immigration except when levels were near traditional levels. There were a few times when greedy industrialists succeeded in either pushing the immigration numbers upward or in keeping them high after they inadvertently rose.
As you note, the cries of most Americans during those times were quite similar in tone and content as today. Americans resented the federal government forcing a level of immigration that depressed wages and threw their cities into social turmoil. Then, as now, many critics resorted to unfortunate name-calling that truly could be labeled nativist, xenophobic and racist. But the core concerns were legitimate economic and social fears.
It is helpful that you raise the question about racism because many others also wonder. But as I looked at the results of mass immigration on black Americans from the 1820s onward, I saw that the overwhelming weight of racism lies with the promulgation of mass immigration which repeatedly has knocked large numbers of the black poor out of entry-level jobs and sometimes out of skilled positions. Many recent studies have found that employers in general are acting now as every other time in the past: They use foreign workers as a way to keep from hiring, training, educating and motivating the black underclass.
It is not uncommon for some people today to suggest that because "things turned out all right in the long run," the critics of immigration must have been wrong. But that ignores the fact that success came only after the federal government bowed to the public's wishes, drastically cut immigration and allowed the economic and social sores to heal.
Of course, there is some kind of absolute upper limit to the size of the U.S. population. But we could easily handle as many people as Europe -- if Americans are willing to live in Europe's form of regimentation and regulation. Or we could grow to China's size -- if we are willing to live at China's standard of living. The most important question in a democracy is whether the people desire to live that way. One poll after another for 20 years has found that Americans don't want further population growth, congestion or encroachment on natural habitats and recreational open spaces. Why should the federal government defy the majority's desire for a certain quality of life just because some corporate leaders feel they can make a little more money by importing large quantities of foreign labor?
A question from Christine K. Law of Opelika, AL:
I think the topic of immigration should be divided into two very distinct areas; legal immigration and illegal immigration. It is in the best interest of the citizens of the United States to be as strict as possible on illegal immigration including denying any sort of benefits to such individuals inside the U.S. However, I believe the opposite to be true about legal immigration. Legal immigration provides to U.S. with a win-win situation where we are able to secure some of the finest minds in the world and simultaneously allow those people to leave countries that might encourage them to use their knowledge and skills against the U.S.
That viewpoint being said, I would like to pose two questions. One: Does the seeming reluctance on the part of the U.S. government to meaningfully enforce the southern border have to do with the area's dependence on an illegal agricultural work force? If so, has there been an analysis done to compare the cost of illegal immigrants in the U.S. compared to the cost of the estimated increase in consumer goods (esp. food) if a legal work force was used? Two: What is the rationale behind the extremely difficult and lengthy process by which legal aliens become citizens, especially when the aliens have valuable skills, such as research scientist and physicians? Isn't it to the advantage of the U.S. to allow those people to become citizens? Thank you for you consideration.
Roy Beck responds:
Individually, illegal immigrants probably cause more harm to the American society than do legal immigrants, especially because they rot the fabric of respect for the law that holds our gigantic population together. But because some three-quarters of the immigrants permanently settling in the United States each year are legal, it is they who cause the biggest aggregate immigration problems, such as wage depression and environmental pressures.
I revealed some of my conclusions about skilled immigration in response to a previous question. It isn't a win-win situation for the Third World countries for us to take some of their brightest kids who might have helped find solutions to the suffocating poverty of their own countrymen. And it isn't a win-win situation for America's own bright kids who study diligently and aim high but often arrive at their moment of opportunity in adulthood to find the federal government has placed a high-skilled foreign worker in their way. Some earn their college degrees only to discover that their field is glutted with immigrants and that they must take a job lower than that for which their education prepared them.
Many see the stagnating job conditions of their preferred professional track and simply decide not to gain the education. Professional organizations of engineers, computer programmers and physicians have been especially vocal in calling for the federal government to stop importing competitors. In the minor exceptions when American workers truly aren't available for a skilled job, foreign professionals should be allowed to fill the jobs for only the three or four years it might take to train enough Americans. Permanent residency should be offered to only world-class geniuses, of which there are far fewer than 5,000 a year currently entering the country.
Your perception about the federal government's reticence in protecting the southern border surely is correct. The agri-business lobby is immense. But the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Agricultural Workers appointed by President Bush found that during the peak season, the United States has slightly more than 1 million farmworker jobs but approximately 2.5 million farmworkers residing inside our borders. One commission member noted that even if a sealed border forced farmworker wages to double in order to attract enough help, the cost of a dollar head of lettuce would go up only 10 cents. A recent study for the Center for Immigration Studies concluded that the agricultural price rise after a cutoff of immigration would be significantly less than that.
A question from Sally Holmes of Bethesda, MD:
Right now, we only seem to be punishing those who take the jobs illegal immigrants), but what about punishing those who HIRE illegal workers? How do you recommend employers be monitored?
Roy Beck responds:
I'm sorry to sidestep this question because my book is entirely about the problems of legal immigration. Illegal immigration will be much more difficult to resolve and will take scores of creative solutions. But the problems of legal immigration are the largest and the most easily resolved. Congress and the president merely have to enact a lower number and legal immigration can instantly be drastically cut. Interestingly, cutting legal immigration eventually will make it easier to cut illegal. It is the relatives and fellow villagers from the home country who come as legal immigrants who are essential for many illegal aliens in providing shelter from detection and in helping them to enter the labor market. It is also those legal immigrants who send back letters and gifts that entice more people to leave their Third World villages and urban neighborhoods to enter the United States, often illegally.