Time to limit immigration of low-wage workers

Politicians often remind us that we are a nation of immigrants. For much of America’s history,
immigration strengthened the nation’s economy. But that’s far less clear today.

In an era of global competition, the intake of low-wage immigrant workers who benefit big businesses at the expense of workers by depressing wages and increasing income inequality should be limited. The  war on terror also raises concerns about just who is coming to our country.

The French philosopher Auguste Conte is reputed to have said “demography is destiny.” American demographics have certainly changed dramatically over the last several decades.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 there were 41.3 million immigrants (legal and illegal) living in the United States, an all-time high and double the number in 1990, nearly triple the 1980 number, and quadruple the 1970 count of 9.6 million. Immigrants make up nearly 13 percent of the population, the highest share in 93 years. In 1970, fewer than one in 21 residents were born abroad. Today it is about  one out of eight.

When you add in their U.S.-born children, this group numbers about 80 million, or one-quarter of the overall U.S. population. The U.S. represents the destination of choice for the world’s migrant population. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we attract nearly 20 percent of its migrants .

In 2013, close to 47 percent of immigrants (19.3 million) were naturalized U.S. citizens. The remaining 53 percent (22.1 million) included lawful permanent residents, legal residents on temporary visas such as students and temporary workers, and illegal immigrants. The latter category is estimated at 11-12 million and represents about 3.5 percent of the American population.

Mexican-born immigrants accounted for approximately 28 percent of all immigrants to the U.S., making them by far the largest immigrant group in the country. India was the second largest, closely trailed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and El Salvador. All told, the top 10 countries of origin accounted for about 60 percent of the immigrant population in 2013.

The demographic diversity of today’s United States is in many ways a direct result of the Immigration and Nationality Act amendments of 1965, which shifted U.S. immigration policy from a historic ethnic European population bias to one that favored a new stream of immigrants from developing countries in Asia and Latin America. Under the old system, admission to the U.S. largely depended upon an immigrant’s country of birth. The new system eliminated the nationality criteria and family reunification became the cornerstone of immigration policy.

The act was shepherded through the Senate by Ted Kennedy and signed by President Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965. At the signing Johnson said, “This bill we sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not restructure the shape of our daily lives.”

But the law did change the immigration flow. For example, the European and Canadian share of legal immigration fell from 60 percent in the 1950s to 22 percent in the 1970s. By contrast, the Asian share of legal immigration rose from 6 percent in the 1950s to 35 percent by the 1980s and 40 percent in 2013.

Years later, Theodore White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian called the legislation “noble, revolutionary and one of the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society.”

The evidence now suggests that immigrants are entering the U.S. faster than the economy can absorb them. An oversupply of low-wage immigrant workers has saturated the job market and depressed wages, thereby exacerbating income equality and the wage stagnation that has been a fact of life in the United States for over 40 years.

The time has come to tailor American immigration policy to the 21st century and put the economic interests of American workers at the center of immigration policy. For starters, this means limiting the entry of low-wage workers before the second coming.

originally published: May 23, 2015

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