Immigration Isn’t an Uncontrollable Force of Nature After All

"If you build a 30-foot wall from El Paso to Brownsville, the 35-foot ladder business gets real good."
— Rick Perry

New data from the Census Bureau shows that during the first two years of President Trump’s administration, a time of rapid job growth and historically low unemployment, immigration went down.

How is that possible? As the quotes above suggest, we’ve been told for years, both by Democrats and Republicans, that immigration is an unstoppable natural force, like the tides or continental drift.

That turns out to have been malarkey.

A new study by the Center for Immigration Studies finds that from 2017 to 2019, the growth in the immigrant population slowed dramatically. This was the result of a combination of fewer new people coming and more who were already here (many of them illegal) going home.

Immigration didn’t stop, nor did the number of immigrants here overall decline. But during those first two years of the Trump Administration, growth in the total immigrant population averaged about 200,000 a year, as opposed to about 650,000 a year between 2010 and 2017 under President Obama.

Any change in the size of the immigrant population is the result of the combination of new people moving here from abroad, foreign-born people already here moving elsewhere, and deaths.

The number of deaths among immigrants didn’t change much, but net immigration—arrivals minus departures—averaged a little over half a million a year in 2017-2019, as opposed to nearly 1 million a year in 2010-2017.

Interestingly, the slower growth in the immigrant population came solely from a drop in the number of non-citizens; the number of naturalized citizens (who are, by definition, more established) continued to increase. As the authors of the CIS report note, “This is probably an indication that some illegal immigrants left or fewer arrived, primarily from Mexico. It may also indicate that more long-term visitors are headed home instead of overstaying their visas.”

And remember, all this happened while the unemployment rate—even for immigrants—was dropping to levels not previously thought possible. Jobless rates were so low that the lowest-paid workers started seeing real increases in their earnings for the first time in ages.

Immigration levels and the immigrant unemployment rate did go in opposite directions during prior business cycles, seeming to confirm the idea that the economy is the only real factor in immigration numbers.

But the pre-COVID Trump boom was different, because the federal government actually took a variety of steps to limit immigration, rather than loosening up as in previous booms. Some of the policies that likely contributed to the counterintuitive slowdown in immigration: A reduction in refugee admissions; tighter self-sufficiency standards for would-be immigrants; tougher asylum standards; more worksite enforcement; attempts to end various administrative amnesties that, while still bottled up in court, probably persuaded some people to leave and discouraged others from coming; an array of smallish technical changes to rules and procedures that added up; and, yes, increased construction of border barriers.

The bedrock argument for expanded immigration has always been that foreign workers are going to come anyway, so it’s better to incorporate them into a lawful framework, where they can be screened and taxed. But if, as the CIS authors note, “Even relatively modest policy changes seem to have made a significant difference,” then the “lie back and pretend to enjoy it” argument for permitting mass immigration flows evaporates.

Nothing that’s happened during the president’s first term should suggest “mission accomplished.” Although the rate of increase has slowed, the foreign-born population still reached a record 44.9 million last year, accounting for 13.7 percent of the population, the highest level in 109 years. The fact that immigration numbers can successfully be reduced in the midst of an economic boom is proof-of-concept, but much remains to be done. Guest worker programs need to be reduced or abolished; E-Verify needs to be mandated for all hires to weaken the magnet of jobs; and Congress needs to prune back our legal immigration system to better reflect the challenges of a modern society.

But proof-of-concept is a good start.

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