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.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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5 responses to “Immigration Isn’t an Uncontrollable Force of Nature After All”

  1. If you want to lower the numbers, the answer is internal enforcement. If someone goes to work and ends up getting deported at the end of the work day, fewer will come. They certainly won’t bring their children. After being deported, their names should be on a list of people who cannot get a visa without significant effort for a very long time. Walls are great, but internal enforcement is better.

  2. Because the Republican Party controlled House and Senate for 2 years after Trump’s election, Americans expected them to fulfill their myriad, decades-long promises to halt magnets for illegal and economic migration, but received multiple, successive beat-downs instead. One hundred and eighteen House Rs helped enact H.R. 1044, among them my representative, for whom I had the pleasure of voting out in the primary. The Senate is still trying for S. 386 by chicanery, subterfuge and back-door dealing. Republicans in Congress must believe that our memories are as addled by dementia as theirs? They seem to have no idea of the depth of anger and despair over their innumerable betrayals on immigration. They’re worthless. Absolutely worthless liars on immigration. They are worse on this issue than Democrats, for Democrats will always tell voters exactly what they plan to do and work like hell to implement it. Republicans repeatedly lie to get elected then abandon their base to the wind.

    Even Democrat voters (and especially black voters) support immigration restrictions. What do Republicans do? Help Democrats keep those borders open. I hope their children, children’s children to the nth generation live in cardboard shacks.

    It’s amazing that Trump was able to influence much of the immigration landscape given the difficulties of having to persuade one’s own blackguard, corrupt and compromised party. The problem is that whatever this president does, another president will undo at the behest of his (or her) masters. But Trump is not off the hook either as his flip-flop on DACA is reprehensible. History is doomed to repeat itself and Trump must not have paid attention to the 1986 fraud-ridden fiasco. I am and will remain a one issue voter and I demand no less than a total immigration moratorium. I have watched the carnage for two decades and have had my fill of lies and disappointment.

    Too many issues facing the country are being influenced by non-assimilating, culturally incompatible immigrants, e.g., Ilhan Omar, and non-immigrant visa workers, or worse, illegal aliens able to remain for decades. The F-1 visa and its abuses by publicly-funded universities argues for extinction, as do dozens of others like the EB-5 Fraud Visa or thoroughly abused H1B. Of course, there is no reason, nor has there ever been support for any illegal to remain in the country long enough to get a job, buy a home or start a family. Decades of non-enforcement has impacted at least two generations of Americans. How can Republicans argue for the benefit of hard work when they actively deny work to citizens?

    Few consequences, if any, are directed at employers. Does anyone remember Yarrabee Farms now? The Mississippi chicken processors? Apparently, Republican donors employing masses of illegal alien criminals for decades get a pass? Why hasn’t the DOJ been as aggressive in going after the magnets (employers, landlords, tax-exempt scofflaws who actively violate and undermine laws) as they’ve been in going after citizens? There have been what – 11 prosecutions of employers of illegal aliens during Trump’s tenure? How about some tax-exempt fraud investigations especially where “immigration activism” is a stated mission?

    Someone had better start throwing the American people a bone.

  3. I have pushed for totally ending mass immigration permanently. Why should white Americans, whose ancestors founded this nation, passively accept being transformed into a racial minority, by an endless tidal wave of unneeded nonwhite immigrants, legal and illegal?
    Polls for years have shown that most white Americans want total immigration drastically reduced, and illegal immigration stopped, period. This is not an empty country anymore. We do not want or need any more unskilled and illiterate immigrants, who lead to lower wages for all workers. When people had the chance to express their unhappiness with illegal immigration in California, with proposition 187, it passed overwhelmingly, and with many Hispanics supporting it. But the leftist judges on the notorious 9th circuit stopped the proposition from going into effect, and leftist Obama and Clinton judges have throttled every effort to stop illegal immigration since.
    We are told over and over “but we are a nation of immigrants!”. OK. But for how long? Forever? Until we have 2 billion people?
    NO. I say we need to stop being a “nation of immigrants” and become a NATION OF AMERICANS.

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

    That is one of the dumbest remarks ever made. Gov. Perry is implying that because there may be some who find a workaround and get in, that means we shouldn’t bother hardening the target at all and keeping the less resourceful 90% out.