Depending on who you listen to, America is either being swamped by an unprecedented tsunami of immigration, or there is absolutely nothing unusual going on at all, and the current wave of immigration is well within historical norms.
A recent soundbite shootout on Fox News, for example, paired Patrick Buchanan and Michael Barone, making claim and counterclaim regarding the relative burden of today’s level of immigration versus past levels.
The specific trigger for the clash was the release of Buchanan’s new book on immigration, “State of Emergency,” in which Buchanan makes a plethora of arguments claiming that today’s immigration spurt differs from previous ones in both character and scale. Barone ignored most of these arguments and took issue with only one, at least for the purpose of the highly edited news segment.
Buchanan was wrong, he said, to compare the total number of immigrants arriving in different eras without adjusting for the growth of the total population in America over time. Adding, that if one looks at the foreign-born as a percentage of total population, today’s wave of immigration is not quite the equivalent of the great wave seen in the early 1900s.
Had Buchanan used only total numbers and no other evidence, then Barone would be correct in calling his argument invalid. However, there are many characteristics that set today’s immigration frenzy apart from others — such as that so many immigrants are now illegal entrants, that immigrants are now mostly from the third world and entering a first world America, and that many have embraced the idea that they need not assimilate into the American culture. In addition, the simple total numbers do matter when discussing issues such as population density and environmental burdens.
But for other issues, Barone is correct that we need to look at the numbers in terms relative to the changing nation. So let’s do that. At the peak of the last great wave of immigration the foreign-born reached over 14% of the total population, before the nation decided to curtail immigration markedly (yes, apparently it can be done). Today, the foreign-born constitute 12% of the total population — up from under 8% just 15 years ago. Were there no other differences in the character of the immigrants, and the population of the modern United States demographically similar to its population in the period of 1890-1910, then Barone would be correct that all we have done today is essentially equal the greatest wave of immigration in American history.
But, demographically, 2005 is not 1905 in more ways than one. In 1900, the average lifespan in America was just 47 years. By 2000, the average American lifespan had risen to 77. Today’s total population therefore contains a large segment of elderly that did not much exist in 1900. So while the foreign born constitute 12% of the total population today, they (having arrived mostly in the last two to three decades) constitute a much larger share of the working age population — a more relevant comparison to 1900. It is more relevant because the central issue in today’s debate is assimilation, and, historically, assimilation of the first generation immigrant has occurred primarily through contact with native-born Americans in the workplace.
If that were the only demographic difference between the 1900 wave and the 2000 wave, things would be worrisome, but not cause for great alarm. In truth, no country ever quite assimilates most adult immigrants. They maintain many old habits and old loyalties unto death — as would an American who found work in a foreign land. The real success story of America’s melting pot has been the degree to which we have been able to assimilate the second generation — the immigrant’s children, who have grown up surrounded by American peers. And this is where the comparison to 1900 gets very alarming indeed, because the children of today’s immigrants just will not have that many American peers. In 1900, America was a rapidly growing society in which most natives, like most immigrants, had many children.
Today, immigrants and natives have very different birthrates. Not only are many more Americans today elderly and beyond childbearing age, but those who can bear children often don’t. Birthrates are below replacement levels for most groups within the United States. The population of those descended from the native-born is thus declining. Today’s’ immigrants, on the other hand, still have high birth rates. In 2004, native-born women between the ages of 15 and 44 had 56.7 births per 1000 women. Immigrant women of the same age had 83.7 births per 1000 women — a rate 47.6% higher than the native born.
This staggering and unprecedented difference in fertility (and keep in mind it is our aversion to children that is the problem, not immigrants’ acceptance of them), means that just as America is receiving masses of immigrants as great as any in her history, our ability to assimilate their children is at an all-time low. To see how unprecedented the current immigration situation is, examine the accompanying graph. It shows the size of America’s foreign-born population in relation to the size of its population of young children, from 1850 through 2005, as gleaned from Census Bureau records.
I chose the population of children under 5 years of age because it was convenient (already tabulated in most census reports), represented a multi-year total (thus avoiding high year to year fluctuations due to war, economic depression, and disease) and because it would exclude most foreign born children from the total and therefore provide a better surrogate of native birth rates. There is nothing inherently special about the 0-4 age group and I could have chosen 0-6, 0-12, or 0-18 just as easily. The relative changes between years would remain essentially similar. It should also be noted that the total population under 5 includes many children of immigrants and is thus not a pure indicator of native birth rates — especially today. The data therefore are likely to under-estimate the severity of today’s native birth dearth.
Using this measure, one can see that even during the great wave of immigration of the early 1900s, the proportion of immigrants in America never exceeded 127% of the population of children under the age of 5 — essentially a measure of the size of the next generation of descendants of native-born Americans. Indeed, for much of the last 160 years the ratio has been much lower. It was 64% in the 1850 census and has been very low for most of the last 60 years, dipping to just 48% in 1960.
That began to change in the 1990s when a period of rapid increase began. By 2000 an all-time high in the ratio of immigrants to recently-born children was reached at 148%. Just three years later, the measure had reached 170% — one-third higher than at any point in Barone’s reassuring example of the early 1900’s. As of last year, it had crept up another three points to 173%.
Never before in America’s history have this many immigrants arrived when compared to the size of the next generation of Americans that will be expected to assimilate their children.
But it gets worse, because we do not really know how many “immigrants” we have today, since so many have broken into the country illegally — an important distinction with previous waves of immigrants that asked permission to enter and were accurately counted upon arrival. The numbers of immigrants used in this analysis are the estimates of the Census Bureau. Many people consider these to be underestimates.
This was the conclusion of a 2005 private sector study by Bear Stearns economists, who stated, “Illegal immigrants work very hard to conceal their identities and successfully avoid being counted. Even apprehended illegal migrants will hide important personal data on their status to avoid removal. Census officials and academics underestimate the ingenuity and the efficiency of the communications network among immigrants.”
Using indirect methods that do not rely on the willingness of immigration criminals to identify themselves as such, Bear Stearns estimated that the Census Bureau had underestimated the population of illegal aliens in America by more than half, missing 11 million.
If the Bear Stearns estimate is correct, then the current population of the foreign born in America is over 46 million — 228% of the population of children under 5 in the country (represented by the shaded bar in the graph, labeled 2005*). This proportion could thus be nearly double what it was in 1910, the previous record. In addition, this estimate would mean that the foreign born now constitute 15.2% of the total population of the country — more than at any time during the last 150 years.
In character and in scale, today’s flood of immigrants is unlike anything America has ever experienced before.