Should the USA still be a nation of immigrants?

From the landing of the first British settlers in 1607 to the official closing of the American frontier in 1890, Americans have welcomed immigrants to help fill up our big, empty country.  One of the complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was “… obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither …”

The United States is still a nation of immigrants.  With about 5 percent of the world’s population, we receive about 20 percent of the world’s immigrants.  On average, at little over 1 million legal immigrants enter the USA each year.

My friend Bill Hickok sent me a link to the video above, in which Roy Beck of NumbersUSA questions whether we need 1 million new immigrants every year.   While much of the debate about immigration concerns what to do about unauthorized migrants, he questions the need for so many legal immigrants.

Immigrants do make a positive contribution to the United States.   Many of our greatest scientists (Albert Einstein) and entrepreneurs (Andy Grove of Intel) are immigrants or the children of immigrants.  With retirees living longer and the birth rate falling, the USA benefits from an increase in the working-age, taxpaying population.

Immigrants also help us Americans, who in general are not widely traveled, to understand and relate to other parts of the world.  This gives us an advantage over more insular nations, such as Japan.   Many immigrants have a stronger work ethic and closer family ties than some of us native-born Americans.

But there are costs to immigration as well as benefits.  New immigrants compete with citizens for jobs at a time when the long-term unemployment rate is high.  Competition for jobs can’t help but drive down wages, and this is true of computer programmers as well as fast-food servers.

Immigrants place demands on the U.S. health care and educational systems.  And of course not all immigrants are hard-working or law-abiding, and not all of them have the ability to function in American society.

In the video above. Beck focused on another aspect—whether immigration into the United States helps reduce world poverty.  His conclusion was that while 1 million immigrants a year have a big impact on the USA, they are too few to have much impact on the world’s 4 billion poorest people (remember, a billion is 1000 million).

He is right that the solution to world poverty is in the economic development of poor countries, not in immigration.  But immigration can help.  Remittances from the United States are important to the economies of Mexico and Central America.  Remittances to and from other countries—to Algeria from France, to Turkey from Germany, to the Philippines from the Gulf emirates, to Central Asia from Russia and so on—also are important.

Beck said poor countries would be better off if their most enterprising people stayed at home.  Maybe so and maybe not.  It seems to be that if these enterprising people had opportunities at home, they wouldn’t take the risk of moving to a foreign land.  And maybe they learn new skills that are useful at home.

I agree with his overall point that there is a limit to how many immigrants a nation can absorb and still preserve its economic system and its culture.   I don’t have an informed opinion on what the US limit should be.  What do you think?

3 Responses to “Should the USA still be a nation of immigrants?”

  1. b-psycho Says:

    Personally I think immigration restrictions impose an unjust burden on the free movement of people & are inherently prejudiced since they carry an assumption that people from another country somehow have to prove their worth to the government of the country they’re going to. Provided one isn’t violating the rights of others, there’s no reason whatsoever for any force to care where they are.

    As for the labor argument, a large chunk of that comes from the government delineating immigrants as a separate (lower) class of people, with fewer rights. Better to pair open borders with widespread labor organization than to blame migrants for what’s actually the fault of the system & the ones that exploit them.


    • philebersole Says:

      You make a good point.

      The problem with unauthorized immigrants is that they are outside the protection of American law and so are fair game for exploitation by employers and abuse by police and government.

      Someone might argue that they ought to be deported. Whether they ought to be or not, this is simply not feasible.

      I could make another gumball video, like the one above, with each gumball representing the maximum number of authorized immigrants deported in any given year, and a huge jar of gumballs representing the number remaining.

      If they were brought under the protection of minimum wage and other labor laws, if they were free to organize unions and bargain collectively, and if their rights were actually enforced, then a large part of the problem would go away.

      There still might be reasons for hiring new immigrants over citizens, but these would not be based on their status.

      An amnesty would not solve the problem so long as additional unauthorized immigrants came into the country.

      Experience indicates that it isn’t possible to completely seal the border. So over time, we would see a buildup of another unauthorized immigrant underclass.

      So I am led logically to agree with your conclusion—that the United States should have completely open borders and no restrictions on immigration at all. We could limit citizenship to those who speak English and understand the Constitution, but that’s another matter.

      I admit I don’t have the nerve to follow where this logic leads. I am not willing to advocate that the USA become the world’s only border-less nation. I don’t see how any nation or any other kind of community can preserve its character without setting boundaries as to who belongs and who doesn’t.

      Maybe territorial nations are obsolete. Maybe the future will be like Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, in which nationality is a matter of matter of voluntary affiliation and the various national groups are scattered all over the world. I don’t have a good answer.


  2. Chico Says:

    I like your last thought on territorial nations, although it seems in recent history that there are more nations being formed based on all sorts of relationship parameters, rather than fewer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see new republics split from the USA in the next few hundred years, for example.


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