How many new immigrants can the USA welcome?

I don’t think the number of immigrants into the United States should be unlimited.

I don’t think the number of immigrants into the United States should be zero.

But how many should we admit?  I don’t have a good answer.

I don’t believe in open borders because there is a limit to the number of newcomers any nation can absorb and avoid breakdown.

The economist Milton Friedman said that it is impossible for a nation to have both open borders and a generous welfare state, because needy immigrants will overburden any social safety net.

Friedman opposed the welfare state.  He favored open borders.

Then, too, there is a limit to how many newcomers a nation can absorb in any period of time.

We saw this in Germany’s refugee crisis in 2015 when a million immigrants, mainly from Iraq and Syria, poured into the country.  Germany weathered the storm, but it put a big strain on Germany society and European unity.

If climate catastrophe unfolds as many predict, there may be tens of millions of desperate would-be immigrants fleeing drought, floods, tidal waves and devastating storms and fires.

Every one of them would be just as valuable in the cosmic scheme of things (or, if you will, in the eye of God) as I am and my loved ones are.  But is American society resilient enough to give them refuge?  I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

But neither to I favor closed borders.

The birth rate of native-born American citizens is below the replacement rate.  This means the retirement-age population is going to increase and the working-age population is going to shrink.

If the USA is to support its future old folks, such as me, it needs either an increase in economic productivity much greater than the current rate or immigration to increase the work force.

The main potential sources of immigrants are countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  A highly-skilled, well-educated person from Haiti or Nigeria might well seek a better life in the USA, but the person’s counterpart in Norway would have no reason to leave their enlightened, prosperous country.  These days Norway is a destination for immigrants, not a source of immigration.

In addition, we Americans have a moral obligation to admit a certain number of the refugees who have been driven from their homes by wars our government has instigated or dictators our government has supported.

I don’t think the United States has the capacity to absorb all the refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Central America.  A better way to repair the damage would be to help governments of those countries rebuild so that refugees could return to their homelands, if that were possible.

At a bare minimum, we should admit people whose lives are in danger because they were employed by the U.S. armed forces or fought on the same side.

One of the complaints in the U.S. Declaration of Independence against King George III was that he restricted immigration.  The British monarch was accused of “obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners [and] refusing to pass new ones to encourage their migration hither.”

During most of the first century of its existence, the United States had open borders.  There were no restrictions on immigration at all.

Immigrants into the United States did face a great deal of hostility and prejudice.  There was more violence against Irish immigrants in the 1840s than there is against Latin American and Asian immigrants today.

But there were no actual restrictions on immigration until the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Enlightened people nowadays condemn these laws as racist, and in fact there was a lot of race hatred against Chinese people.  But there is another aspect to the laws.  Chinese workers were imported in order to replace rebellious union workers.  The strongest proponents of Chinese immigration were white pelicans in the South.

The first immigration quotas for Europeans came during and after World War One.  The 1924 immigration law set limits on immigration quotas for European countries based on the percentage of American citizens whose ancestors came from those countries.  A total of about 70 percent of the quotes were reserved for immigrants from Britain, Ireland and Germany.

In those days, there were no restrictions on immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere.  The border with Mexico was an open border.

But this did not stop the Hoover administration, and later the Eisenhower administration, from deporting more than a million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, including many native-born American citizens, without authorization by any law.

The foundation of current immigration law is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  It equalized immigration quotas at 20,000 (now just under 25,000) from each nation.  It set quotas from Western Hemisphere nations for the first time.  It made special provision for immigrants with special skills and qualifications.

And it allowed current citizens and legal residents to sponsor their relatives as legal immigrants.  I don’t think the sponsors of the bill foresaw how important that part of the new law would become.  There is a limit that says the number of green cards issued to immigrants from any one country cannot exceed 7 percent of total green cards.

While the law caused the shifting of sources of immigration from Europe to Asian and Latin American, the one-country rule has created long waiting lists for immigrants from populous countries such as China, India and Mexico, while speeding up immigration from small countries such as Nepal and Bhutan.

The Trump administration has proposed changes in immigration law that would reduce the number of family unification admissions—known as chain migration—and increase the proportion of immigrants with certain educational and job qualifications.

My understanding is that this would bring the United States more in line with immigration policies of Canada and Australia.

The Trump administration also seeks to bar immigrants likely to need Medicaid, food stamps or other forms of public assistance.  It proposes to eliminate the diversity lottery, established in 1995 to increase immigration from under-represented countries.

His administration has reduced the number of refugees admitted to the United States.  Refugees are defined as people in danger because of their race, religion or political views, although some liberals propose a broader definition.   The refugee problem at the Mexican border consists largely of immigrants applying for refugee status.

We have a large unauthorized immigrant population already in the United States, which has been tolerated for decades.  Most are hard-working and law-abiding, except for their immigrant status..  I don’t think it would be right to deport them after all these years.

Unauthorized immigrants are needed as farm labor in my part of upstate New York.  Few soft-handed, native-born Americans are physically capable of doing the work they do.  It would be better to give them the legal right to stay and put them under the protection of U.S. labor law so that they don’t undercut U.S. wages.

We have a crisis of the border in that we have more asylum seekers than our government is capable of processing.  Under current U.S. and international law, anyone who has reason to fear for their life or safety as a result of government persecution has a right to ask for asylum.

The U.S. government should increase our capacity for processing asylum requests so that they can be heard promptly, without being crowded into the equivalent of concentration camps.  Or, if we are not willing to abide by international law, we should have the honesty to repeal our immigration laws.

But how many more legal immigrants should the United States admit in addition to those already here?  I honestly don’t know.  If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you know I’ve been all over the place on this issue.

I always welcome intelligent comments on my posts.  I’m especially interested in comments on this particular issue.  What have I got wrong?  What have I overlooked?


Key facts about U.S. immigration policies and proposed changes by Jens Manuel Krogstad and Ana Gonzalez=Barrera for Pew Research Center.

Key findings about U.S. immigrants by Jynnah Badford for Pew Research Center.

Key facts about the H-1B visa program by Neil G. Ruiz for Pew Research Center.

History of laws concerning immigration and naturalization in the United States on Wikipedia.

America’s Forgotten History of Illegal Deportations by Alex Wagner for The Atlantic.  Starts with the Hoover administration.

The Largest Mass Deportation in American History by Erin Blakemore for the History Channel.  This was the Eisenhower administration’s Operation Wetback.  I was alive and following the news in 1954 and had only the dimmest notion of what was going on.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 Turns 50 by Philip E. Wolgin for the Center for American Progress.

Refugee crisis: Germany creaks under the strain of open door policy by Kate Connelly for The Guardian (2015)

Concentration Camps Expert Andrea Pitzer: The Trump Administration Is Running Camps at the Southern Border by Jack Holmes for Esquire.

What is a ‘climate refugee’ and how many are there? by Eve Andrews for Grist.


Update.  A chart and link showing U.S. population growth due to natural increase and immigration.

population growth12.21.18_Metro_Frey_Figure-2

U.S. population growth hits an 80-year low, capping off a year of demographic stagnation by William H. Frey for the Brookings Institution.

List of sovereign states and dependent territories by immigrant population on Wikipedia.  [Added 6/23/2019]

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7 Responses to “How many new immigrants can the USA welcome?”

  1. whungerford Says:

    I disagree with Milton Friedman–I believe we can and should admit a reasonable number of immigrants and provide everyone with an effective social safety net. The idea that immigrants are a burden to society is wrong.


  2. whungerford Says:

    The US population is currently declining by about 1 percent annually; we could surely admit at least that number of immigrants–3 million per year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      The rate of natural increase in the U.S. population is still positive. The under-age population, however, is declining at a rate of 1 percent during the past few years, which means that in time the whole population will be decreasing at that rate.

      So your conclusion is still reasonable even though the 1 percent decline figure is premature.

      I found these figures on-line in a report by the Brookings Institution. I added a chart and link to the main post.


  3. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    I think the US government should focus first on what it is morally responsible for. The countries where we have caused harm and contributed to refugee crises, those are the refugees we should take first. Of course, the political evil that the US government has committed in countries is quite immense and includes a lot of countries. That is challenging.


  4. paintedjaguar Says:

    You might have mentioned the 1986 Reagan era amnesty for long term illegal immigrants which failed to restrict future immigration and ultimately solved none of the underlying problems. Much of the current discussion is simply a replay with a side of amnesia.

    Liked by 1 person

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