Last week’s column about the rise of jobs, mostly low-paid, catering to the wealthy, brought numerous reader responses. A big focus was that I missed the elephant in the room: Large-scale immigration.

One reader from Kirkland was most blunt: “Where do all these legal or illegal asylum people fit in the American economy? They have little or no education, little or no job skill, little or no capital and little or no ability to even speak our language …

“This is not 1890 when there were plentiful jobs for unskilled workers …. All you needed was a strong back and a willingness to work. You could be taught your job quickly. This is not the same America as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Today you need skills or you mow lawns. Or, you live off the taxpayers.”

And this came before the Trump administration announced plans for denying green cards to immigrants on public assistance, tilting policy to reward skills rather than reunify families or welcome asylum-seekers.

Other readers said immigration was driving down wages no matter the skill level.

All this is was a reminder that immigration is perhaps the most explosive and divisive issue in American politics. It’s a complex, often misunderstood, part of the economy.


First, some facts. The foreign-born population reached a record 44.5 million in 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that supports liberal immigration policies.

At 13.7% of the general population, the percentage of the foreign-born was also near a record. One must go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries to find such a large share of foreign-born people in the United States.

In fiscal year 2018, more than 757,000 people became naturalized (legal) citizens, part of 7.4 million new naturalized Americans over the past decade.

Meanwhile, 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants were in the country as of 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2006 (for the first time, Mexicans made up less than half of this cohort). About 7.6 million of all unauthorized migrants are in the civilian labor force of more than 163 million.

In a case of history rhyming, fears of massive immigration hurting wages and employment opportunities for native-born citizens helped drive immigration restriction laws passed in the 1920s. And this was the time of supposedly abundant low-skill jobs and ladders up. Of course restriction advocates also wanted to preserve the white majoritarian/northern European majority.

Fortunately for us, some of the great minds of the century, including Albert Einstein, were allowed in.


The tight quotas and discrimination against many countries weren’t repealed until 1965.

Republicans controlled the Congress and White House from 2017 until January of this year. Perhaps only the fear of a backlash from Hispanic Americans prevented them from passing similar legislation. Or it was historical ignorance. Or that their wealthy business backers wanted immigration to continue.

President Donald Trump, however, has been consistently anti-immigration, often in the most bigoted and crude forms. He promised to build a wall at the southern border, restrict asylum-seekers, cut student visas, tighten rules for high-tech visas and dramatically curtail legal immigration.

His language to describe migrants — “thugs,” “animals” “an invasion” — hangs over the shooting deaths in El Paso. Yet Trump’s approval rating remains consistent (around 42%), and I suspect many of his true supporters lie to pollsters for fear of being labeled racists.

The economics of immigration are clear cut, at least on first glance. Most economists see it as a net plus for the country, luring innovative entrepreneurs, increasing productivity and bringing young workers who will pay into Social Security, among other benefits.

More division exists about the effect on wages, however. Extensive study of refugees from the 1980 Mariel boatlift from Cuba has yet to reach a consensus. More broadly, Harvard professor George Borjas argues that, “For many Americans, the influx of immigrants hurts their prospects significantly.” In addition, a wide body of research shows that the most recent low-skilled immigrants often throw their predecessors out of jobs.

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Inconveniently for advocates of liberal immigration or open borders, the decades of strict quotas coincided with the height of the American middle class. In 1970, the number of foreign-born people in the country was 9.6 million or less than 5% of the population.


Of course, correlation is not necessarily causation. Those were also years before imported products flooded the U.S. market, when the fruits of productivity were widely shared and unions were strong.

Inconveniently for those who want to severely limit immigration is the appetite of U.S. business and even average Americans for cheap migrant labor, including unauthorized immigrants. It’s also essential for jobs that citizens won’t do, especially in agriculture.

Trump’s ICE raids, including a recent one in Mississippi that separated parents from children, rarely target employers. Sentencing some CEOs to hard time might have a salutary effect if one were serious about stopping the problem, but it doesn’t happen.

Meanwhile, as William Frey of the Brookings Institution points out, many of the “21st century immigrants” to America are college-educated Asians. Since 2010, 41% of foreign-born residents have come from Asia compared with 39% from Latin America.

Economics can’t bridge the deeper cultural and political divides over this issue. A nativist strain has always run deep in American politics, tussling against those who welcome immigration. The tension is more pronounced today than any time in decades, especially because of Trump’s rhetoric and policies.


In addition, many on the right who have generally favored legal immigration are now concerned about the size of the migrant population in recent years. Simply dismissing these millions as “racists” won’t change their minds.

The is not a division unique to America, but is also playing out across Europe, including among those in the U.K. who voted for Brexit.

The real elephant in the room is climate change, which is likely to set off the largest human migration in history at a time when the planet has a record population of 7.6 billion. The consequences of a warming planet are a major cause of people coming north from Central America.

Here, the Trump administration is not only denying science but pushing for more carbon to be burned into the atmosphere. The most dangerous wall built by the president is between himself and reality.