The Hard Truth About Immigration

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“This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said as he put his signature on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “It does not affect the lives of millions.” All that the bill would do, he explained, was repair the flawed criteria for deciding who could enter the country. “This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here.”

Edward Kennedy, the 33-year-old senator who had shepherded the bill through the Senate, went even further in promising that its effects would be modest. Some opponents argued that the bill would lead to a large increase in immigration, but those claims were false, Kennedy said. They were “highly emotional, irrational, and with little foundation in fact,” he announced in a Senate hearing, and “out of line with the obligations of responsible citizenship.” Emanuel Celler, the bill’s champion in the House, made the same promises. “Do we appreciably increase our population, as it were, by the passage of this bill?” Celler said. “The answer is emphatically no.”

Johnson, Kennedy, Celler and the new law’s other advocates turned out to be entirely wrong about this. The 1965 bill sparked a decades-long immigration wave. As a percentage of the United States population, this modern wave has been similar in size to the immigration wave of the late 1800s and early 1900s. In terms of the sheer number of people moving to a single country, the modern American immigration wave may be the largest in history. The year Johnson signed the immigration bill, 297,000 immigrants legally entered the United States. Two years later, the number reached 362,000. It continued rising in subsequent decades, and by 1989 exceeded 1 million.

Book jacket
This article was adapted from David Leonhardt’s new book, Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream.

How could the law’s advocates have been so wrong about their own policy? One explanation is that they engaged in motivated reasoning. They believed, justly, that they were righting a historical wrong by remaking the racist immigration system that the country had adopted in the 1920s, which allocated almost all of its slots to Western Europeans. The new law created a first-come-first-served system that treated all parts of the world equally, and it made the United States a fairer society. In their eagerness to achieve that victory, however, the reformers dismissed almost any criticism of the bill as unreasonable and even hateful.

In part, they were reacting to the identity of the bill’s critics: Many were opponents of the civil-rights movement who indeed made racist arguments against the immigration bill. Yet skeptics also raised legitimate questions about the bill, pointing to potential loopholes, including that its annual worldwide quota did not apply to many immigrants. These immigrants were considered “nonquota” entries, allowed to enter the country without being counted. The most consequential nonquota entries proved to be family members, including extended family. The law declared that immigrants who were coming to join relatives already in the United States would not count toward the quota. That loophole was not wholly new. But it had not mattered much before 1965, because the overall system was so restrictive. The new law opened the doors to the entire world without solving the nonquota problem.

The critics’ predictions—that annual immigration might soon triple, as one conservative congressman forecast, and eventually surpass 1 million, as another anticipated—ended up being more accurate. The advocates of the 1965 law also incorrectly promised that any increase in immigration would come from white-collar professionals filling specific job shortages. Willard Wirtz, Johnson’s labor secretary, went so far as to tell Congress that the bill offered “complete protection” against increased labor competition. In truth, many arrivals have been blue-collar workers, admitted as extended family, seeking a broad range of jobs.

I realize that some readers may be feeling a little uncomfortable about the history described here. The celebration of immigration has become core to the political beliefs of many Americans, on both the left and the right. Immigrants are underdogs, heroes, and—for most of us—ancestors. Many opponents of immigration are xenophobes. In the 21st century, the contours of the immigration debate can seem binary: Somebody is either in favor of immigration or opposed to it.

Historically, however, the debate was more nuanced. It included many people who were comfortable distinguishing between the issues of who should be admitted and how many should be admitted. Separating these two makes clear that it is possible to honor immigrants and decry bigotry without believing that more immigration is always better. The people who wrote the 1965 law claimed to hold precisely these beliefs.

That law deserves to be remembered as a monumental civil-rights achievement. It ended decades of discrimination against Asians, Africans, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, and disabled people. In other respects, though, the law represents a failure of democracy: It was sold to the American public with repeated promises that it would not do what, in fact, it did. In particular, it was sold with the false claim that there would be no increase in the number of immigrants seeking low-wage jobs.

In 1965, the United States already had a more open immigration system than many other countries, with a higher percentage of foreign-born residents than most of Europe, and a far higher share than Japan. The 1965 bill went further, and became what the journalist Margaret Sands Orchowski has called arguably the world’s most liberal immigration law. Theodore White, the chronicler of 1960s political history, described the law as “noble, revolutionary—and probably the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society.”

My goal is not to convince you that any specific view of immigration policy is correct. But I hope to demonstrate that every piece of evidence does not line up neatly to support the conclusion that more immigration is always good or always bad. The advocates of the 1965 law did such a poor job of anticipating its effects partly because they tried to ignore facts that they found inconvenient. The rest of us do not need to repeat their mistakes.

At a moment when immigration has returned to political prominence, it helps to think about the continuing post-1965 immigration wave through three empirical questions. First, how have the immigrants fared in this country? Second, what have been the economic effects for people who were already in the United States? And third, how has the immigration wave altered American politics?

Many Americans—across the political spectrum—think they know the answer to the first question. They believe that immigrant families in recent decades have been less likely to climb the country’s ladder than those of earlier generations. But that bit of conventional wisdom is inaccurate.

Children of post-1965 immigrants have ascended at a pace strikingly similar to their predecessors, as two economists—Leah Boustan of Princeton and Ran Abramitzky of Stanford—have documented. As in the past, immigrants themselves tend to remain poor if they arrive poor. And as in the past, their children tend to make up ground rapidly. Overall, most children of the recent immigration wave have grown up to earn at least a middle-class income. “The American Dream is just as real for immigrants from Asia and Latin America now as it was for immigrants from Italy and Russia one hundred years ago,” Abramitzky and Boustan write. There is no permanent underclass of American immigrants.

There are certainly caveats. In a country as large as the United States, averages hide a lot of variation. Some immigrant families suffer discrimination and remain in poverty for multiple generations, much as some native-born American families do. It is also worth pointing out that intergenerational research necessarily comes with a lag. Many recent immigrants have indeed been poorer than earlier immigrants were, and perhaps their children will struggle. The children of undocumented immigrants face particular hardships.

In the big picture, however, past patterns seem likely to continue: Many immigrants themselves will remain poor, but their children will do considerably better. This may also be true for most children of undocumented immigrants, given that anybody born in the United States automatically becomes a citizen. In their research, Abramitzky and Boustan examine not only income but also other measures of assimilation, such as where immigrants live, whom they marry, and whether they speak English. On these metrics, recent immigrants look similar to those from past generations. And by some measures, like intermarriage, the current wave is assimilating more rapidly than previous generations.

THE SECOND BIG question about immigration is how it has affected the living standards of people who were already in the United States. On the surface, the facts look damning.

The decades when the American masses enjoyed their fastest income gains—in the middle of the 20th century—were also the decades when immigration was near historic lows. The 1965 law ended this era and caused a sharp rise in the number of immigrants entering the workforce. Shortly afterward, incomes for poor and working-class Americans began to stagnate. The 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s were a time of low immigration and rapidly rising mass living standards. The period since the ’70s has been neither.

Chart about income and immigration

Correlation and causation, obviously, are not the same thing. To distinguish between the two, economists have devoted extensive effort to figuring out how much immigration has affected the living standards of native-born Americans. One finding from these studies is that immigration has not been the dominant cause of post-1970s wage stagnation, despite the suspicious timing. You do not need to be able to read peer-reviewed articles in an academic journal to grasp this conclusion, although those articles support it. You simply need to notice that the regions attracting the largest number of immigrants are not the ones suffering the worst wage stagnation.

But the story does not end here. The same evidence suggests that immigration has played a meaningful, if secondary, role in holding down wages. In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences released a 600-plus-page report on immigration, produced by a committee of prominent scholars. The committee reviewed the relevant research, including studies of surges of immigration to specific metropolitan areas. The report included a table summarizing the estimated effect of immigration on native wages, from each of the relevant studies since the 1990s. The table is dominated by negative numbers. Immigration does have costs.

Logic and history point to the same conclusion as the economic data. That is why CEOs long favored high levels of immigrants and labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Samuel Gompers long opposed them. It is also why the architects of the 1965 law vowed that it would not allow more manual workers to enter the country. When immigration increases, employers often have the upper hand. When immigration is low, the economist Sumner Slichter explained a century ago, employers are forced “to adapt jobs to men rather than men to jobs.” People sometimes claim that immigrants work in jobs that native-born Americans do not want. But Christopher Jencks, a social-policy professor at Harvard University, has pointed out that this statement is incomplete: Immigrants typically work in jobs that native-born Americans do not want at the wages that employers are offering. One reason that employers can offer such wages, Jencks adds, is the availability of so many immigrant workers.

The post-1965 immigration wave has had both benefits and costs. On the plus side, it has probably accelerated economic growth, mostly by expanding the labor force. With a larger population, the United States has been able to produce more goods and services. Immigration also appears to have benefited many high-earning, native-born professionals. The costs of immigration for these workers have been fairly low because they face relatively little competition from immigrant workers. Few of the highly educated immigrants who come to the U.S. are lawyers or doctors, partly because some professions have created barriers that restrict entry. In medicine, foreign doctors are required to complete a multiyear residency program in the United States, regardless of their prior experience. Professionals who have enough political influence to shape labor-market rules, like doctors, understand that a larger labor pool can reduce incomes.

For many lower-earning workers, there are no such protections. In retail, construction, and child care, more immigrants have been able to compete for jobs. Their entry has had two separate effects that have increased inequality. For the lower end of the income distribution, the expansion of the labor pool has held down wages. For the higher end of the income distribution, these lower wages have held down the prices of frequently used services such as restaurant meals and landscaping. Still, several other forces, including the decline of labor unions and the rise of trade with China, have almost certainly had a larger impact on depressing wages.

If the United States wanted to keep immigration high and ameliorate the effects on inequality, it could do so—say, by cutting taxes for low-earning workers and raising taxes on high-earning professionals. The problem is that the country has not used government policy to reverse the growth of inequality; the tax system has instead exacerbated inequality. For all the benefits of the post-1965 immigration wave, American workers are not delusional to think that it has had costs—and that they, rather than more affluent Americans, have borne those costs.

The third big question involves the political effects of immigration—and the discipline of economics is less helpful than psychology in answering it.

In the 1990s, an American psychologist named Jonathan Haidt was thinking about how notions of morality differed from one culture to another. Together with Brazilian psychologists, he designed a survey based on very short stories in which somebody violated what Haidt called a “harmless taboo.” In each anecdote, a fictional person took an action that did not hurt anybody else but that might nonetheless seem wrong. The survey’s respondents had to judge whether the behavior was immoral or simply a matter of individual choice.

In one story, a boy refused to wear a required school uniform. In another, a woman cut up a national flag that she no longer needed and used the pieces as cleaning rags. The researchers conducted the survey in two Brazilian cities, and Haidt repeated it in Philadelphia, where he was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In all three cities, the psychologists surveyed people in two different social classes, one higher and one lower.

As Haidt expected, the answers varied by city. In Philadelphia, people were less likely to judge the violation of a social convention—like refusing to wear a uniform or cutting up a flag—as immoral. Philadelphians were more individualistic: If nobody was harmed, what was the problem? In Recife, a poor Brazilian city, more respondents judged violations of social convention as wrong: Society has rules and traditions, and defying those norms is immoral. In Porto Alegre, a relatively affluent, European-influenced city, the responses fell in the middle.

But the data also contained a surprise. The class differences within each country were larger than the differences between Brazilians and Americans. In all three cities, lower-income people were much more likely than upper-class people to judge the violation of social conventions as wrong. The working-class respondents emphasized communal standards and traditions. The professionals emphasized individual notions of freedom. “I had flown five thousand miles south to search for moral variation when in fact there was more to be found a few blocks west of campus, in the poor neighborhood surrounding my university,” Haidt wrote.

In the years that followed, Haidt and his colleagues created a broader version of the survey, known as the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. Around the world, educated professionals emphasize two values above all: care for others, especially the vulnerable, and fairness. Working-class people put significant weight on those values, too, but not quite as much. And working-class respondents emphasize values that are of little import to college graduates, such as respect for authority, appreciation of tradition, and loyalty to family and community. Other researchers have come to use the terms universal and communal to describe the two belief sets.

Both universalism and communalism have important advantages. The universalist passion for fairness and harm prevention has undergirded every great social-justice movement of the past century. While some communalists defended racial segregation and sexism as cultural traditions, universalists refused to accept them. In foreign policy, universalism helped lead to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. Universalism has made the world both freer and more equal.

Communalism can claim its own accomplishments, though. Without loyalty, tradition, and respect, human beings would not have been able to form groups that allowed them to survive. In modern times, communalism has inspired Americans to enlist in the military and become teachers at local elementary schools. The same outlook helps explain why working-class households tend to give a greater percentage of their income to charity (often their churches) than upper-income households. Communalism also played a central role in social-justice movements: Religious groups, and the loyalty they inspire, were crucial to both abolitionism and civil-rights activism. Today, communalism continues to promote equality of opportunity: According to research by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues, children are more likely to escape poverty if they grow up in a place where people have strong social connections.

Immigration policy presents a distillation of the tensions between the two worldviews. To communalists, a government should limit arrivals and prioritize its own citizens. To universalists, national loyalties can be dangerous, and immigration can lift global living standards by allowing more people to share in a rich country’s prosperity. In recent decades, this debate has become part of the growing political polarization in many Western countries, including the United States. Surveys show that liberals tend to be universalists who support higher levels of immigration, and conservatives tend to be communalists who favor less immigration.

This polarization is relatively recent. Across American history, communalism has not been simply a synonym for conservatism. Many communalists were progressives who emphasized fairness and equality within a community. When they had to choose between protecting neighbors who were vulnerable and others who were vulnerable, they were comfortable focusing on the needs of their vulnerable neighbors.

Almost 30 years ago, President Bill Clinton asked former Representative Barbara Jordan to lead a federal commission studying immigration. Jordan, a Houston native, had become famous during the Watergate hearings for a stirring speech that denounced Richard Nixon and celebrated the Constitution. For many Americans, it was the first time they had heard a major speech from either a female or a Black member of Congress. The speech also put Jordan’s communalism on display. She believed that loyalty, tradition, and social connection were crucial to the struggle for a fairer world. She knew that human beings had a natural urge to be part of a group and feel pride in that group. “We are all in this little village called America together,” she once told a group of schoolchildren.

As she studied immigration policy, Jordan came to believe that being strongly pro-immigrant and strongly pro-immigration were not the same thing. Americans needed to make decisions about whom they would and would not admit, as every other nation did. They had to decide what forms of immigration were in the national interest and what forms were not. The drafters of the 1965 law had claimed to be prioritizing the national interest, but the law’s loopholes had come to dominate the immigration system. As a result, that system did not maximize the well-being of Americans, immigrant and native-born alike. The country had an immigration system that almost nobody had meant to create.

Unlike the authors of the 1965 law, Jordan tried to separate the issues of who should be admitted and how many people should be admitted. She decried the long history of racist opposition to immigration and denounced the immigrant-bashing of the 1990s. “There have always been those who despised the newcomers,” she said. Borrowing John F. Kennedy’s phrase, she described the United States as a nation of immigrants. To her, though, both parts of his phrase—immigrants and nation—were vital.

The United States had been such a successful society, where millions of people aspired to move, because it was a distinct nation. It was a community, with traditions and bonds that fostered trust among citizens and investments in their shared future. Immigrants had become a part of this community, first by choosing to leave their home for a new land and then by embracing their new home. Jordan’s preferred word for this process was Americanization. “That word earned a bad reputation when it was stolen by racists and xenophobes in the 1920s,” Jordan said, “but it is our word, and we are taking it back.”

To nurture the American community, the federal government first needed to regain control of its immigration system, Jordan believed. Her commission called for a major effort to reduce illegal immigration, by cracking down on employers who hired undocumented workers. “Any nation worth its salt must control its borders,” she said. On legal immigration, the commission pushed for some increases, including a temporary rise in the admission of immediate family members, to reunite families, as well as an annual floor on refugee admission to ensure that the United States remained a haven of freedom. On net, however, the commission called for a large reduction—by roughly one-third—in legal immigration from about 800,000 annual entrants the year before down to about 550,000. “The commission finds no national interest in continuing to import lesser skilled and unskilled workers to compete with the most vulnerable parts of our labor force,” Jordan said. Her commission effectively tried to undo the unintended consequences of the 1965 law.

But by the 1990s, a powerful bipartisan coalition had come to support the status quo, and the commission’s recommendations quickly came under attack. Business lobbyists and Republican leaders in Congress favored high immigration partly because it restrained wage growth. Liberal groups saw immigration as a human-rights issue and pointed out that any reductions would especially affect Latin American and Asian immigrants. Clinton, after initially embracing Jordan’s recommendations, backed away from them. Congress instead passed several provisions to reduce illegal immigration, though they were less aggressive than the commission’s proposals. The laws governing legal immigration remained largely the same. The few members of Congress who complained tended to be conservative Republicans.

To many Democrats, support for immigration had come to feel like a moral imperative. Immigration lifted people out of poverty. It enhanced the country’s cultural diversity. It reflected a universalist belief in equality, regardless of a person’s country of origin. Democrats cherished the legacy of the 1965 law, accidental though it may have been.

In the 2000s, the Democratic Party has moved even closer to a universalist position. Democrats now speak more positively about immigration than any party has in the country’s history, according to an analysis of the Congressional Record. Many liberals have grown uncomfortable talking about restrictions and criticize both Clinton and Barack Obama for their positions. Obama combined full-throated support for immigrants, including legalization for many who were undocumented, with support for border security. When “an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers,” Obama said, it violates America’s promise.

Top Democrats would not make such an argument today. They are also unlikely to revere assimilation, as Jordan did. To universalists, glorifying American culture is jingoistic.

This new Democratic approach, however, is not popular with most Americans. Polls have long shown that most Americans oppose very high levels of immigration, as the authors of the 1965 law knew. Americans, to be clear, are not opposed to immigration. Most believe that it has strengthened the country, but they favor it in moderation. If immigration policy reflected public opinion, it would have been very different over the past half century.

The new Democratic consensus on immigration is part of the rise of what the economist Thomas Piketty has called “the Brahmin left”—the shift of progressive parties in both the United States and Western Europe toward the views of highly educated professionals. For much of the 20th century, left-leaning parties attracted the bulk of their support from working-class voters. Today, college graduates make up a growing share of these parties, and their upscale voters have pushed the parties further to the left on social and cultural issues than on economic issues. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Democratic Party actually moved to the right on economics, as it adopted pro-market positions on global trade and regulation that were often described as neoliberal (a word that echoes the classical definition of liberal, which implies skepticism of government). Although the party has since tacked back to the left on economics, especially on trade, the Democratic economic agenda is not significantly more progressive than it was in the postwar decades.

Immigration is a fascinating part of this story. If you think about immigration as a social issue—a question of human rights—you might say that Democrats have moved to the left by favoring more immigration. If you think about it as a domestic economic issue—one that affects the power dynamic between American employers and workers—you would instead say that a policy of more immigration is a right-wing position. After all, the conservative intellectual giant Milton Friedman also favored high levels of immigration. Either way, the Democratic Party’s shift on immigration policy is consistent with Brahminism, in which the party has become more progressive on social issues than economic ones.

Today, immigration is the one issue on which even the left flank of the Democratic Party continues to support the neoliberal position. Democrats have grown more skeptical of deregulation and the free flow of trade than they were during the Clinton years. But they have grown even more supportive of the deregulated flow of people across borders. Many liberals are passionately universalist on the subject.

Most voters take a more communalist view, which makes sense when you consider that most are not highly educated professionals. The American majority is a working-class, communalist majority. Most people without a four-year degree say that the United States is the greatest country in the world; most college graduates (and most Democrats) do not. Most Americans also believe that the country should prioritize its own citizens while welcoming a limited number of immigrants each year and taking steps to reduce unlawful immigration.

The universalists may have won the struggle over government policy, but their victory has come with a political cost. The high level of immigration since the 1960s helped move the working class to the political right. A rich stream of social-science research has documented the phenomenon, and not only in the United States. Immigration helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016 and helps explain why many working-class voters distrust Democrats.

Racism, of course, is part of this story. In both the United States and Europe, right-wing politicians like Trump have tried to raise fears of immigrants by using xenophobic stereotypes and lies. This racism can be anti-Latino, anti-Asian, anti-Black, or anti-Muslim, depending on the time and place. The tactic has proved distressingly effective at winning working-class voters.

But the distinction between communalism and universalism is important partly because it highlights the fact that immigration is not only about race. There are good reasons that every country in the modern world maintains borders. Some high-income countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have maintained very restrictive policies. Once a country has established borders, it must confront the unavoidably thorny issue of which outsiders it should admit and which it should not. In the United States—a nation of immigrants, where most of us, me included, live here only because of previous immigration—the question raises poignant tensions.

“For those who believe in a multicultural America, this question can be uncomfortable to confront, because any system short of open borders invariably requires drawing distinctions that declare some people worthy of entry and others unworthy,” Jia Lynn Yang, a journalist, wrote in her history of immigration law. Because of this discomfort, the modern Democratic Party has struggled to articulate an immigration policy beyond what might be summarized as: More is better, and less is racist. The party has cast aside the legacies of Jordan and other progressives who made finer distinctions.

In response, many working-class voters have decided that the Democratic Party does not share their values. Notably, some of these voters are not white and are themselves the descendants of recent immigrants. In the 2020 and 2022 elections, the Republican Party made gains among Latino voters, especially in Texas and Florida, as well as Asian American voters. Polls showed that a sizable chunk of both Latino and Black voters who otherwise leaned toward the Democratic Party preferred the Republican position on illegal immigration. “Immigration,” Haidt, the psychologist, told me, “is one of the top few blind spots of the left, which causes right-wing parties to win all over the Western world.”

In the United States of the mid-20th century, immigration was so low that it disappeared as a major political issue. Polls found that Americans’ view of immigrants became more positive. Many native-born Americans saw immigrants primarily as fellow citizens, rather than outsiders or recent arrivals. Americanization, in other words, described more than just the assimilation of immigrants; it described a national process of binding. A slowdown in the diversification of the country made Americans more comfortable with their newfound diversity. This cohesion fostered a progressive economic consensus, making possible high taxes on the affluent, large government investments in infrastructure and science, and modern welfare state programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Low immigration numbers in the mid-1900s improved the lives of recent immigrants by fostering a stronger safety net for everybody. The modern era of high immigration levels, by contrast, has hardly been a golden age for progressive politics.

PERHAPS THE MOST important point about immigration is that it involves trade-offs. For centuries, opponents of immigration have portrayed it as inherently bad, and their claims have been disproved again and again. More recently, universalists have portrayed immigration as inevitably positive, an argument that depends partly on wishful thinking. Immigration can be wonderful, but good things are rarely free, as Jordan said.

The post-1965 immigration wave has had large benefits. Most important, it has helped lift millions of people out of poverty and allowed them to experience the American dream. Most immigrant families have both assimilated into their new country and changed it for the better. They have contributed to scientific breakthroughs, started businesses and community organizations, and enriched American culture, in literature, film, music, sports, and food.

On universalist grounds, a relatively open immigration system is easy to support. But the other side of the ledger matters. Immigration tends to impose costs on lower-wage workers and to alter the political atmosphere in ways that make government policy less generous to those same workers. The past century suggests that there are trade-offs between immigration levels and progressive policy goals. Reducing immigration would probably make reducing economic inequality in the United States easier. Lower levels could make Americans more amenable to policies that would benefit immigrants who are already here, such as a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.

What might an ideal system look like? That is a difficult question, but Jordan’s basic principles still seem relevant. The United States should treat immigrants with decency. This decency includes the admission of immediate family members—but only immediate family members, such as spouses and young children. The country should embrace its role as a beacon of political freedom and prioritize the admission of refugees fleeing persecution, a group that in recent years has included Iranians, Cubans, Sudanese, Ukrainians, and Uyghurs from China. The United States should also make clear that it is a nation of laws, as Jordan said, and do more to reduce illegal immigration than it has in the past. When citizens of other countries believe that they will be allowed to remain in the United States so long as they manage to enter it, the country’s laws have little meaning. And high levels of undocumented immigration are a political gift for right-wing parties.

There is another theme from Jordan’s recommendations, one that was also part of the promises that the authors of the 1965 law made. Both called for a system focused on the admission of people with specific job skills that the American economy needed. Both argued against the wide-scale admission of workers who could compete for most jobs. Canada did adopt such a system in the 1960s, and the politics of immigration there are more muted partly for that reason. This approach tends to reduce economic inequality. It expands the labor pool for professionals, making them less scarce and holding down their future wage increases, rather than focusing the wage effect on lower-income workers. Professionals also tend to pay more in taxes, which suggests that the admission of more high-earning immigrants can improve the country’s fiscal situation as the population ages and more Americans retire.

The U.S. immigration system is always going to be complex, full of difficult decisions and trade-offs. But the system we have today is not the only option, nor is it the one that political leaders promised us. It has instead become one more way that the economy and political system have drifted from the interests and values of many working people.


This article was adapted from David Leonhardt’s new book, Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream.


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