IN MY STUDY of demographic trends over the last thirty-five years, most recently as director of the Population Dynamics Resource Group at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, I’ve been struck repeatedly by the fact that the narrative surrounding the issue of immigration—particularly Mexican immigration—has stayed essentially the same, while the demographic facts have changed dramatically. In short, those who fear Mexican immigration do so primarily on the basis of trends that are no longer true.
Too often people debate immigration like it is 1990, not 2013, although our current and prospective immigration trends are nothing like the past.
Allow me to explain.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the fears about immigration were as follows: The immigration rate from Mexico is accelerating and is out of control. Mexico’s birth rate being one of the fastest in the world, immigration pressures are likely to continue—or increase—for the foreseeable future. Worse, immigrant workers are not needed and are taking the jobs and reducing the wages that should rightfully be paid to American workers. Ultimately, the story goes, immigrants are a drain on our taxpayers and growing our deficit.
Here’s how the facts have changed.
Immigration accelerated upward in the 1980s and 1990s, but that has now ceased. Overall the annual inflow has been in decline since 2000 in the U.S. and especially in the traditional gateways of New York, Texas, and Miami. The decline began sooner—after 1990—in California and has been especially sharp in Los Angeles County. See the figure with my estimates of annual inflows based on census data.
The only traditional gateway through which immigration has continued to increase since 2000 is Florida overall (excluding Miami-Dade)—and the majority of these immigrants are not from Mexico, but the Caribbean and South America. Immigration through the newer gateways of Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and the U.S. overall has also slowed since the 1990s and declined since 2005. Moreover, the package of immigration reform legislation debated in Congress is designed to closely monitor flows, guard against sudden, unintended increases, and regulate the inflow to meet labor needs.
An important demographic trend is also guarding against rapid rises in immigration. The birth rate in Mexico has plunged dramatically, reducing out-migration pressures and even foreshadowing a possible labor shortage in Mexico. The fertility rate in Mexico—the average number of children per female of child-bearing age—has fallen from 6.8 children in 1970 to 3.4 in 1990, to 2.2 in 2010. This is considered very near the replacement rate required for a stable population in the long run. As a result of the falling birth rate, the average Mexican in 1980 was 17 years old; he is now 28. Even more startling is the fact that four out of ten married Mexican women are sterilized. These facts gave rise to an article in the British magazine, The Economist, entitled, “When the niños run out.”
The upshot is that the super-high Mexican birth rate in 1970 gave rise to the surplus of workers flowing across the border in 1990. The recent decades of falling births in Mexico cannot produce such a surplus again, and in fact this smaller number of workers will be readily absorbed in Mexico.
But they’re not assimilating!
This was another narrative from the 1980s and 1990s that the facts do not support. It is understandable why the myth persists because that is how things may look, but it is an illusion. Here is the simple explanation: when immigration is accelerating in volume, many of the immigrant residents are new. And in new destinations receiving immigration in the U.S., most immigrants are new. Those newcomers don’t sound like they are speaking English (though most are learning it), and many may look poor.
But once immigration levels off or reaches a steady state, two things happen. The previous newcomers become settled and begin to outnumber the newcomers. And those settled immigrants become much more integrated into the U.S. society and economy. Just consider these two numbers:
When Latino immigrants are newly arrived as many as thirty percent are living in poverty and roughly eighteen percent are homeowners. But after they have settled in for two decades, are they still stuck in poverty and are they still shut out of homeownership? No. After twenty years, poverty has fallen to eighteen percent or lower, and homeownership has risen to sixty percent or more. Meanwhile English skills have also risen greatly among parents, and children are one hundred percent fluent.
The record of assimilation is found among the settled immigrants, not the newcomers. That is where the mistaken perception comes from. Today in America more of our immigrants have become settled and so assimilation is rising. We are not in 1990 any more.