Dowell Myers | How immigration is saving our economy

Dowell MyersIN 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.

Immigration rates

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.


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5 Responses to Dowell Myers | How immigration is saving our economy

  1. mark m rostenko October 14, 2013 at 6:10 am #

    yes, you’re absolutely right: we need immigrants to sustain the pyramid scheme called the US economy… too bad you have neither the foresight nor wisdom to question the pyramid scheme itself… but then, it’s not likely that an academic is going to rattle his own gravy train nor bite the hand that feeds him… or think beyond the bounds of his extensive academic indoctrination…

    “The clear conclusion is that immigration adds economic vitality, not depresses it.”

    yes, this much is clear… what is also quite clear is how unrestrained “economic vitality” or, as we in the unsophisticated proletariat (people who work for a living as opposed to theorizing and philosophizing on the taxpayers’ dime for a living) like to call it – “growth” reduces the quality of life for everyone… this may shock the follks roaming the hallowed ivory tower halls of academia but out here in the real world, overpopulation, overcrowding, increased pollution, streets clogged with traffic, forests cut down to build more tract houses and mcmansions, wilderness razed to make room for more shopping malls to fuel still more “economic vitality” is not necessarily a good thing, although to be sure, you’re right: it will help to fund the retirement of those who spent 40-50 years working and no time planning or setting aside something for their futures…but hey, no worries – that’s what poor folks and immigrants are for: to be bled dry to support the folks at the upper end of the pyramid scheme…

    “This wave of aging is central to most of our problems, but you can’t stop aging.”

    age wouldn’t be central to anything, least of all your argument, were it not for the underlying REAL problem of unrestrained population growth… people’s aging isn’t a problem – too many people aging is the problem…true enough, you can’t stop aging – but you can limit population growth… that is, if you have the balls to even address the issue, which clearly, NO ONE, certainly not anyone riding the bloated gravy train of academia does…

    so let’s keep on keeping on with the same tiresome, exploitative, earth-destroying strategies, never bothering to consider the overall, big picture, never questioning – only justifying – the status quo…as burgeoning cancer rates, the tens of millions of americans on anti-depressants and 200 species going extinct every day will attest to, “economic vitality” is a wonderful, wonderful thing… so let’s keep the immigration and cheap labor flowing – there are still a few places on earth that haven’t yet been decimated, polluted, burnt to the ground and paved over in the name of “economic vitality,” still some land not torn out from underneath indigenous people’s feet, still some land-based folks whose lives and livelihoods haven’t yet been shattered in the name of “assimilation into the wonderful bliss and prosperity of the Almighty American Profit Machine” – and we’re gonna’ need lots of immigration to fuel the “economic miracle” that will do just that…

    wonderful essay – what’s next for The Moon? an interview with the Koch brothers extolling the many virtues of resource extraction, pollution and cancer for the poor folks downstream of their “economically vital” projects? i suppose that’s another benefit of immigration as well: to replace all the people that this warped, insane “growth is all that matters” economy is KILLING, hmmm Mr. Myers?


  2. Leslee October 15, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    Hi Mark, Whoo-hoo! Thank you for writing. I appreciate you considering the far bigger picture–of the effect of capitalism, or as Derrick Jensen would say, “civilization,” on the planet. But immigrants aren’t the cause of capitalism or civilization. The MOON published Dr. Myers’ essay to answer the anti-immigrant hatred that is based–within the parameters of capitalism–on incorrect information. Regarding population control, you will see that Mexican women have taken that upon themselves. Also, the story about the Honduran woman who walked to this country–and availed herself of birth control she wasn’t socially sanctioned to obtain in her country–is further evidence of the well-documented fact that when women are educated and granted the right to control their own bodies, population control takes care of itself.

  3. mark m rostenko October 15, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Leslee – i hope i didn’t give the impression that i thought immigration was the problem or the cause of anything…the “problem” i have with Dr. Myers’ essay was the usual, unquestioned, default attitude that more money, more business, more economic growth is the answer to everything and ALWAYS unquestionably a good thing…

    if you’ve seen my blog or perhaps past financial writings, interviews, etc. on the web, you’ll see that i’m rather well versed in capitalism, economics, etc. having been in the financial industry for two decades…i realized at one point that something was very wrong with this world but i didn’t know what… so i left all that behind, closed up a lucrative financial business and moved into the wilderness where i spent five years walking in the desert and reading about 400 books on nature, history, environmentalism, politics, economic theory and many other topics (including Derrick Jensen’s work which was instrumental in opening my eyes) – i’ve since come to realize a lot of things about how our economy REALLY works, as opposed to the propaganda spewed by the powers that be, the garbage and straight-up lies that i actually, and regretfully used to believe… that’s exactly the sort of stuff i saw in Myers’ commentary, hence my criticism…

    i understand that he was responding to the anti-immigration hatred and i have no problem with any of that… i just take issue with the “immigration must be good because it’s good for the economy and if it’s good for the economy then it’s just plain good, no matter what” attitude… with the earth on the verge of bursting at the seams from the impact of humanity, i think we all need to take a very serious look at the “growth is always good” paradigm, as clearly, it’s NOT very good, beyond a certain limit.

    i get it: immigrants are not the problem and in fact, immigration is way down…i have no problem with immigrants – both my parents were immigrants… it matters not to me whether people immigrate or emigrate but we, not just we here in the USA but we EVERYWHERE need limits to our growth on EVERY front: population, economic expansion, etc. but as long as everyone is steeped in the “growth is always good!” paradigm, as Dr. Myers’ comments would seem to indicate he is, we’re headed for disaster – not just for us, but for the entire planet.

    i understand Dr. Myers’ points – but as long as people in the public eye and particuarly people involved in public planning continue to push the “growth is good” paradigm, we’re not gonna’ make ANY progress towards defusing this ticking time bomb… people like Dr. Myers need to take a serious look at this runaway freight train and consider the possiblity that in fact, there ARE limits to growth and that growth is NOT always a good thing, whether it be with respect to immigration, populations or economies…

    and a comfortable retirement for the baby boomers funded by the labor of immigrants doesn’t trump any of that…

  4. mark m rostenko October 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    in the interest of those who aren’t into wading through all my prattle, my bottom line point is this: we don’t need anything to grow the economy, immigration or otherwise…we need to ratchet this sucker DOWN…decrease GDP, not increase it…

    that’s not a very popular view, particularly as it’s not going to make anyone in this greedy, money-grubbing culture any kind of profit, but it’s the only one that has any semblance of a chance to save not just us, but this entire planet…


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