Immigrants Make America Stronger and Richer
Modern nations can’t — practically or politically — have open borders, which allow anyone who chooses to immigrate.
The good news is that America doesn’t have open borders, and there is no significant faction in our politics saying we should. In fact, immigrating to the United States legally is fairly difficult.
The bad news is that we’re having a hard time enforcing the rules on immigration, mainly because the relevant government agencies don’t have sufficient resources. And right now, the reason they don’t have those resources is that many Republicans in Congress, while fulminating about a border crisis, appear determined to deny the needed funding.
Their position is rooted in extraordinary political cynicism, and they aren’t even trying to hide it: Donald Trump has intervened with Republicans to block any immigration deal because he believes that chaos at the border will help his election prospects.
While blatant sabotage explains the current immigration impasse, however, there’s something else lurking behind it: Trump and those around him are profoundly hostile to immigration in general.
Partly this is xenophobia, if not outright racism. If you repeatedly declare, as Trump has, that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” you don’t really care if they came here legally, you’re all but saying that what matters is whether they’re white.
But it’s not just that. People close to Trump have a zero-sum view of the economy, in which every job taken by someone born outside the United States is a job taken away from someone born here.
Back in 2020, Stephen Miller, one of the architects of Trump’s immigration policies, told Trump supporters that one of the goals was to “turn off the faucet of new immigrant labor.” Remarkably, Trump issued an executive order meant to deny visas to highly skilled foreigners, many working in the tech sector. Miller and his boss apparently believed that this would mean more plum jobs for Americans, when what it would actually do was undermine American competitiveness in advanced technology.
So this seems like a good time to point out that negative views of the economics of immigration are all wrong. Far from taking jobs away, foreign-born workers have played a key role in America’s recent success at combining fast growth with a rapid decline in inflation. And foreign-born workers will also be crucial to the effort to deal with our country’s longer-term problems.
About that recent success: It has taken a while, but many observers are finally acknowledging that the United States has done extraordinarily well at recovering from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Inflation has faded away in much of the world, but the United States stands out for its ability to combine disinflation with vigorous economic growth. And one key to that performance has been rapid growth in the U.S. labor force, which has risen by 2.9 million since the eve of the pandemic four years ago.
How much of that growth was due to foreign-born workers? All of it. The native-born labor force declined slightly over the past four years, reflecting an aging population, while we added three million foreign-born workers.
Did those foreign-born workers take jobs away from Americans — in particular, native-born Americans? No. America in early 2024 has full employment, with consumers who say that jobs are “plentiful” outnumbering those saying jobs are “hard to get” by almost five to one. The unemployment rate among native-born workers averaged just under 3.7 percent in 2023, as low as it’s been since the government began collecting the data.
In fact, I’d argue that the influx of foreign-born workers has helped the native born. There’s a large research literature on the economic impact of immigration, which consistently fails to find the often predicted negative effects on employment and wages. Instead, immigrant workers often turn out to be complementary to the native-born work force, bringing different skills that, in effect, help avoid supply bottlenecks and allow faster job creation. Silicon Valley, for instance, hires a lot of foreign-born engineers because they bring something additional to the table; the same is true for workers in many less-glamorous occupations.
And immigrant workers have probably been especially important these past few years, as the economy has struggled to resolve disruptions caused by the pandemic.