U.S. Immigration Policy: What We Have Wrought Is Unsustainable

There is little doubt that immigration will be a major campaign issue in the 2016 presidential election.  Sadly, opinions on immigration are too often based on very limited knowledge and understanding of the effects immigration has on our country.  

Ted Kennedy was mistaken when he spoke in defense of the game-changing Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  "The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants," he said.  "It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs."  Jeff Sessions was more correct when he said, "What we need now is immigration moderation: slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together."  Admittedly, Sessions has the benefit of 50 years of additional experience regarding the effect of cumulative amendments to immigration policy that Kennedy did not, which is exactly the point.  There are a multitude of unknown or unintended consequences of any immigration policy that make it impossible to predict that policy's results.

However, based on our experience thus far, here are some of the lessons, observations, and conclusions that can be made about the effects of immigration on demographics.

1. Immigration patterns have become traceable.

Immigrants tend to settle in seven states (California, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois) that account for 44% of the U.S. population and in some 31 "sanctuary cities" (including Washington, D.C.; New York City; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Detroit; Chicago; Miami; and Denver).  The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, one quarter of the population (approximately 100 million) will be of Hispanic descent.  The Asian population is expected to more than triple by 2050.  A recent Pew report predicts the population of the United States will rise from 296 million in 2005 to 438 million in 2050, with 82% of the increase coming from immigrants.  These patterns are microcosms of what effects current immigration policies portend for the nation – whether we like them or not.

2. Assimilation processes are idiosyncratic with attendant economic effects.

The process of assimilation after immigrants arrive is highly situational and can have disparate effects.  Sociologist Herbert Gans described assimilation for some as being "bumpy" rather than "straight-line."  Portes and Zhou described the experience as "segmented assimilation."  The basis for these different immigrant experiences is that structural barriers, such as poor urban schools and limited access to employment and other opportunities, causes some disadvantaged immigrants to reject assimilation altogether and join opposition groups, such as gangs.  Other more advantaged groups tend to embrace new attitudes and are inspired to achieve success in their new country.  The latter group tend to become naturalized citizens, which results in higher educational achievement, better English language ability, higher representation in high-wage sectors, and additional work experience than occurs with their less able cohorts.

Research shows that between 1993 and 2010, naturalized citizens earned between 50 and 70 percent more than noncitizens and also were employed at higher rates in 2010 and 2011.  Learning to speak English is an important factor.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau. there were over 31.1 million foreign-born in the United States in 2000, 83% of whom still speak a language other than English at home.  In a 2013 Pew report on second-generation immigrants, a truer test of a family's assimilation or lack thereof, they found that more than 80 percent of second-generation Hispanics and Asian-Americans say they can speak English "very well," while 10 percent say they can speak it "well."

3. Deliberate actions can have incongruent effects.

For his part, President Obama is determined to take unilateral action to achieve his cultural change agenda through executive orders.  One example of his independent action is the 2011 issuance of Executive Order 13583, mandating a diversity program in all federal agencies within 90 days.  On a macro level, in November 2014, Obama announced his Immigration Accountability Executive Action program to expand the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to include more immigrants who had come to the U.S. as children.  He justified these and other executive actions on the basis that diversity is a good thing, united families are the basic unit of our society, social and economic well-being results when we capitalize on differences, and improved workforce quality will achieve a return on investment through improved HR practices that will in turn maximize competitive advantages by acquiring better talent.

Based on decades of experience, none of the expressed benefits of these actions can be guaranteed.  Mandating diversity in the workplace cannot guarantee acceptance and inclusion.  Moreover, the annual admixture of a million legal immigrants and an equal or greater number of illegal immigrants cannot predictably contribute to the attainment of Obama's preconceived social engineering goals.

4. Infusing new workers into the labor pool has economic consequences.

We now know that cultural assimilation processes do not work according to rules that can be managed and individual decisions to acculturate or not are beyond the purview of any government agency.  The best ways known to gain a modicum of influence over the fluidity of contemporary immigration effects is to slow it down and develop better assimilation processes.  It is as Jeff Sessions stated: "high immigration rates help the financial elite (and the political elite who receive their contributions) by keeping wages down and profits up."  George Borjas found that by increasing the supply of labor between 1980 and 2000, immigration reduced the average annual earnings of native-born men by an estimated $1,700 (4%).  At the present time, when unemployment is still high and so many people are receiving public assistance, the influx of additional migrants can exacerbate an already intolerable situation.  It is as Paul Samuelson stated: "Wages fall when immigrants increase the size of the workforce."

5. Rapid progress for progress's sake could have deleterious consequences.

The most optimistic future scenario is the concept of an "omega point," as described by Teilhard de Chardin, which, simply stated, is the notion that the universe is constantly evolving toward increased levels of complexity that eventually reach a point where everything is absolutely, completely transformed into a higher level of social synthesis.  A corollary to this evolutionary idea is that diversity and immigration are good things and, despite some setbacks or discontinuities, the end results are worth the travail.

A second futuristic view was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's concept of a "tipping point," through which he posed that a series of small changes or incidents can eventually become significant enough to cause a larger, more important change.  Applying this concept to U.S. immigration suggests that the policies and practices of the past had consequences that were largely unpredictable.  The implementation of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the system of national-origin quotas, perhaps more than any other action, has changed the ethnic make-up of the United States from its European origins to a diverse, multicultural society, where national consensus and heterogeneity are sought but elusive.

Rather than accepting Obama's view that immigration and diversity can cure many of our ills, a smarter choice would be to slow down, learn from past experience, and concentrate on developing an assimilation process that minimizes structural and motivational barriers to realizing the American dream.  Allowing too many people to enter a system that cannot cope with the volume is grossly irresponsible.  It only shows that policy-makers misunderstand our history and ignorantly repeat failed past policies that steal the birthrights of future generations of Americans.  Such an immigration policy cannot be sustained.

Jay Partin, PhD, is managing director of the Diameter Group, Ltd., a management consulting firm, and can be reached at jpartin@diametergroup.com.