The wrong way to think about immigration.

Photographer: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Three Facts Missing From Immigration Debate

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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Facts and public perceptions aren't always in alignment. Eventually, facts do percolate into the public consciousness, but it always seems to take some time. The process is slowed dramatically by ideology, which makes people believe what they want to believe instead of looking at the bald facts. 

For example, take the rhetoric of U.S. politicians about immigration. There are three basic facts that don't seem to have entered the public debate. 

In the recent televised Republican primary debate, Donald Trump said that Mexico is sending "the bad ones" to the U.S. This wasn't the first time he has claimed that Mexican immigrants are likely to be criminals. Now, Trump's assertion is clearly xenophobic and inflammatory, and will appeal to racist sentiments. But it also happens to be false. 

The first big fact about immigration is that immigrants, including Hispanic immigrants, don't commit much crime. In 2007, the Immigration Policy Center found that Hispanic immigrants are incarcerated at lower rates than native-born Americans. The report states:

[F]or every ethnic group without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants…This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population.

Many other studies confirm the same finding. So Trump, and every other politician who has tried to raise an alarm about supposed immigrant criminality, is flying in the face of the facts. Some conservatives, such as Rupert Murdoch, understand this very well. But, judging by Trump's popularity among Republican primary voters, this fact has failed to make its way into the collective consciousness of a significant part of the American public. 

The second big fact about immigration is that there isn't a substantial inflow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. at this time. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2014 was 11.3 million (out of a total U.S. population of 318.9 million), or about 3.5 percent of the total. In 2011, it was 11.5 million. In 2007, at its peak, it was 12.2 million. 

In other words, illegal immigration isn't just decreasing. It's less than zero. Obviously some immigrants still come here illegally, but their numbers are not large enough to make up for those who leave every year. Another fact: unauthorized immigration has been negative since 2007. 

This means that the whole U.S. debate over immigration is skewed. Politicians spend a lot of time arguing over the notion of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Legislators endlessly wrangle over the DREAM Act. But with undocumented immigration now declining, this aspect of the issue is less and less numerically important when compared with legal immigration. That is still going strong, but U.S. rules now exclude far too many willing and needed workers. Providing a path to citizenship for those 11.3 million unauthorized residents is important, but lowering barriers to legal immigration is now a much bigger deal. 

The third big fact about immigration is that the sources of immigration have shifted a great deal in the last few years. As recently as 2008, immigration from Mexico dominated. Now, immigration from Asia has passed it in dramatic fashion. The country that sends the U. S. the most immigrants each year now is China. The No. 2 source is India. Mexico is No. 3. And the trend lines look clear. The great Latin American immigration boom is ending, and the great Asian immigration boom is just beginning.

This has important implications for policy. It means that the debate about U.S.-Mexican border security is becoming irrelevant. But more importantly, it means the U.S. needs to start issuing more green cards to keep the flow of immigrants coming. With immigrants flooding across the border from Mexico in the early 2000s, the idea of recruiting more immigrants seemed silly to many; it was much more important to think about ensuring fair treatment for those who were already in the U.S. But with that deluge slowing to a trickle, the U.S. needs to actively recruit more immigrants from places such as India and China. That means more green cards. 

That's because the U.S. definitely needs immigrants. The U.S. population is aging, and in order to pay for retirees, the country needs young people. If the country focused on high-skilled immigrants -- perhaps using a points-based system like Canada's -- the U.S. could simultaneously reduce income inequality and boost the nation's standard of living. 

So next time you see politicians debating immigration, remember these three facts: Immigrants are quite law-abiding, with essentially all of them now coming to the U.S. legally; they are now coming mostly from Asia; and the U.S. will have to recruit more of them. It is always good to have facts that are up-to-date.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net