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The Myth of the U.S. Immigration Crisis

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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With the rise of Donald Trump, anti-immigrant sentiment has reached levels not seen in decades in the U.S. Anger against illegal immigration and fear of refugees, previously confined to the fringes of the Republican base, are now at the center of public dialogue. Among some pundits and intellectuals, the response has been to try to accommodate this anger -- to see immigration as a problem that needs solving. For example, my friend Josh Barro at Business Insider recently wrote an article lambasting Democrats for failing to have a coherent program for immigration reform.
QuickTake Immigration Reform

I think this is wrong. Yes, I’m in favor of improving the U.S. immigration system -- my proposal is to implement a skills-based system like Canada’s. Yes, the current system is suboptimal in a number of ways. But by treating immigration as an urgent problem in need of dramatic policy action, centrists are conceding way too much. The current situation is not an emergency at all.

Illegal immigration to the U.S. ended a decade ago and, according to the Pew Research Center, has been zero or negative since its peak in 2007:

Here Yesterday, Gone Today
Annual change in unauthorized immigrant population.
 
Source: Pew Research Center

About a million undocumented immigrants left the country in the Great Recession. But even after the end of the recession, illegal immigration didn’t resume.

Why? One reason might be economic -- even after growth resumed, there was no return to the mania of the bubble years. Another reason is that Mexicans -- both undocumented and otherwise -- are flocking back to Mexico. Despite the country’s drug-related violence, it’s starting to look more attractive as a place to live. The economy has improved, and the fertility rate has fallen a lot, meaning that young Mexicans are needed back in Mexico to take over family businesses and take care of aging parents:

Family Planning
Births per woman in Mexico.
 
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

A third reason is increased border enforcement. For years, many Americans demanded that the border with Mexico be secured in order to stem illegal immigration. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did exactly that. Obama, especially, stepped up the pace of deportation:

Round Trip
Annual deportations of unauthorized immigrants.
 
Source: Pew Research Center

Even if you think there was an illegal immigration problem in the early 2000s, that issue is greatly diminished. If you’re 45 years old now, net illegal immigration stopped back when you were 35.

Those are the facts. But what about sentiment? If Americans are up in arms about the dangers posed by immigrants, those feelings are worth paying attention to. But here too, surveys show that there isn’t really a problem. The percent of Americans telling Gallup that immigration should be decreased went up after 9/11, spiked again during the Great Recession, but has since fallen to about a third:

Fewer Hard Feelings
Percent of Americans saying immigration should be decreased.
 
Source: Gallup

As of 2016, a clear majority say that immigration should either be kept at its present level (38 percent) or increased (21 percent) -- hardly a mandate for immigration restriction.

Meanwhile, Pew reports that the number of Americans saying immigrants “strengthen the country” has risen to an all-time high of 59 percent, while the fraction saying they “burden the country” has fallen from 66 percent to 33 percent since 1994. Even among Republicans, the number saying immigrants strengthen the country has remained roughly constant, and is 5 percentage points higher now than in the mid-1990s.

So there is no big anti-immigrant wave in the U.S. Yes, Trump was elected president. But there were many issues that were important to Trump voters, including the economy, foreign policy, and terrorism -- the election shouldn’t be interpreted as a mandate for a crackdown on immigrants.

Instead, the current anti-immigrant fervor among Trump’s hardcore supporters might simply be a brief spasm of anger by a strident minority. A similar phenomenon occurred in California in the 1990s. Faced with a large inflow of unauthorized immigrants, the state elected anti-immigration governor Pete Wilson in 1990. In 1994 voters enacted Proposition 187, which denied education and health care to the undocumented. But the furor died after a decade, Proposition 187 was mostly blocked by the courts, and eventually even white voters in California veered to the left.

So to all the pundits and thinkers scrambling to find some way to accommodate what they perceive as an anti-immigrant wave, I say: Think again. The outpouring represents a loud, angry minority. And the problem that minority is angry about has been waning for a decade now. Eventually, as people realize that illegal immigration is over, the furor will probably ease.

In the meantime, the U.S. shouldn’t succumb to the urge to enact draconian policies. The possibility of a police state poses a far greater danger to the average American than the imagined threat of immigration. The Democrats’ policy of resisting overreaction and sticking to the status quo doesn’t represent a lack of vision -- it represents a sensible, prudent refusal to overreact to an imaginary crisis.

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

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

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