The history of immigration and America, lost amidst the more useful myths

Summary: Trump has proposed a drastic reduction in immigration. This is one of his most important policy proposals. Open borders is a core policy of the 1% and hence of both parties and the news media. Here is a look at the lost history of immigration in the US, information they diligently work to conceal from you. The myths are more politically useful.

“{excess workers form} a disposable industrial reserve army … a mass of human material always ready for exploitation.”
— Marx’s Das Capital, expanding upon Friedrich Engels’ insight. They got a few things right.

Immigration

The lost history about immigration into the US

America absorbed high rates of immigration during the rapid growth of the 19thC, with grow fueled by expansion on the frontier (mostly conquests from Mexico and Native Americans). Growth slowed for many reasons after the “closing of the frontier” around 1890. Per capita real US GDP has grown at roughly 2%/year since 1870. But in the 17 years before the 1924 growth was only 1.2%/yr.

The American people understood this, with US elites using immigration to depress wages — and immigrants as strike-breakers. Irresistible pressure grew to restrict immigration. As a result we got the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907 to limit immigration from Japan, the Immigration Act of 1917, the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, and the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. The Great Depression brought even sterner measures by administrative decree: FDR closed the door to immigrants and forced the repatriation of Mexican workers.

After WWII, the shelter on wages from low rates of immigration helped created the middle class in America (or re-created it, after the deflation and frequent depressions of the late 19th century crushed America’s craftsman and small farmers). Unions grew and wages began the long rise. The 1% worked to reverse these gains. By 1970 their efforts began to bear fruit as we forgot that the middle class existed behind the shelter of a wall around America, and we allowed our elites to slowly open the borders. The news media floods America with pro-immigrant propaganda (e.g., adopting the term “dreamers” for illegal immigrants).

Obama on Immigration

The results of open borders

Now we live with the result. By 1990 unions were crushed, immigrants flooded in with few limitations, and real wages for the unskilled plummeted. Even wages of high-tech workers are affected (see this and this about H1b visas). This is Economics 101: supply rising faster than demand, with the wages (the price of labor) adjusting.

Since 1999 per capita real GDP growth slowed to roughly 1%/year. Real per capita personal income has fallen every decade since the 1960s (see the sad story here). Much of the southwest is regressing back to a client-patron political system).

There is another dimension, untouchable in the news media, of little concern to the 1% (and hence to our leaders), but instinctively understood by most Americans: immigration is one of the great forces reshaping nations. People bring their culture with them. In small amounts this stimulates and strengthens societies able to absorb them — as the US has done better than almost anybody since Rome. At some point, however, our ability to cope becomes overwhelmed. Social cohesion diminishes; social conflict often rises.

Just as we’re repeating the Gilded Age (wealth and power concentrating in the 1%), we’re repeating the slow growth in social tensions that massive immigration produced in the early 20th C.

Lessons learned

Lessons learned: we see how America works

Immigration (like war) shows the bipartisan nature of US politics, the pride and joy of centrist political gurus. Republicans love immigrants as cheap labor (social conservatives stay at the back of the policy bus). Democrats love immigrants as potential voters (those concerned about wages of the working poor stay at the back of the bus). Both respond to America’s real stakeholders, the 1%, for whom open borders are a core policy priority.

When it comes to the interests of the 1%, American politics often becomes an echo, not a choice.

A look at our future if we keep the borders open

Immigrants as fraction of US population

Using data from US Census reports, the Center for Immigration Studies reveals some powerful trends . See their report for sources and methodology. Also see the Census graphs here.

  • Total net immigration (the difference between the number coming and going) will increase steadily over the next 45 years, totaling 64 million.
  • Absent a change in current policy, the Census Bureau projects that in 2023 the nation’s immigrant population (legal and illegal) will reach 14.8% (51 million) of the total U.S. population — the highest share ever recorded in American history.
  • The bureau also projects that the immigrant population will grow nearly four times faster than the native-born population, reaching 15.8% (57 million) of the nation’s population in 2030, 17.1% (65 million) in 2040, and 18.8% (78 million) in 2060.
  • To place these numbers into historical context, as recently as 1990, immigrants were 7.9% (20 million) of the total U.S. population.
  • The nation’s total population will grow to 417 million by 2060 — 108 million more than in 2010This increase is roughly equivalent to adding the combined populations of California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Massachusetts to the country.
  • The new projections indicate that, absent a change in immigration policy, immigrants who will arrive in the future plus their descendants will account for roughly three-fourths of future U.S. population increase.

A four-fold increase in immigrants as a fraction of the total population would create a severe shock to America, even when occurring over 90 years. That would take us beyond the point at which popular opposition forced “closing the door” in the early 20th century.

The revolt against immigration begins again

From Donald Trump’s campaign platform.

Trump platform: immigrationUntil the 2008 crash and the great recession, the bipartisan consensus on open borders pushed debate about this out to the political fringes. Economic stress brought it to the mainstream. In the election Trump has brought it into the center ring of public debate. Now Trump begins to implement his promises: “Trump Supports Plan to Cut Legal Immigration by Half“. The widespread response of journalists is automatic: they lie. The long struggle of America to manage immigration must be hidden and replaced with myths. This is why the public’s confidence in newspapers and the news media has been dropping since the 1970s (see Gallup).

How much support will immigration restrictions get from other politicians and the public? How strongly will our elites resist? We can only guess at how this will play out. This is one of the most important policy decisions for America today. Much depends on how we choose.

Which of the world’s large nations have the most immigrants?

From the UN database of information about international migration.  Saudi Arabia is a special case, with its “guest” workers. Canada and Australia encourage immigration. Germany and America are the the next tier, with levels of immigrants quickly dropping among the other large nations. Click to enlarge the graph.

Immigration by nation

For More Information

This excellent Pew report says that roughly 11 million of the 40 million immigrants are illegals (also see this larger report). For a detailed analysis of these matters see this excellent (as usual) report by the Congressional Research Service: “U.S. Immigration Policy: Chart Book of Key Trends” by William A. Kandel (December 2014). Here are links to government studies about immigration and its effects.

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7 thoughts on “The history of immigration and America, lost amidst the more useful myths

  1. An anecdotal note. Something that’s bothered me for many years now is that, when I call any (larger) business, the first thing I hear is “for English, press 1”. Aside from my usual first sarcastic thought — What country am I in? — I’ve come to realize that for any immigrant (legal or otherwise) the message is clear. You don’t have to assimilate into American society, we will accommodate you! This is the difference between those immigration waves of 50-150 years ago and this one.

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    1. pgrommit,

      You bring up an important difference between our successful assimilation of immigrants during the 1880-1930 period and today. Then there were open borders combined with strong public policies to assimilate immigrants. Schools and other institutions were dedicated to making them Americans, not changing the nature of America.

      Today’s Left is doing the opposite, using immigrants to forcibly reshape US culture. Or rather, to wreck it. Since their goals and means do not appear to connect. For example, bringing in so many people from strongly patriarchal cultures (i.e., avowedly anti-feminist).

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    2. If they’d had these systems in 1910 much of the Midwest would have probably had the option to press zwei fur Deutsch. I understand the point you’re raising but there were widespread non-English presses and trade groups and everything, even among populations that are now considered entirely integrated.

      What I think would be more successful is to present an inclusive message of being an American, but then nowadays I (native-born, white as a sheet) often feel like “American” now, specifically, means a constellation of signifiers that don’t include me very well. I suppose this suits both sides, but it seems bad for “American identity” in general.

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    3. SF,

      “I understand the point you’re raising but there were widespread non-English presses and trade groups and everything”

      No, I don’t believe you understand the point I’m making. Government policy — and many non-govt institutions — were unashamedly assimilationist. And they weren’t gentle about it.

      “What I think would be more successful is to present an inclusive message of being an American,”

      How is that different than policy today?

      “but it seems bad for “American identity” in general.”

      I don’t know about an “American identity.” But the Founders were afraid above all of factionalism, which might shatter our social cohesion. That’s where we going — by policy. The rocky history of large multi-ethnic states suggests that this is quite mad.

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    4. I’ll have to read up more about these assimilationist policies. (Any book reccs?)

      “I don’t know about an “American identity.” But the Founders were afraid above all of factionalism, which might shatter our social cohesion.”

      I’ve been struggling thoughtfully with a reply here for a while, so I will summarize: My concern is about the rhetorical conflating of certain habits and cultural activities of some present-day Americans as being the “Real American Way of Life,” and getting valorized at the expense of the way of life of other people, presumably less authentically American. I think this encourages factionalization but is rarely remarked on; it’s just taken as a given. One thing I liked about the Democratic convention in ’16 was how “American” it appeared.

      Also, re: your question a few articles back about optimistic outlooks in media, I’ll go comment there instead of here, but I did see it.

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    5. SF,

      “My concern is about the rhetorical conflating of certain habits and cultural activities of some present-day Americans as being the “Real American Way of Life,” and getting valorized at the expense of the way of life of other people,”

      The massive engines of Hollywood, the Federal government, most NGO’s, academia, and the school are all fighting that battle. Perhaps you should worry less about the success of the big battalions look at the other side of the question.

      Assimilation requires some sense of whom we are. The PC dogma says that we are nothing but a stray set of ideals (dimly understood by most people) and respect for other cultures. Is that enough? The short and violent history of most large multi-ethnic nations suggests some caution before rebuilding America based on a nifty idealistic ideology.

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  2. New research about immigrants experience in America.

    Can discrimination contribute to feelings of radicalization? Lack of cultural identity, marginalization related to Muslim immigrants’ support for extremism.” In ScienceDaily, 5 August 2017.

    This looks at a superficial aspect of assimilation. As usual academics focus on “discrimination” as the master narrative. Looking at deeper dynamics risks seeing things that disturb the approved narrative.  Which is that immigration is easy, once nativist-racist-ethnocentrist beliefs are suppressed.

    1. Open borders.
    2. People come here.
    3. They automatically assimilate.
    4. Better America!

    That is an important difference between our successful assimilation of immigrants during the 1880-1930 period and today. Then we had open borders combined with strong public policies to assimilate immigrants. Schools and other institutions were dedicated to making them Americans, not changing the nature of America. And there was unabashed discrimination.

    Today’s Left is doing the opposite, using immigrants to forcibly reshape US culture. Or rather, to wreck it — since their goals and means do not appear to connect. For example, bringing in so many people from strongly patriarchal cultures (i.e., avowedly anti-feminist) directly conflicts with their other goals for America. It is as if they want conflict and breaking our social cohesion.

    Step back and think about this. Tossing people into a slow-growth economy creates stress on them and us.  Tossing them into a society that despises their values also creates stress — e.g.,

    • religious fundamentalism conflicts with BOTH our beliefs in multiculturalism & universal human rights.
    • patriarchal culture vs. individualism and feminism.

    Why does anyone expects this to work without a powerful policy scaffolding?  It’s quite delusional.

    Like

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