Don't Worry About Immigrants' Ability to Succeed

Dire predictions have accompanied every influx of newcomers—including the Jews—in American history. And yet these are the very people who have helped build the country.

Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images.

Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images.

March 18 2019
About the author

Linda Chavez is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and the director of the Becoming American Initiative.

Nicholas M. Gallagher’s thoughtful essay on immigration raises important questions often overlooked in the current debate. He notes, rightly, that the headlines about Central Americans crossing our southern border should be understood in the context of previous ethnic migrations over the last 150 years. He’s also right in arguing that the distinction between migrants and refugees, a relatively recent concept that has now become rooted in law, isn’t a particularly useful way to distinguish among the various people who wish to come to America.

Ironically, although President Trump and others rail against an invasion of illegal immigrants bringing crime and drugs and seeking to displace American workers, there is scant evidence for such claims. To the contrary, illegal immigration is at or near a 40-year low; just over 400,000 migrants were apprehended at the border in 2018, compared with more than 1.6 million in 2000.

There is, however, a growing problem of families from Central America crossing the border to claim asylum. In February of this year, the border patrol took into custody more than 76,000 such migrants, including some 40,000 adults traveling with children and unaccompanied minors—the largest number in over a decade. That crisis is real, but the president’s attempt to discourage more from coming by building a wall and enacting draconian measures to separate children from their parents is not working.

Neither, however, would some of the policy solutions advanced by Reihan Salam in his new book, Civil War or Melting Pot? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders—solutions that Gallagher, who devotes a section of his essay to the book, finds appealing.

I’ll return to this point, but first some general remarks.


There are two problems with our immigration laws, one having to do with the asylum policy and the other with our need for immigrant workers to fill labor-market niches for which Americans lack qualifications or are otherwise ill-suited.

Our asylum policy, which at the moment is drawing the greatest attention, is, as Gallagher suggests, an outgrowth of America’s laudable history of welcoming people fleeing political, religious, and social persecution. Unlike refugees, who go through a lengthy and difficult process to gain entry (including certification by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), anyone with a credible claim, regardless of how he or she enters the country, can register for asylum upon entry or up to a year thereafter.

The laws governing asylum are thus in serious need of rethinking. But to suggest that tens of thousands of Central American adults are risking a long, dangerous trek north with youngsters in tow merely to find better-paying job is to ignore what is actually going on in the Northern Triangle. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been poor throughout their histories. Civil wars, political corruption, and natural disasters have exacerbated the endemic poverty and lawlessness. But the families now coming to the U.S. are mostly fleeing drug cartels and gangs.

The concentration of drug-production and -trafficking in the Northern Triangle and parts of Mexico—itself an unintended byproduct of the success of U.S. interdiction in the 1980s and 1990s, which drove much of the drug traffic away from air and sea routes toward the land route through Central America—has rendered whole swaths of these countries as dangerous as war zones. Homicide rates in El Salvador and Honduras are among the highest in the world, with drug lords forcing children as young as seven to participate and extorting bribes from their parents and others in the community for “protection” from rival gangs—to the tune, according to a study by the Honduran newspaper La Prensa, of an estimated $391 million a year. Families with members working in the U.S become especially easy targets of gangs demanding “taxes” on the remittances sent home by the workers.

True, the problems faced by these Central American families are similar to those in other parts of the world. True, too, America cannot accept everyone fleeing chaos and violence. I would argue, however, that we should take greater responsibility for those in our backyard than for others who live a half-world away—and not solely for altruistic reasons but because our futures are inextricably linked.


So what can be done? One immediate solution is to revamp our asylum policy to encourage those with legitimate fears of persecution to register their claims without showing up at crowded ports of entry, or worse, entering without permission between designated border crossings. But that is just a start.

The Obama administration, which made many mistakes in its handling of immigration policy, nevertheless did better than the current administration with the problem of asylum seekers. In 2014, when a flood of unaccompanied minors overwhelmed the southern border, the White House launched public-information and advertising campaigns in Central America to discourage parents from sending their unaccompanied children. Vice-President Biden traveled to the region to meet with officials, and the administration worked with Mexico to halt Central Americans from coming into that country. Congress did its part as well, appropriating additional aid to the region, including for repatriating minors. By the end of the summer, the rates fell back to normal levels.

Today, even if a similar decline could be achieved in the number of asylum-seekers at the border, there is already a huge backlog—more than 800,000 cases as of January—of claims waiting to be adjudicated. It is not feasible, or humane, to persist, as the president has done, in the effort to discourage future flows by detaining as many asylum seekers as possible for as long as possible in order to convince claimants to give up and voluntarily return home. We need a new system for judging legitimate claims expeditiously and uniformly, and we need more immigration judges.


But the best solution is to help change conditions in the home countries that are driving migrants to our border. Last year, the United States gave only $180 million in aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, mostly for drug interdiction. President Trump has threatened to cut off even this modest amount going forward even as he also plans, over the objections of Congress, to spend nearly $6 billion in building parts of the wall in this fiscal year and has requested $8.6 billion in next year’s budget.

If even a fraction of those sums were spent improving the infrastructure necessary for encouraging investment and creating jobs in the region, and for a coordinated effort to fight the drug cartels (as we did earlier in Colombia), far fewer Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans would leave their homes.

Mexico, the leading source of immigration to the U.S. for more than a half-century, offers an example of what can happen when conditions at home improve. In the last few years, thanks to both stronger border enforcement and increasing economic opportunities at home, net Mexican migration has fallen below zero, with more Mexicans leaving the U.S. than settling here. Birthrates are also falling throughout Latin America, and education levels are rising; this, too, will reduce the pressure to migrate.


There is, however, a paradox here, and it brings me to the second problem with our immigration laws. The fact that trends in Latin America are looking up may signal less than rosy consequences for the United States. The reason is simple: notwithstanding Reihan Salam’s claims in Melting Pot or Civil War?, this country still needs immigrant workers who don’t necessarily have college degrees. In that respect, Nicholas Gallagher places too much credence in Salam’s argument that (as Gallagher puts it) “the blue-collar jobs that awaited the first-generation immigrants [of previous eras] and let them build a home no longer exist, and . . . the escalator that once lifted their children from factory floor to executive suite may well be broken.”

I’ve long argued that U.S. immigration law should be altered to allow for greater numbers of skills-based immigrants. But we need workers across a broad range of skills: that is, not just scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs but also agricultural, meat-processing, and construction workers as well as janitors, gardeners, health aides, and others who may be defined as low-skilled but are still necessary in our complex economy.

You needn’t take my word for it. Work requiring less than a B.A. still accounts for two-thirds of all jobs and will likely continue to do so for at least the next decade. According to estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even among the 30 fastest-growing occupations, only eighteen will require a college degree or higher, while nine out of ten new jobs will be in the service sector.

Admittedly, the concerns driving our current immigration debate are not only over whether we need workers with, on average, lower educational levels than those of the U.S. population. Both Salam and Gallagher also worry that an influx of lower-skilled immigrants will exacerbate the problem of income inequality by creating a large underclass in competition with both present immigrant cohorts and low-skilled native workers. Salam, who seems to find here a driving impetus behind the recent anti-immigration backlash among whites, fears that things will only get worse: the American-born children of low-skilled immigrants are likely to stay poor, forming a new generation of dissatisfied, angry Americans, most of them non-whites living largely segregated lives.


Need I point out that such dire predictions have accompanied every influx of newcomers throughout our history, most notably the Jews and others from Southern and Eastern Europe who came in the late-19th and early-20th century? And yet, assimilation and upward economic and social mobility has been the rule with virtually every group of immigrants since the nation’s founding.

This is emphatically not to say that the path has been uniform across groups, or that it has been as quick and pain-free as immigration sentimentalists like to suggest. Indeed, neither Salam nor Gallagher acknowledges how rarely immigrants were embraced by their native-born contemporaries—and how often some newcomers themselves remained determinedly insular. German immigrants, for example, tried tenaciously to hold on to their native language and culture during the 19th century and into the 20th, establishing German-language schools not only in places like Wisconsin where they were highly concentrated but in, for example, Colorado. More disturbing, in the 1930s some German Americans joined pro-Nazi groups including the fascist German-funded Bund, which in 1939 notoriously gathered 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden for a “Pro-American Rally” that in reality was an anti-Semitic mob. As for anti-German sentiment among the native-born, it reached a peak during World War I and its aftermath, leading in part to the first “English Only” laws prohibiting the teaching of foreign languages in schools.

Italians, as a group, were also slower than others to assimilate, taking until 1971, nearly 60 years after their peak migration, for their average education levels to catch up with Americans as a whole. In general, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer wrote in Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), and Michael Novak in his The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972), ethnic identification and group identity persisted years after immigrants’ children and grandchildren had for all intents become fully American.

So, too, with Hispanics, whose history in the U.S. is both longer than that of any other group and more recent than that of most European ethnics. Moreover, Hispanics are as heterogeneous as European ethnics, so the blanket designation doesn’t explain much about individual history or the degree of assimilation.

For instance: although government agencies and even private organizations persist in identifying me as “Hispanic” (even when I don’t check that box on forms), my family’s history here dates back for more than 400 years. My mother’s forebears came from England in the 1600s and from Ireland in the 1840s, and my father’s directly from Spain to New Mexico in 1601 and from Spain via Mexico in 1701.

Today, fully two-thirds of Americans of Mexican heritage are U.S.-born, but most migrated here after the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century. Cuban Americans came in two migrations: middle-class Cubans in the early 1960s after Communists took over their island, and poor, less-educated migrants in 1980 when the Castro regime sent some 125,000 people by boat to Florida. Puerto Ricans became Americans after the island was taken by the U.S. in the Spanish-American war; until fairly recently, those who migrated to the mainland, especially to New York and its environs, struggled both economically and socially.

Even among more recent “Hispanic” immigrants, the range is enormous between the better-educated from countries in South America and the less-educated from Central America.

It will take time to know precisely how these various groups will assimilate to their American environment, but, even absent a drastic reduction in the numbers allowed to come, there are grounds for greater optimism than Salam suggests.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center, for example, shows Hispanic group identity fading across generations. Among the third generation, only 77 percent self-identify as Hispanic; among the fourth, barely half. Intermarriage rates are very high—higher than for German or Italian Americans at a similar stage in their history here. Fully 65 percent of married third-generation Hispanics have a non-Hispanic spouse.

Most importantly, Hispanics are closing the education gap with whites. Among second-generation Hispanics over the age of twenty-five, 21 percent are college graduates: fewer than the nearly 40 percent of similarly situated Americans but a significant improvement over the 10 percent in 1991 when I wrote my book Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation.

These trends belie the assumption that the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants will remain poor and unassimilated. Nor do they justify ending or drastically reducing the immigration of low-skilled Hispanic immigrants.

In the end, though, no purely statistical analysis of the skills that immigrants bring with them can account for the less measurable characteristics of an individual’s human capital—like risk-taking, initiative, and perseverance—that often make the difference between who will succeed and who won’t. Immigrants by definition have given up the familiarity of home to seek a better life for themselves and their children in an unknown, sometimes hostile environment. These are the very types of people who have built this country over the last two centuries and who, if given the chance, will continue to do so in the future.

More about: History & Ideas, Immigration, Politics & Current Affairs