35 North America: Population Geography I – The Immigration Debate

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015, he shocked many Americans, and delighted many others, with a stridently anti-immigrant message:

“When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity…. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems…. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Trump’s message catered to those who feared that immigration rates were at a dangerous and unprecedented level, and upset those who believed his message was unprecedented in its divisiveness. Of course, any student of American history knows that current rates of immigration to the United States are not unprecedented, and that ugly and divisive debates about immigration are also nothing new.

Immigration to the United States has ebbed and flowed over the years, largely due to changes in American immigration policies, as well as to fluctuations in both the American and the global economy. As a result, the percentage of foreign-born residents of the United States has risen and fallen over the years. It peaked in 1890, when 14.8% of Americans had been born in a foreign country. It fell to its lowest level in 1970, when just 4.7% of Americans were foreign-born. Throughout much of American history, that number has usually hovered around 11%. As of the 2010 census, 12.9% of Americans were born in a foreign country, just a little above the historic average.


Cartoon by Thomas Nast, showing unruly American.

Immigration is nothing new, nor is resistance to it. Every March, millions of Americans deck themselves out in green, and flock to parades, festivals, and parties to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. They are celebrating Irish culture, and the contributions of Irish immigrants to American culture. The Irish were not always so celebrated in America. This cartoon, entitled “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things,” was published in 1871, and drawn by Thomas Nast. It depicts an Irishman as an unruly, apelike creature, waving a liquor bottle as he sets off a powder keg. Nast was infamous for his anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiments, but he was not, in his time, regarded as a dangerous radical. Nast was one of the most popular political cartoonists of his day, and his anti-Irish attitude was shared by millions of Americans. Irish-Americans were not the first group to face an anti-immigrant backlash, and they certainly wouldn’t be the last. Immigrants from Poland, Italy, Japan, China, Mexico, and dozens of other countries have faced similar discrimination.

Here, we will examine anti-immigration and pro-immigration arguments. It is a nuanced debate. Some are hardliners in their anti-immigrant sentiments, believing that immigration should be greatly reduced, or even eliminated entirely, and that all undocumented immigrants should be deported. Others agree that immigration is necessary and inevitable, but that immigration rates should be reduced and immigration rules more strictly enforced. On the other end of the spectrum, many argue that immigration is beneficial to the United States, and that current immigration rates should be at least maintained, and perhaps even increased. Many believe that undocumented immigrants should be given a clear pathway to citizenship.


The Anti-Immigration Argument


We’ll begin with two very common anti-immigration arguments that don’t hold up under scrutiny. Many anti-immigration advocates argue that immigration leads to increased crime rates (as evidenced in the excerpt from the Trump speech above), and that immigrants are a drain on public funds, utilizing many public services, but paying few taxes.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to argue that immigrants commit no crimes. That said, the evidence suggests that not only does immigration not lead to an increase in crime, but that immigrants are, in fact, less likely to commit crimes than those born in the United States. As for the public funding debate, a sudden influx of immigrants into a place can indeed put a strain on public resources. This is particularly true in public education. Still, in the larger picture, immigrants are hardly a drain on the tax base. They most certainly pay taxes. Everyone is obligated to pay sales taxes – there is no way around that – and immigrants pay property taxes, either directly through property they own, or indirectly through property they rent. Documented immigrants must pay federal and state income taxes, just like everyone else. The widely held belief that undocumented immigrants do not pay income taxes is untrue. Hoping to avoid a crime that may lead to their deportation, and to create a paper trail that may aid in their eventual citizenship, most undocumented immigrants do file a tax return. In 2015, it was estimated that undocumented immigrants paid $13.6 billion in federal income taxes.

A far more sound argument against immigration can be found in the labor market. Increased immigration inevitably leads to increased job competition and wage deflation. It is often argued that immigrants take jobs that native citizens are unable or unwilling to take, and there is certainly some merit to that argument. Still, there is no denying that increased immigration means that many native citizens will eventually find themselves competing for a job with an immigrant. Since many immigrants come from countries that are poorer than the United States, they are often willing to work for much lower wages than native citizens, and are thus more attractive to employers.

Additionally, increased immigration will drive wages down because of fundamental economic laws. If the supply of anything increases, its value decreases. This is why gold is more expensive than cardboard – one is rare, the other is not. As immigration increases the supply of labor, it becomes cheaper, and its value declines. Put simply, more immigration means more labor, which means lower wages. This has long been true in the blue-collar workforce, and is becoming increasingly true in white-collar fields as well.

Finally, cultural forces play a very important, although often unspoken, role in the anti-immigration movement. Geographers often use two terms when examining the cultural forces involved in immigration: acculturation and assimilation. Acculturation is a process in which immigrants shed some of their ethnic traits, while absorbing some traits of the mainstream culture. Assimilation is complete acculturation, where immigrants shed all of their ethnic traits, and fully adopt the traits of the mainstream.

In America, acculturation is inevitable. The children and grandchildren of immigrants will shed some of their ethnic traits, and replace them with the traits of classmates, coworkers, friends, and neighbors who are not part of their ethnic group (often to the dismay of their parents and grandparents). Total assimilation by ethnic groups, however, is rare. And if it does happen, it often takes many generations. As a result, a place that receives lots of immigrants will inevitably look different. The civic, religious, economic, and political institutions of the place will change. The faces, the food, the music, and dozens of other cultural traits will never be the same. For many Americans, this is a source of tremendous dismay. They see their towns and neighborhoods become less and less recognizable. That is why older Americans are more likely to be anti-immigrant than younger Americans. They have longer memories and often a greater sense of cultural change and loss.


The Pro-Immigration Argument

Culture also plays a role in the pro-immigration argument. Advocates of immigration argue that the United States is a multicultural mosaic created by immigration, and that further immigration only serves to enrich that mosaic. They might also argue that the anti-immigrant movement is hypocritical, since the vast majority of Americans are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. But perhaps the strongest pro-immigration arguments are based on profound economic and demographic realities of modern America.

First, there is the labor market. As mentioned above, immigration makes labor cheaper, and while that is not popular with workers, it is quite popular with employers. Some blue-collar industries, notably agriculture and food processing, would simply not be profitable in their current forms without access to cheap immigrant labor. And, as mentioned above, immigrants are increasingly filling white-collar jobs as well. It is difficult, if not almost impossible, to go to an American hospital, university, research lab, or engineering firm, and not find an immigrant working as a doctor, nurse, technician, professor, scientist, or engineer. Among the immigrants who have arrived in the United States since 2010, 50% have held college degrees. That is significantly higher than the native-born population of the United States, among whom only 30% have college degrees. This process is known as a brain gain, in which wealthy countries successfully draw the best and brightest from the world’s poorer countries.


Behind Lady Liberty.
Photo by Megan Vikla.

Immigrants are important to the current U.S. economy, and they will only grow more vital over time. The current total fertility rate in the United States is 1.87, meaning that the average American woman has just under two children. That is below the replacement rate of 2.1. Without immigration, the population of the United States will eventually begin to decline. Low birth rates are also leading to a rapidly aging population. It is extremely difficult for a country to maintain economic growth without population growth, and an aging population leads to a diminished tax base, as well as decreased rates of production and consumption. Immigration provides a new pool of young workers, consumers, and taxpayers to offset declining birth rates.

Years from now, people may find our current immigration debate profoundly ironic. Today, many people are arguing about how to keep immigrants out of the country. In the not-too-distant future, the United States may very well be trying to figure out how to get more immigrants into the country.

Did You Know?

Thomas Nast is widely regarded as the founding figure of American political cartooning. He invented or popularized national icon Uncle Sam, the donkey and elephant mascots of the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as the modern face of Christmas – Santa Claus. His reputation has been tarnished by his anti-immigrant views. Ironically, Nast was himself an immigrant, having migrated with his family from Germany to New York at the age of six.


Cited and additional Bibliography

Nast, Thomas. 1871. The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things. Harper’s Weekly. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TheUsualIrishWayofDoingThings.jpg. Public Domain.

Vikla, Megan. 2020. Behind Lady Liberty. St. Olaf College, Class of 2021.


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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