Why the U.S. Is Stuck With a Fight Over Immigration: A Debate

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- No issue these days draws as much attention, and heated rhetoric, in the U.S. as immigration. Indeed, immigration has jumped to the top of polls as the most important problem facing the nation, ahead of dissatisfaction with America’s political leadership. Bloomberg Opinion columnists Tyler Cowen and Noah Smith recently met online to debate the role immigration plays in the nation’s economic and political life.

Noah Smith: Tyler, in a recent article, you predicted that President Donald Trump might shift the U.S. toward a more closed immigration policy in the long term. Though polls show increasing support for immigrants and immigration, you noted a paper showing that thinking about immigrants makes Americans tend to support redistribution less. Your conclusion was that although most Americans might have warm feelings toward immigrants in the abstract, the minority who are intensely anti-immigrant will prevail.

I think there are reasons to doubt this conclusion. The first reason is that illegal immigration and low-skilled immigration — the types that people tend to feel most negatively about — are both way down from a decade ago. Because these unpopular inflows are simply less of an issue, the pressure for restriction might abate quickly. Meanwhile, with U.S. fertility rates low, the U.S. needs skilled immigrants to come in and pay taxes to support the comfortable retirements of the elderly native-born. We might be seeing a situation similar to the mid-1800s, in which the needs of the U.S. economy override a brief bout of nativism.

Tyler Cowen: I still don’t see a renewed dose of immigration increases in America’s immediate or even midterm future. Immigration has become a major issue all around Europe, and pretty uniformly it is helping right-wing parties, not the left. Democrats fear this scenario for the U.S., even if immigration is polling pretty well at the moment. And so Democrats will keep some distance from the issue, more than one might have thought a few years ago.

Democrats also have begun to rethink the demographic-dividend strategy, based on the premise that immigrants will continue to vote for the Democrats in disproportionate numbers. According to one estimate, in 2016 perhaps as many as 28 percent of Latinos voted Republican, more than many observers had been expecting. The very successes of assimilation mean that many immigrants will end up voting Republican. Furthermore, a lot of recent legal arrivals are among the strongest opponents of illegal immigration into this country. I increasingly doubt that Democrats will be willing to bet the farm on a political strategy to boost immigration.

NS: I agree with you that the idea of importing Democratic voters is both a bad idea and a wrong idea. Texas, where Republican candidates often win more than 40 percent of the Latino vote, seems like the most plausible future.

I also think that the age of mass Latino immigration is now over. It was mostly over even before Trump, and a combination of Trump’s harsh treatment of migrants and improving conditions in Central America seem likely to halt even the trickle that remains.

But that doesn’t mean America’s need for immigrants will go away. With an aging population and falling fertility, the country needs the tax dollars that skilled immigrants provide, in order to support pensions and local government budgets. U.S. companies also need skilled immigrants in order to maintain technological dominance. And shrinking, declining cities need immigrants to keep them from becoming ghost towns. Those needs aren’t going to go away any time soon. So I think that there will be demand for continued inflows of immigrants, unlike during the mid-20th-century baby boom when fertility was high.

TC: I fully agree that we should increase immigration into the U.S. I just don’t think we will. And surely you would admit we follow all kinds of other policies that don’t make sense in economic terms. Right now people just feel too nervous and too polarized about the cultural issues, and I think that will prevent further progress on immigration.

We agree that Latino immigration has peaked. Where then should the next wave of immigrants come from? Perhaps South Asia and Africa are the logical choices, but I don’t think those are the easiest regions to sell to the voters, including Democrats. That both regions have significant Muslim populations doesn’t make this any easier, even though Muslim immigration to the U.S. has in general gone quite well.

Are so many Europeans keen to come here? I don’t quite see it. Eastern Europeans would be a logical choice, but it’s also well understood that Polish and Romanian immigration turned out to be one motivating factor behind Brexit. These days, I just see too much political risk aversion.

NS: The next wave of immigration would — and probably should — come from China and India, and to some extent the Philippines. Those have been among the largest source countries in recent years, and immigration tends to follow on itself. Both countries have environmental and political downsides that make the U.S. an attractive option for skilled workers, and I think this will continue to be true. Politically, Asian immigrants are viewed as positively as European immigrants. Even Republicans might view Chinese immigration favorably, given the existence of a strong conservative current within the Chinese-American community.

As for the political sensitivity of immigration, I wonder if the issue isn’t simply a stalking horse for divisions between groups of native-born Americans — religious versus nonreligious, black versus white, urban versus rural, etc. The parallel I’m thinking of is the period before the Civil War, when the anti-immigration Know-Nothing movement suddenly flared up in the North. After the war, anti-immigrant sentiment essentially vanished.

I now see the U.S. as being in a cold civil war. We may not fight with guns — in fact, I’ll be surprised if we do — but one way or another, the contest between two competing visions of America is now going to the finish line. Afterward, perhaps in a decade or so, I wouldn’t be surprised if the winning side starts bringing in immigrants again, for economic reasons.

TC: If we really are in a cold civil war, as you suggest, that does not bode well for more immigration. As for Chinese migrants, I think, like Australia and New Zealand, we are due for some scandals concerning how well Chinese immigrant-spies have penetrated core American institutions. That won’t help the cause of Chinese immigration.

You yourself note that last time, in the 19th century, it took a massive Civil War to shift the coalitions back toward favoring more immigration. These days, our ideological conflicts don’t seem to have finish lines, and the American system of government is strongly set up to favor blocks and veto powers. On immigration, I think we’ll be lucky to maintain the status quo.

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

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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