The Impact of Immigration on American Society: Looking Backward to the Future
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

In his recent novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth poses the possibility that Charles Lindberg might have been elected president in 1940 and then established a cordial understanding with Nazi Germany. There was certainly a lot of virulent anti-Semitism in the United States at the time, and the hatred of Franklin Roosevelt by the WASP upper class could have led to elite support for a fascist alternative. However, as we look back to the 1930s, it appears that Jews and Catholics were “protected,” at least to some degree, by their alliance with many other segments of American society as part of the New Deal coalition. Ironically, the closure of the door to immigration after 1924 and the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to cities in the North and Midwest may have helped the children of Southern and Eastern European immigrants to climb up the socioeconomic ladder in the middle decades of the 20th century (Lieberson 1980). All of these groups remained in the Democratic Party well into the 1960s, and this unusually broad base discouraged political alliances based on race and nationality alone. The examples of the Dixiecrats of 1948, George Wallace in 1968, and the Southern Strategy of 1972 show that American politics are not immune to appeals to the “race card.” However, recent immigrants and their descendants, when allied with other reform groups, have played a major role in broadening democracy in American society.

Looking to the Future

The demographic challenges of 21st century America are not unique. Immigration, like race, seems to be a continuing source of tension in many societies around the globe. Immigration, especially clandestine immigration, is higher in the United States than in most other industrial countries, but the underlying dynamics are common to almost all industrial societies (Hirschman 2001).

Recent legal immigration to the United States has fluctuated from 700,000 to 1,000,000 new permanent residents in recent years, but with an upward drift that is evident from a decadal perspective (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2006). Only about one half of legal immigrants are new arrivals to the country. The other half consists of adjustments of current residents who were able to obtain an immigrant visa because of a change in employment or family status. Many refugees are eventually able to obtain permanent resident immigrant visas. There is also a large but unknown number of undocumented (illegal) immigrants, perhaps upwards of 300,000 per year.

The major policy discussion in the United States (and elsewhere) is focused on immigration control. There is wide agreement that clandestine immigration should be stopped and legal immigration should be tightly controlled. There are arguments over the numbers and types of immigrants to be admitted, but the idea that sovereign states can and should control population movements across borders is virtually unchallenged. However, there is a considerable body of research which shows that the motivations for international migration are huge and that the rewards to migrants, employers, and societies (both sending and receiving) are enormous (Massey 1999). These forces suggest that public policies of immigration control are unlikely to be successful.

The mass media routinely report the extraordinary investments and ingenuity of Latin Americans, Chinese, and Africans who are seeking to migrate to North America and Europe. Many of these efforts lead to capture and humiliating treatment as criminals. In other instances, many migrants die when they are locked into shipping containers or attempt to traverse the deserts without sufficient water and other provisions. Yet they continue to come. The simple reason is that the economies of the South and North are increasingly integrated through flows of goods, capital, and labor. International migration is a functional component of modern societies, rich and poor, that resolves the uneven distribution of people and opportunities.

Most migrants come, not to settle, but to support their families at home (Massey et al. 2002). Indeed the remittances from international migrants to developing countries far exceed the funds going to poor countries from foreign aid, direct capital investment, and manufacturing exports (Massey et al. 1998). The gains of international migration to the economies of advanced countries are also substantial. Most industrial economies do not have sufficient domestic supplies of low cost labor. If this pattern were found in only one country or in only a few sectors, then it might be possible to consider a fairly narrow explanation in terms of political cultures or market rigidities. The demand for “cheaper immigrant labor,” however, spans many sectors (agriculture, manufacturing, construction, repair services, restaurants, and child care) in most industrial countries, including a number of rapidly growing developing countries.

The demand for immigrant labor is not restricted to unskilled manual labor. The United States and other industrial countries have encountered a shortage of scientific and engineering workers, particularly in the high tech sector. This demand has been met, in part, by allowing many talented foreign students in American universities to convert their student visas to immigrant status. In spite of political pressures to control immigration, almost all policy changes have broadened the scope of legal immigration to allow settlement by refugees, agricultural workers, “illegal” immigrants with long residencies in the country, peoples in countries that have too few American citizen relatives to sponsor them, and workers in high demand by U.S. employers.

Standard economic theory posits that domestic migration is a functional response to wage differentials between areas. Migration allows for workers to benefit from higher wages in growing areas and stimulates the economy to operate more efficiently by creating larger and more porous labor and consumer markets. Indeed the logic for lessening barriers to migration is similar to that of international free trade. Economic theory suggests that all countries benefit from the free flow of capital, goods, and technology across international borders. International migration is often excluded from discussions about expanding international trade (such as in the NAFTA debate), largely because of political considerations rather than economic theory.

My reading of current trends and history suggests that the major policy issue for international migration is not immigration control, but the creation of opportunities for the socioeconomic advancement and social integration of immigrants and their descendants. Immigrants will continue to come in large numbers for the foreseeable future. If the borders are closed, they are likely to find clandestine ways of entry—the economic incentives of both the sending and receiving societies are overwhelming. However, it is an open question whether the immigrants will be accepted as full members of the receiving society. American society, even with all of its failings, may offer a model of how immigrants and their children have prospered and also contributed to society. Even the idea of what it means to be an American has evolved as each immigrant wave has broadened the outlook of all Americans. An awareness of this history can help to inform the contemporary debate over the significance of current and future immigration in other societies.