Our policies on immigration should be forward-thinking

Our policies on immigration should be forward-thinking
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This past week, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times reported that the United States now has the its highest level of foreign-born residents (13.7 percent) since 1910, the peak of the last great wave of immigration when the percentage of foreign-born residents hit 15 percent. Immigrants from Asia comprise the largest group of foreign-born residents who have arrived in the United States in the 21st century. Drawing on U.S. Census Bureau data, demographer William Frey found that the number of people from Asia (2.6 million) coming to live in the United States was more than double the number (1.2 million) who came from Latin America since 2010.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics published its fiscal year 2016 data showing similar trends: “Between 2000 and 2016, the proportions of new [legal permanent residents] from Asia and Africa have increased by 6.8 and 4.3 percentage points, respectively, while the proportions from Europe and North America have respectively decreased by 6.9 and 4.2 percentage points.”


These shifting immigration trends should not surprise us. Philip Bump of The Washington Post points out the data from Pew Research Center has shown this movement since 2014. Bump reminds readers that a former adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE had exaggerated the numbers — Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonWhy Steve Bannon would fuel Donald Trump toward victory Sunday shows preview: Trump, lawmakers weigh in on COVID-19, masks and school reopenings amid virus surge Navarro-Fauci battle intensifies, to detriment of Trump MORE incorrectly claimed that 20 percent of the United States was foreign-born — and discusses how the increase in the proportion of the population that is foreign-born has affected politics.

In addition to inflating the number of immigrants, the political rhetoric coming from the right issues ominous warnings about immigrants from Mexico in particular. The nativist right fabricates a narrative that Mexican migration is a problem to be solved. While Mexico continues to be the largest single source country for immigrants, its relative share of the flow is diminishing.

In fiscal year 2000, immigrants from Mexico made up 20 percent of all people who became legal permanent residents (LPRs) of the United States. That percentage had fallen to 14.7 percent in fiscal year 2016. What characterizes Mexican immigration to the United States is that 68 percent in FY 2016 were the immediate relatives (spouses, minor children and parents) of U.S. citizens, the top priority of U.S. immigration laws since the 1920s.

A closer look at the recently released census data shows other trends that are positive for our nation. For example, foreign-born residents who are naturalized citizens have a median household income of $72,140 that compares favorably to native-born citizens’ median household income of $72,165. This income parity results in no small way from the growing number of Asian immigrants working in professional and managerial occupations and who are employed by educational and health sectors of the economy.

Although first-generation foreign-born families have higher poverty rates (15.7 percent) than the national overall rate (10.4 percent), second-generation families have lower poverty rates (9.3 percent) than the national rate.   

This pattern of immigrant success, based on the talent and diligence of immigrants themselves, also has roots in the Immigration Amendments Act of 1990, which sought to increase avenues for “the best and the brightest” immigrants. By more than doubling the number of visas for persons of extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researcher, or certain multinational executives and managers, and of persons with advanced degrees, immigrants with these traits have come to the United States in substantial numbers since its enactment.  

The 1990 law also rewrote the H-1B visa for temporary professional specialty workers, which has been the leading pathway for immigrants to the United States and has been critical in the global competition for talent. The increased use of H-1B visas, as well as other nonimmigrant visas, has fostered much of the growth in immigrants with executive and professional occupations over the past two decades. My research offers fuller analyses of how policies directed at  global competition, employment-based immigration and temporary professional workers have constricted, as well as fostered, the flow of immigration to the United States.

If there is anything made clear by these recent demographic trends it is that our policies on immigration should be forward-thinking, rather than backward-focused. Building a wall along the border with Mexico, a nation with a declining fertility rate and purportedly a positive employment outlook, is a Maginot Line for the 21st century.  As I noted earlier, most Mexican immigrants are the immediate family of U.S. citizens.

Rather, we should be using these data to help us frame a debate about what the future of America will look like. We should be discussing policies such as: what are optimal levels of immigration? How should we balance this optimal level among family, employment and humanitarian flows?  What role does temporary migration play in shaping future flows? These are not easy policy questions, so we need to get busy discussing our way forward.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration.