The Census Bureau has announced that the rate of the population growth last year was the slowest in a century. Meanwhile, the administration plans to introduce measures to restrict immigration from seven more countries believed to pose national security threats. Immigration is the obvious way of countering the stagnation of the population so that the United States can promote economic dynamism and sustain its pension system. The policies under President Trump feed into the polarization of this issue.
Surveys have revealed a sharp divide when it comes to immigration policy between Republicans and Democrats, between conservatives and liberals, and even between moderates and liberals among Democrats. Can we find some common ground that avoids the extreme opinions that seem to be driving the national debate on this? Is there a way in which a majority of Americans could rally behind some form of liberal immigration reform?
The problem with any polarizing political issue is that it tends to play to the intrinsic cognitive biases that we all suffer as humans. Experimental research has shown time and again that we tend to focus more on the downside than the upside. The psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman proposed that we make bad decisions because our thinking is clouded by loss aversion bias. People prefer avoiding losses rather than locking in equivalent gains. For instance, most people will find it more attractive to avoid losing 10 dollars than to end up winning 10 dollars.
Loss aversion bias is a powerful force shaping our views of immigration. We are torn between the positive and negative aspects of the presence of foreign people among us. On one hand, immigrants tend to be younger on average than the population of the destination countries, and tend to work in greater numbers, contributing to the economy and viability of the Social Security system. Moreover, immigrants also display higher rates of entrepreneurship. After all, Intel, Tesla, Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn were founded or cofounded by people born outside the United States.
But on the other hand, immigrants are frequently seen as competing with natives for jobs, or as dependent on welfare and other services. The worst criticisms are often levied against immigrants without papers, although most of them work and pay taxes, but never claim any benefits, not even during retirement. Thus, immigrants can be viewed as either a boom or a burden, depending on how the issue is framed. Beyond our own politics, cognitive biases about immigration are rampant. The labels “illegal aliens” or “undocumented workers” evoke negative imagery. Latino immigrants are generally seen in a less favorable light than those of European origin. Such categorizations ultimately play to our deepest fears and anxieties.
In fact, researchers have long known that people are more likely to harden their policy preferences regarding immigration when reminded that most immigrants into the United States are not from Europe than when told that immigrants compete for jobs or are a fiscal burden. Similarly, people feel a greater threat from immigrants whose culture is different from their own, especially if they do not speak their language. These findings indicate that public views and policy preferences about immigration turn more radical and extreme when the issue is framed in identity terms. People are moved by the rhetoric that immigration is contributing to “losing our country.”
Some studies offer hope that a more balanced debate is possible. People adopt more favorable views about immigration when reminded about its economic and social benefits, especially when framed in terms of their potential contribution to overcoming the growing pension crisis. Most research demonstrates that the negative frame on immigration is a much more potent psychological motivator than the positive frame. People are more likely to support harsher immigration policies when reminded about its negative economic consequences than they are likely to support more liberal immigration policies when they are reminded about its benefits.
Supporters of harsher immigration policies have been much more adept at exploiting cognitive biases by using negative frames such as broken borders, illegal amnesty, or refugee crisis. As a result of these cognitive biases, supporters of liberal immigration reforms will need to work many times harder than its opponents if they are to prevail. Some believe that the best liberal narrative in favor of policy for steady immigration involves its potential for deficit reductions by rejuvenating the population, which raises more tax revenues without necessarily adding welfare expenses.
However, liberals must also seize the initiative in the immigration debate by invoking national security and the military, which depend on a vibrant economy and a large population, or at least one that is not stagnant and getting older. Let us not forget that the majority of men and women in uniform are below the age of 30. Nearly half of all recruits to the armed forces are Hispanic or members of a minority group defined by race.
The United States will find it increasingly difficult to have a young and strong military if its population continues to age. Thus, it is not simply economic arguments that underpin the case for a liberal immigration policy. A steady flow of foreign people of different skill levels will be essential for the United States to maintain its status as a global power economically, geopolitically, and militarily. That message of dynamism and resilience should lie at the core of the liberal case for immigration.
Mauro Guillen teaches as the Felix Zandman Professor of International Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.