On Demographics, Immigration and Intent

Over the last 50 years, between 400K to 1.8M people a year have immigrated to the United States. Over the last 25 or so, it’s been about a million a year. That immigration pattern yields about 700K or so, new American citizens each year.

The percentage of U.S. Foreign born population is presently 13.5%. That number bottomed out in 1970 at about 5%. It’s been rising ever since but, with the exception of the 40 years after WWII, has historically been over 10% and usually closer to 15%. Our current level is within the normal American historical range of demographics.

3.5% of the people in America are here illegally. That’s about 15% less, as a percentage of population, than there were 10 years ago. It’s about 300% more then there were in 1980. That 300% growth happened mostly in a 10-year period in the 90’s. The reason, a hypothesis really, was the economic disparity between the U.S. and Mexico at a time when America was narrowing the path to legal citizenship. We have since reached more of an economical equilibrium. The flow has slowed to the extent that there are actually more leaving than coming.

The reality is that the border is minimally porous. And population flows move, as they always have, with economic opportunity. The movement can and likely will ebb and flow with that trend in the future.

We have about 700K or so members of the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, children who came here with their parents illegally that meet specific residency and behavioral criteria. There are about 1.2M more that could participate but have not for various reasons, including fear that the government will one day deport them if they show up to register. The DREAM act, which Democrats have been trying to pass for 17 years, expands the criteria for inclusion to undocumented residents that came to America illegally, mostly by expanding age criteria.

The difference between DACA and DREAM is about 1.6 million people.

We take in about 85,000 refugees a year and another 25,000 asylum seekers. Both numbers are so low, they represent no material impact to the broad demographics of a 330M person nation. They are drops of water in a bucket.



We grant about half a million immigrant visas a year; about 10M travel visas.

During our steepest increase in immigration rates in America, we saw crime rates take some of their steepest drops. While saying immigration makes us safer is silly, there’s no evidence at all on any measurable scale that immigration makes Americans materially less safe.

That’s about it for the movement of people in America. As for the people that are already here, well that story is much less dynamic.

The American birth rate is 1.84 births per woman. Which means that Americans are 92% proficient at replacing ourselves. It takes 2.01 births per woman to maintain a population. Though we’re not South Korea at a 1.14 that has them on pace for extinction in 700 years, as a production function, Americans are shrinking. Shrinking starts out by looking like aging. We’re 38 on average. 50 years ago we were 29. We’ll turn the corner soon enough and start to shrink our endogenous population. Before that though, we’ll have more people pulling from social security than putting into it. That happens faster if we reduce immigration.

Immigrants tend to be younger and have higher birth rates. Without immigration, our society will collapse. Literally. Moreover, immigration at a useful scale does not come from first world, high education and high standard of living origins.

4 million Americans are born a year. 2.7 million die. A quarter million are deported and a million more immigrate a year. That’s two million more of us a year; .6 percent growth annually.

The most common age, or mode, for a white American is 59. The most common age for a mixed-race American is zero, as in the most common age is that of someone who has not yet reached their first birthday.

Think 30 years into the future and let that sink in for just a second.

That’s the data, in 500 words or less; all found from official, academic or otherwise reputable sources by Googling, “how+many+illegal+immigrants+in+america”. All that’s wrapped up in the “dire problems” or “crisis” of immigration is found somewhere in those numbers.

No fake news. No spin. Just facts

The immigration debate in America does cover quite a bit of territory though. Mostly what is on the table is what to do with DACA, whether or not to include DREAMers, what to invest in border security, what considerations to make for asylum, and how to treat the 11M people in America that are her illegally. Though simplified, but not by much, the party breaks along the lines of more border security, stricter paths to citizenship, less asylum and a net reduction of immigration being Republican goals while Democrats aim to loosen paths to citizenship, insist on humane treatment of and increased resource spend on undocumented residents, and increase access to asylum seekers. There are reasonable positions to be taken on both sides of the debate. As is the case with most early 21st century American political debates, it’s not obvious that we’re making serious attempts to gain them.

There are two principles I’ve landed on when helping form my own perspectives on immigration in America. They are as follows:

1-Policy should not seek to conflate the movement of things with the movement of people.

2-Intent matters.

With regards to the first principle, the most justified cause for investment in border security is to keep illegal drugs and weapons of mass destruction out of our country. The second most justified is to enforce trade policy. We have an ongoing drug epidemic. We have been engaged in a war with non-state actors for twenty years. We have an economy that relies on some control of import and export. We should be committed to ensuring we get the best outcomes related to those issues. But we should be clear and honest that they are not immigration issues. Drug enforcement is not immigration. Trade is not immigration. Movement of capital is not immigration. Counter-terrorism is not immigration.

Immigration is immigration.

The movement of people into or out of our country is immigration. Claiming one has only unimaginative approaches like zero tolerance to immigration issues to best attain American outcomes for those other issues is a feat of below average leadership. Additionally, using immigration issues, citizenship, entry, asylum etc. as a bargaining chip to attain investment in things we need to control the “things” we want coming in and out of our country, violates that first principle and leads to the poor and politicized outcomes we’ve realized in our near history.

With regard to the latter principle, the reason we are guilty of violating the first principle is because we’re not honest in our intent. If we were honest in our intent, we would understand that the page of data I just showed above characterizes a nation that is not in danger of suffering resource constraints, poor economic, employment, criminal or over-population outcomes. If our intent were to secure us from crime, drugs and terrorists, the police and surveillance state started by the George W. Bush administration and then continued under the Obama administration would be sufficient. It’s not though because that’s not what we’re really afraid of. And so solving it is not our intent.

In reality we’re afraid of losing our national identity. And for some not insignificant portion of America, that identity is ethnocentric. And that’s really the issue.

There’s nothing wrong with a country defending it’s culture. Things like liberty, equality, of opportunity, religious tolerance, free markets and Steely Dan are all worth fighting for. That’s the best of American culture. But when that culture insists on some order or consistency of ethnicity, we wander into dangerous territory. Historically, that’s been the worst of our American culture.

This is where I personally break most abruptly from contemporary conservative views.

Though there is staunch denial within reasonable conservative circles that the goal of our current conservative immigration platforms and policy are motivated by ethnocentric nationalism, one struggles to draw any other conclusion from the campaign rhetoric and near term policies of the current administration. When one campaigns on immigration from the conservative post with great passion, one knows exactly who their base is likely to be. We shouldn’t be surprised when, if left to their own devices, inhumane treatment and coercive movement of those that pose no immediate threat to anyone, follow shortly after.

We are and forever should be alarmist when people whose sole crime is unwanted presence are treated with certain cruelness. It is and always has been, the gateway to the worst of who we are.


8 thoughts on “On Demographics, Immigration and Intent

  1. Ross, While I agree that there should be more penalties/controls around the hiring of illegal immigrants (e.g., use of E-Verify), the flip side of reducing the economic incentive is to help our neighbors continue to improve their economies. If we view NAFTA as a Win-Lose proposition, and if we are successful in “beating” Mexico, we are sure to encourage more illegal immigration.

    Sean, Great column. Have you had a chance to read Amy Chua’s Political Tribes? While the immigration facts that she reports are very aligned with yours, she does highlight the real draw of ethnocentricity and the power of tribes. While I find the use of Tribalism to gain political power immoral, irresponsible and terribly dangerous, we need to work to break down the barriers between tribes. Your columns are a great start. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I may be a radical among my conservative brethren, but I feel the “solution” to illegal immigration is the same as “how to stop the import of illegal drugs” … stop the economic incentive. People, for the most part, don’t risk illegally entering our country because they want to sit on the beach all day. Many of them pay significant sums of money to be smuggled in, they are coming because they know others before them have found work. They’ve found work because there are several industries that in their struggle to contain costs, have created a cottage industry of paying people with questionable immigration status. This allows those industries to keep labor rates low, but also leads to many abuses that the workers have little recourse to address because of their illegal status.

    So my answer is simple: Start fining companies caught with illegal workers $1,000,000 a day per worker. Make the penalty for being caught with an illegal immigrant on your payroll essentially business ending. If there isn’t an economic reason to come (because there is a huge economic penalty to the industry for hiring them), we will see the push to improve our legal immigration process to the benefit of all.

    I’m sure we can all think of a million reasons why this won’t happen.


  3. A possible addition to your Read List:

    The People Vs. Democracy Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It By Yascha Mounk,


  4. You hit the nail on the head…fear of losing “our” perceived national (white, Christian–so called since these policies and behaviors are not Christian–privileged) identity. What lies we tell ourselves.


  5. Yes, great column. Being more of a progressive, there are times I don’t agree with your assessment but I always appreciate your thoughtfulness..


  6. Ever consider running for office? And eventually president? I really enjoy your clear and informative essays.


  7. Thank you Sean for the clearest summary of the situation and the facts . If this were a model for our national debate, we’d be moving together instead of apart. Keep up the good work!


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