Is it Still the 4th of July?

I thought I’d update my post of July 4th on the subject of immigration — where I pointed out I had no strong views on the subject, decried the media’s exclusive focus on pure emotion to fuel an already acrimonious debate, and described the beginnings of my request for data.

As I said then, I found that the United States has below-average population density compared to the rest of the countries in the world.

Since then, I’ve looked at the U.S. population as a percent of estimated world population, over time.  In 1776, the thirteen colonies accounted for about one quarter of one percent (.25%) of the world’s population.  By 1800, it was over a half a percent; by 1850, nearly two percent; and by 1900, it had reached 4.61%., as the vast open country experienced westward expansion.

For most of the twentieth century (1910 to 1980) U.S. population remained between 5.09% and 5.92% of world population.  Then, in 1990, it dropped to 4.7%.  In 2000, to 4.6%.  In 2010, to 4.5%, and in 2016, to 4.4%.  The population of the world has been growing, it seems, but for the past half a century, the U.S. has accounted for an ever smaller part of the whole.

I subjectively selected thirty-seven countries to look at, from the CIA’s World Factbook,  comparing their immigration rates for the five year period from 2007 through 2012. In choosing my subjective sample, I tried to include a variety of rich and poor, high-density and low-density counmtries, etc.  I included both Switzerland and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both Hong Kong and Greenland.  But I intentionally over-included the countries of North and Central America, and the more industrialized countries of the world.

Of these countries, the U.S. immigration rate was somewhere in the middle – gaining 15 immigrants for each thousand people during 2007-2012.  That was a lot more immigration than countries like Honduras, Ireland and Spain (which lost 10, 30, and 12 people per thousand, respectively) but a lot lower than countries like Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia and Lebanon (which gained 74, 28, 33, 45, and 253 people per thousand, respectively.)  Hmnnn…

Yesterday morning, a good friend forwarded a link to an animated graphic on the subject of U.S. immigration since 1820.   I wasn’t sure what to make of it, at first.  The graphic made clear that immigration numbers have grown a great deal between the 1820’s and the decade from 2000 to 2010 – from a total of 128 thousand immigrants in that early decade to a total of over ten million in the most recent one.  Does that enormous increase in numbers mean that immigration to the U.S. has skyrocketed?

It seems not.  Compared to the size of our population, the immigration rate is within historical norms.  Between 1830 and 1900, average annual immigration ranged from a low of 4.2 people per thousand in the 1830’s to a high of 10.5 in the 1880’s.  The rate peaked during the 1900-1910 decade at a rate of 10.8 per year, then dropped significantly to 6.9 during the 1910’s and 4.1 during the 1920’s.   During the 30’s and 40’s when Depression and World War reigned, it dropped to a very low 0.6 immigrants per thousand, but in the 50’s and 60’s it rose to 1.8, and by the 1980’s it had risen to 2.8.  It then reached another peak, in the 1990’s, of 3.9.  In the first decade of this century, it dropped to 3.7, and between 2010 and 2013, it fell again to 3.3.  Hmnnn…

This morning, with all these numbers swirling in my head, I finally located the CIA’s data on Gross Domestic Product per capita – one simple indication of wealth – and added this data to my tables.  The comparison bore out the assumption that immigration rates are higher in wealthier countries.  The “wealthiest” ten of my thirty-seven countries had an average immigration rate of nearly 25%, while the poorest ten had an average immigration rate of negative 7 percent.  As expected, people apparently leave poor countries to go to wealthier ones.  Imagine that.

I was particularly interested to see how the U.S. immigration rate compares to the other “wealthy” countries I included in my sample.  Here’s what I got about the wealthiest dozen of those countries:

Country Pop density/ sq. km. GDP per capita Net Immigration rate per thousand over 5 yr period 2007-2012
Singapore 8,188        90,500 74.91
Ireland 71        72,600 -30.52
Switzerland 199        61,400 47.8
Hong Kong 6,490        61,000 20.97
U.S. 33        59,500 15.94
Saudi Arabia 13        55,300 28.82
Iceland 3        52,100 1.18
Sweden 22        51,300 28.64
Germany 225        50,200 15.54
Australia 3        49,900 45.01
Canada 3        48,100 33.84
U. K. 265        43,600 14.13

I have no idea why people are leaving wealthy Ireland.   Having spent a few hours in Iceland, I can guess why people aren’t flocking in droves to get there.  But of the rest of these dozen wealthy countries, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany have the lowest immigration rates.  The U.S. ranks eighth of twelve.  And our population density is far lower than the U.K.’s or Germany’s.

Maybe the data don’t provide clear and compelling answers about immigration policy, but the data I’ve been looking at make more sense to me than only thinking about grieving mothers and crying babies.   The population of the world is increasing faster than the population of the U.S.  There are more people wanting to enter the U.S. than the U.S. currently allows – or has allowed, for quite some time.  We are not alone in this, among wealthy countries.  Whether due to population densities, economic opportunities, cultural attractiveness or dangers at home, people want to move to wealthier countries.  I feel lucky that I live in one.

But I’m starting to feel I now have enough data to start thinking about the answers to questions that I think should guide immigration policy.

1) Should U.S. policy be driven by what’s best for Americans, or best for the world?

2) U.S. population growth resulting from birth rates and death rates has been declining of late.  Might higher rates of immigration in some sense replace a desirable growth rate resulting from native births?

3) Should we, rather, be trying to limit immigration, as well as the domestic birth rate, with an eye toward creating an enclave of stable low population in a world destined for over-population calamity?

4) The figures above relate only to legal immigration.  Estimates of illegal immigration raise different questions. Is there an analogy to Prohibition here?  That is, does the U.S. have a high rate of illegal immigration because we have a relatively low rate (compared to other wealthy countries) of legal immigration?

5) Is it time to bar entry to criminals and terrorists, and otherwise open our borders?  What would happen if we did?

6) Is it time to create a two-tiered America, a citizen class and a non-citizen class, with a managed means for earning passage from one to the other over time?

I’d welcome thoughts from any quarter about such questions.  Meanwhile, I have to close by thanking my daughter for the quotation from Epictetus that I added to the WeMayBeWrong website yesterday: “It is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.”

— Joe

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4 thoughts on “Is it Still the 4th of July?”

  1. As I was reading your thoughts on immigration and considered your statistics used in support, I began thinking my I could be wrong in my conclusion that immigration was a real problem for the United States. I was in the process of being persuaded that perhaps I had been misled by party politics, and my belief that secure borders was perhaps humbug and that immigration matters were no different than they had been in the past. I was beginning to think that I was a holdover from the Know-Nothing Party. I was beginning to think badly about myself and question my bias against today’s immigration problems. I always thought I was a good American and welcomed immigrants. After all, my grandparents immigrated from Poland. Why did I harbor ill feelings today I wondered. From where did my bias arise? Had I been brainwashed by Republican propaganda? As a good and decent American descended from immigrants, why did I find it difficult to embrace and feel good about the concept of “open borders” and “undocumented aliens”? After all, what I was reading seemed to pronounce that all is well and all the statistics are in agreement that today is no different than US history when it comes to immigration. And then, suddenly, I came to the end of your analysis.

    Zounds! I could still sleep well at night rest assured that I was not the bigot that was being suggested in my mind as I was reading through your immigration analysis for there it was in black and white and should have been in all caps 35 point type and bold font:

    “4) The figures above relate only to legal immigration. Estimates of illegal immigration raise different questions. Is there an analogy to Prohibition here?”

    Indeed, illegal immigration is the proverbial fly in the ointment that sours essentially all of your analysis predicated on historic legal immigration. My grandparents immigrated legally. The Know Nothings were against legal immigrants and legal immigration. I am not. It would be wrong of me to ever identify with the Know Nothings. Once again I could feel good about myself as an American who was not inherently prejudiced and biased against immigrants. It is against ILLEGAL aliens that I harbor bias.

    Another of your questions that arose from illegal immigration is the following:

    “Is it time to bar entry to criminals and terrorists, and otherwise open our borders? What would happen if we did?”

    What kind of question was that I asked myself? How can one bar entry to criminals and terrorists and open our borders at the same time? I concluded that what you really meant to say was that we should not really open our borders. Implicit within that question is a secure border, otherwise how is it possible to bar entry to criminals and terrorists? I suppose what you really intend is secure borders and a vetting process coupled with an unlimited immigration quota. If you acknowledge that some are not welcome, such as criminals and terrorists, what about others? Should we exclude obvious welfare cases? How about the sick, whether suffering from mental illness or the physical kind? In times past and even today, it is required for aliens who seek legal immigration to satisfy the authorities that they are healthy and can take care of themselves financially upon entry.

    What happens later on after entry? I suppose all aliens entered under this system would be documented so the class of “illegal aliens” would still remain for border jumpers who bypass the intake process.

    Then I came to this doozie of a question you suggest is raised by illegal immigration:

    “Is it time to create a two-tiered America, a citizen class and a non-citizen class, with a managed means for earning passage from one to the other over time?”

    Guess what? We already have a two-tiered America, a citizen and a non-citizen class, with a managed means to become a citizen. It is called legal immigration and the process to be completed once admitted into the country in order to become a citizen.

    I may be wrong, but as I read your article, its conclusions and questions, I deduced that your essay, whether intended or not, actually supported our current immigration laws. Today, your essay demonstrates that legal immigration is in keeping with historic norms. In my mind, the key issue that remains is how much “legal” immigration is enough. I can smugly rest assured that my uneasiness with immigration is not based or founded on xenophobia or bigotry, but on politics inherent in framing the best immigration laws for our nation.

  2. James, thanks very much for your thoughts.

    First, let me assure you (again) that I have no agenda to advance regarding immigration. I’m on a genuine quest for a basis on which to form opinions.

    Second, let me invite you to answer my first question, which is whether U.S. Immigration Policy should be driven by what’s best for Americans, or for the world. (Like each of my other questions, it is a serious and sincere question. I seriously don’t have an opinion on what “the right” answer is. But it’s the sort of question designed to form the basis for further inquiry and discussion, and I’m genuinely interested in the answer to it, by people on all sides of the “immigration debate.”)

    Third, I entirely agree that the difference between legal and illegal immigration is important, and one piece of data I think might inform my own effort to form a position on immigration is, how much current immigration to the U.S. is illegal, versus the amount that is legal. I don’t know. Mainstream news media never tells me. By the nature of the issue, perhaps no one knows for sure. But I haven’t even seen estimates. I do see people on both sides of the issue taking sides without having seen estimates themselves. Emotions sometimes seem to trump data. Perhaps you could point me to some estimates of legal versus illegal immigration.

    But, fourth, if you’re so inclined, it seems to me there really aren’t just two, but four categories of immigrants to be considered on the legality/illegality spectrum, and I hope to find data that distinguishes among them: one is the “purely legal” immigrant, who does everything by the book and has been granted legal permission to be in the country. (Those with “green cards.”) Second is the immigrant who shows up at the border, seeks asylum or other basis for entry, gains admittance subject to legal processes, and is therefore present in this country without having gained legal permission to be here; he has no “green card,” but is currently awaiting a ruling. Third, there is a group who have entered legally, seeking permission to remain through legal processes, who are then “no-shows” for those legal processes, or who remain even after the legal processes have decided against them, and having a variety of arguments as to why they should be allowed to remain, if they are found and have to explain themselves. Finally, there is the purely illegal immigrant, i,.e., the one who swims across the river, becomes a stowaway on a cargo ship, or swims from his raft to the Florida beach, evading the legal processes altogether. I flinch and cringe every time I hear discussion of “illegal aliens” without attempting to distinguish between the second, third and fourth groups. Personally, I think of both the first two groups as legal and both the third and fourth groups as illegal, but I suspect that many of the data sources one might find are sponsored by partisans on the immigration question who might blur the distinctions between the groups to further their agendas. So I’d be really pleased if I could be guided to a reliable source of data that did distinguish among these groups.

    Finally, am I right that you seem to think my posts reveal an agenda to open our borders? Rest assured, I have no such predisposition. In fact, I believe that whatever our immigration policies are, they should be abided by. I suspect I’m inclined to come down harder than most Americans on those in both the third and fourth categories above, those I’d consider “illegals.” But I don’t know how excited or inflamed I should get about “illegals” without being able to put their numbers in the context of the bigger picture. Not to mention, the practical questions of what to do about them may depend a lot on the size of the problem. For those reasons, I still need more data before I get worked up about the problem of the illegals.

  3. Joe:

    Just a quick thanks for your reply. FWIW, it is my understanding as a retired lawyer somewhat familiar (but no expert) with immigration law, those who present themselves at the border and claim “asylum” and start the hearing process, that is a “legal” immigration. Should they later abandon or fail to comply with that process, they shift into a quasi-legal status still to be determined.

    1. Seems I’ve spent much of the day trying to understand the numbers. One observation: The U.S. Population is currently about 330 million people. The “Rate of Natural Increase,” is the number of births less deaths per thousand, and does not include immigration or emigration. The United Nations projects the U.S. “RNI” at 4.3 annually for the period 2015 to 2020. (See That’s an increase of 0.43% each year. Expressed in actual bodies, that’s an increase in population of 1,419,000 – nearly 1.5 million people per year. So without immigration, we’re a country of 330 million, growing by about 1.5 million per year.
      As previously indicated, the U.S. legal immigration rate has been running at about 15.94 per thousand – an additional 1.59%. Expressed in actual bodies, that’s over 5 million additional people per year being added to the U.S. population. In other words, our current policy is to allow about three and a half times as many legal immigrants as we’d “grow” ourselves.

      Estimates of illegal immigration appear hard to come by and apparently vary widely. I haven’t found any estimates of annual illegal immigration, only the current (aggregate) population of illegals. The Wikipedia article on the Illegal Immigrant Population of the United States says,
      “The number of illegal immigrants peaked at about 12 million in 2007 and since that time has declined. According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the estimated population of illegal immigrants in the U.S. rose rapidly in the 1990s, “from an estimated 3.5 million in 1990 to a peak of 12.2 million in 2007,” then dropped sharply during the Great Recession before stabilizing in 2009. Pew estimated the total population to be 11.1 million in 2014, or approximately 3 percent of the U.S. population. This “is in the same ballpark” as figures from the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which estimated that 11.4 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States in January 2012. The estimate and trends are also consistent with figures reported by the Center for Migration Studies, which reported that the U.S. illegal immigrant population fell to 10.9 million by January 2016, the lowest number since 2003.”

      The Wikipedia Article on Illegal Immigration adds the following:

      “Since the Great Recession, more undocumented immigrants have left the United States than have entered it, and illegal border crossings are at the lowest levels they have been in decades.”

      I’ve still found no hard data on illegal entry rates, but if there’s a population currently here illegally anywhere around ten million people, how fast have they been arriving or over-staying – a quarter million a year? Half a million? A million? Whatever the number, it compares to legal entrants of about five million per year.

      What to do about it still isn’t clear to me. On the one side, I consider that the U.S. essentially had open borders until 1924, when quotas were established, largely to keep out Italians, Jews, and Slavs. (Chinese had already been prohibited.) On the other hand, I generally don’t care for having laws that don’t get enforced, so the phrase “zero tolerance” actually sounds good to me. At the same time, my sense of urgency regarding the illegals depends a lot on what I think legal immigration policy ought to be. If we “ought” to be admitting 3 million immigrants per year, and are already being extremely generous by admitting 5 million, then I’d be open to spending a lot of money to round up and deport the illegals. But if we “ought” to be admitting 10 million a year, and are only admitting half that number, then I can’t get very excited about spending money to keep the number from being 5.5 million.

      Which gets back to why I’m interested in population densities, comparative immigration policies, and whether American immigration policy “ought” to be driven by what’s best for America, or what’s best for the world. (As well as the other questions in my post.)

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