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|
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.”