By James D. Agresti
January 30, 2018
Throughout the extensive media coverage of President Trump allegedly calling Haiti, El Salvador, and nations of Africa “s—hole countries,” most journalists glossed over the central policy question at the core of this debate: What are the effects of mass immigration from impoverished nations? The answer varies considerably depending upon the circumstances and people affected, but some eye-opening patterns are present.
The clearest and most universal aspect of this issue is that immigrants to the United States benefit economically. A wealth of data shows this is the case—and why it is so. The “why” is crucially important here, because although a million people per year legally immigrate to the U.S., billions will remain in high-poverty nations for their entire lives unless changes occur in these countries.
By a substantial margin, the U.S. has the highest average disposable household income of any developed nation in the world, including wealthy countries with small populations like Luxembourg, Sweden, Switzerland, and Norway. The gaps between the U.S. and lower-income developed nations are much greater, and average income in the U.S. is three times higher than in Mexico:
This disposable income data—which is provided by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—is very comprehensive, because it accounts for all forms of income from the private sector and government, including non-cash income like healthcare benefits, housing, and food. Furthermore, disposable income subtracts out taxes, since households cannot use income that governments have taken from them.
Such data is not available for many developing nations, but other measures cast light on the tremendous financial benefits that people gain by migrating to the United States. Gross domestic product (GDP) per person, which is the most common way to compare living standards across nations, is:
- 3 times higher in the U.S. than in the Middle East & North Africa.
- 4 times higher in the U.S. than in Latin America & the Caribbean.
- 15 times higher in the U.S. than in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The economic advantages of living in America extend well down the income ladder. Even the poor in the U.S. have much higher living standards than the average in many nations. Personal consumption of goods and services, which is the World Bank’s “preferred welfare indicator,” shows that the poorest 20% of people in U.S. consume roughly:
- 3 times more goods and services per person than the averages in South Africa, Botswana, and El Salvador.
- 7 times more than the average in Nigeria.
- 12 times more than the average in Kenya.
- 13 times more than the average in Haiti.
Likewise, a 2012 study by Princeton University economist Orley Ashenfelter found that McDonald’s workers in the U.S. make:
- 3 times more real wages per hour than McDonald’s workers in South Africa.
- 4 times more than in China.
- 6 times more than in Latin America.
Given that McDonald’s workers across the world produce similar products using the same skills and technology, why do they have such vastly different standards of living? Many factors come into play, but the most impactful come down to people and cultures. As explained by a 2006 World Bank study:
- “rich countries are largely rich because of the skills of their populations and the quality of the institutions supporting economic activity.”
- “if an economy has a very efficient judicial system, clear property rights, and an effective government, the result will be a higher total wealth….”
The World Bank calls these human factors “intangible wealth,” because it is not based on material items like natural resources, infrastructure, or machinery. Instead, such wealth springs from the institutions, values, talents, and actions of people. Notably, the World Bank found that the U.S. has the highest intangible wealth per person of any nation in the world.
The U.N. and political leaders of Haiti, El Salvador, and various African nations pushed back against Trump’s alleged characterization of their countries, but the truth is that these nations are rife with government corruption and poverty, which go hand-in-hand:
The data above are averages, and people’s places of birth do not predetermine their integrity, abilities, or work ethic. In fact, immigrants from Africa are more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the general U.S. population.
Though famous evolutionists have claimed that certain races are inferior or superior to one another, the hard data shows that environment, not genetics, accounts for the socio-economic disparities between races and nations.
The same human factors that cause massive economic differences between nations also play major roles in how immigrants affect the United States. These dynamics have become more important in recent decades, because immigrants don’t assimilate as they did in the past. Moreover, a counter-culture has developed in places where many U.S. immigrants live. The academic book American Immigration: An Encyclopedia of Political, Social, and Cultural Change details these phenomena. Per the book’s editors:
As a nation of immigrants and their descendants, the United States has been described over the centuries as a “melting pot” of cultures. Today, most immigration scholars and activists eschew that term, contending that it implies a loss of native culture and an assimilation process that turns peoples of diverse backgrounds into a single, culturally homogenized populace.
In the same book, Aonghas Mac Thomais St.-Hilaire of Johns Hopkins University explains:
Since the 1960s, as a result of ethnic revival efforts by African Americans, Latinos, and indigenous peoples, multiculturalism has emerged as a dominant ideology in the United States, and it competes with the century-old ideology stressing the importance of complete assimilation to Anglo-American norms, altering the playing field for post-1965 immigrants and their offspring.
Hence, if immigrants come to the U.S. with mentalities that produce poverty in the nations they left, they now tend to keep them instead of adopting principles that create prosperity.
Worse still, St.-Hilaire notes that assimilation to their immediate surroundings can actually harm today’s immigrants, because many of them “settle in inner-city neighborhoods” where:
- “opportunities are few and expectations for socioeconomic mobility are low….”
- the “youth culture is profoundly anti-academic, regarding ‘studious’ as a socially undesirable epithet.”
- young people “perpetuate an oppositional culture that hinders them from acquiring the skills needed to succeed in American society.”
In 2016, the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) published a 495-page analysis of the economic and fiscal consequences of immigration that touches on the topic of assimilation by noting that:
It is conceptually muddled to bundle the impact of immigrants who arrived in different historical periods, who may be very different in terms of the way that they have been integrated into society and the economy.
The skills of incoming migrants have also changed over recent decades. Per the 2006 academic encyclopedia Immigration in America Today:
The liberalization of immigration policy following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act dramatically changed the immigrant composition in America. … Whereas immigrants before the Great Depression were almost entirely working-class, all the immigrants of the 1970s through the 1990s can be divided into two economic classes, either highly skilled or poorly skilled.
The NAS report provides data that speak to these changes over time. For example, recent immigrants have made less progress in learning to speak English than earlier immigrants. This is significant, because communication is essential to productivity, and productivity is essential to prosperity. A 2014 study by the Brookings Institution found that:
- workers with limited English proficiency “earn 25 to 40 percent less than their English proficient counterparts.”
- “high-skilled immigrants who are not proficient in English are twice as likely to work in ‘unskilled’ jobs (i.e. those requiring low levels of education or training) as those who are proficient in English.”
The NAS report also shows that recent immigrants are failing to increase their wages like earlier generations. Immigrants who arrived in the U.S. during 1965–69 started out by earning an average of 24% less than native-born workers of the same age. They then rapidly advanced, and forty years later, they were earning 18% more than native-born workers. Later generations of immigrants have done progressively worse in this respect, and the most recent one has been stagnant:
As a general rule, immigrants tend to reduce the prices of goods and services. This is because they create increased competition for jobs, which generally leads to lower consumer prices.
However, the jobs that low-skilled immigrants perform mostly benefit high-income Americans. As NAS has detailed, wealthy households “are more likely than low-income households to consume products such as child care, landscaping, and restaurant meals that are immigrant-intensive in production.”
Because many low-skilled immigrants work in agriculture, some assume that they keep the prices of fresh produce low, but a recent study from the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California found that if farm worker wages increased by 40%, average spending on fresh produce would rise by only $21 per household per year. This is because “Americans do not spend much on fresh fruits and vegetables,” “farmers receive only a third of what consumers pay for produce,” and “farm labor costs are usually less than a third of farmer revenue.”
The same increased competition that causes immigrants to reduce consumer prices also likely causes them to reduce wages. However, in this case, it is low-income Americans who are mainly affected, and not in a good way. Between 1970 and 2016, the immigrant portion of U.S. workers aged 25 and older without a high school diploma increased from 6% to 54%.
Many studies have attempted to quantify the wage effects of immigration, but they all employ assumptions and have produced conflicting and uncertain results. Among the 22 such results examined by NAS:
- 18 indicate that immigration has reduced the wages of some U.S.-born workers.
- 4 indicate that immigration has increased the wages of some U.S.-born workers.
- the average result is that each 1% increase in the number of workers in a labor market caused by immigration decreased the wages of U.S.-born workers in that market by 0.5%. The median result is a decrease of 0.4%.
NAS summarizes these studies by stating that:
- the wages of U.S. high school “dropouts tend to be more negatively affected” by immigration “than better-educated” Americans.
- this “negative effect” on the wages of U.S.-born workers “may be compounded for native minorities.”
- one of the “largest negative effects” among these studies is on “Hispanic dropouts with poor English….”
Since 1964 when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” welfare spending has blossomed. Between 1968 and 2004, total inflation-adjusted federal, state, and local government spending on means-tested welfare rose from an annual average of $442 for every person in the U.S. to $1,989:
These costs of rising welfare—combined with increased immigration of low-skilled workers and decreased assimilation—ultimately fall on taxpayers. Though immigrants also pay taxes, low-income workers pay little, and illegal immigrants often avoid taxes by working off the books.
Welfare benefits are typically distributed on the basis of poverty levels, and in 2011, 31% of U.S.-born citizens were in or near poverty. This varied for U.S. immigrants (and their children) from various homelands as follows:
- South Asia: 21%
- Europe: 28%
- East Asia: 31%
- South America: 37%
- Caribbean: 46%
- Sub-Saharan Africa: 46%
- Middle East: 48%
- El Salvador: 57%
- Honduras: 66%
- Guatemala: 67%
- Mexico: 68%
Federal laws, court rulings, and administrative decisions provide the following government benefits to immigrants, regardless of whether they are in the U.S. legally:
- Federal taxpayers provide annual cash payments to low-income immigrants for each dependent child they have.
- Most hospitals with emergency departments are required to provide an “examination” and “stabilizing treatment” for anyone who comes to such a facility and requests care for an emergency medical condition, a childbirth, routine prenatal care, or routine postpartum care—regardless of their ability to pay or immigration status.
- Federally funded programs provide job training, adult education, clinic-based healthcare, emergency rent assistance, and emergency food assistance to immigrants.
- States cannot deny a free public education to anyone based on their immigration status.
- Everyone who is eligible for free public education is also eligible for the national school lunch and school breakfast programs.
- Immigrants can enroll their children in federally funded childcare and preschool programs.
- The federal government grants automatic citizenship to all children born in the United States, whether their parents are illegal immigrants, visitors, or tourists. This entitles their children to all federal welfare benefits, such as food stamps, housing, home energy, and health insurance.
Effects on Crime
A 2014 poll of Latino immigrants found that a major reason 62% of them came to the U.S. was to live in safer communities. The average murder rates in the Latin American nations that send the most immigrants to the U.S. are 4–8 times higher than in the U.S., and among those nations that send the most illegal immigrants, the murder rate is 4–23 times higher:
The murder rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is about twice as high as in the United States.
Although immigrants from these countries generally benefit from lower levels of violent crime, they sometimes move to U.S. cities where murder rates rival their homelands.
With regard to the effects of immigration on crime in the U.S., immigrants who become U.S. citizens are much more law-abiding than the general public. In fact, they are 79% less likely than the U.S. population to be incarcerated in adult correctional facilities. There’s good reason for this. Federal law requires that immigrants pass a full FBI background check to become U.S. citizens.
In contrast, immigrants from Latin America and illegal immigrants are much more likely to commit serious crime than other immigrants and the general U.S. population. Data from the Obama administration—specifically the Census Bureau and Department of Homeland Security—shows that immigrants:
- from Latin America are 5.1 times more likely to be incarcerated in adult correctional facilities than immigrants from Europe and 6.3 times more likely than immigrants from Asia.
- who are not U.S. citizens are 7% more likely than the general U.S. population to be incarcerated in adult correctional facilities. This is only the tip of the iceberg, because for every non-citizen currently in prison, ten of them were deported over the past decade after being convicted of committing crimes in the U.S.
Media outlets frequently cite studies that claim Latino and illegal immigrants are more law-abiding than the general U.S. population, but those studies cherry pick, use bait-and-switch tactics, misrepresent association with causation, and employ statistical techniques that are inappropriate to the data.
Beyond all of the above, immigrants can also affect the government institutions that the World Bank found to be key to U.S. prosperity. In this respect, modern immigrants mainly move America to the political left, especially immigrants from low-income nations where socialism dominates:
- A 2012 poll of 2,900 immigrants who were U.S. citizens found that 62% identified as Democrats, 25% as Republicans, and 13% as Independents.
- A nationally representative bilingual poll of 800 Hispanic adults conducted by McLaughlin & Associates in 2013 found that 59% were born outside the U.S., 53% considered themselves to be Democrats, 12% considered themselves to be Republicans, and 29% considered themselves to be independents or another party.
- A nationally representative bilingual poll of 784 immigrant Latinos commissioned by Pew Research in 2011 found that 81% said they would prefer “a bigger government providing more services,” and 12% said they would prefer “a smaller government with fewer services.” In stark comparison, 41% of the general U.S. population say they would prefer a bigger government, and 48% said they want a smaller one.
The effects of modern immigration from impoverished nations vary widely, but some general trends emerge from the data:
- Immigrants benefit economically in a major way from the skills, values, and institutions that make the U.S. the most prosperous nation in the world.
- Modern immigrants are not assimilating or advancing financially like previous generations of immigrants. Instead, they are keeping the cultures of their homelands, even though the cultures they left are rife with poverty.
- Such immigration is likely reducing consumer prices for wealthy Americans, decreasing wages for poor Americans, and increasing taxes on most Americans.
- These immigrants benefit from lower violent crime in the U.S., but they are more prone to commit serious crimes.
- Immigrants are moving the U.S. toward the political left.
Correction (8/19/19): An earlier version of this article contained incorrect ratios for the average consumption of the poorest 20% of U.S. households relative to the averages in developing nations.