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Immigration continues to be the subject of intense national debate. The more than one million immigrants arriving each year have a very significant effect on many areas of American life. The latest data collected by the Census Bureau show that the last decade was the highest in terms of immigrant arrivals in American history. New immigration plus births to immigrants added more than 22 million people to the U.S. population in the last decade, equal to 80 percent of total population growth. Immigrants and their young children (under 18) now account for more than one in five public school students, one-fourth of those in poverty, and nearly one-third of those without health insurance, creating enormous challenges for the nation’s schools, health care system, and physical infrastructure. The large share of immigrants who arrive as adults with relatively few years of schooling is the primary reason so many live in poverty, use welfare programs, or lack health insurance, not their legal status or an unwillingness to work.
Despite the fact that a large share of immigrants have few years of schooling and low incomes, most immigrants do work. In fact, the share of immigrant men holding a job is higher than that of native-born men. Moreover, the evidence examined in this report and other research makes clear that immigrants make significant progress the longer they reside in the United States. This is even true for the least educated. Unfortunately, this progress still leaves them well behind natives in most measures of socio-economic status even after they have been in the United States for decades. The share of adult immigrants who have lived in the United States for 20 years who are still in poverty or lacking health insurance is at least 50 percent higher than for adult natives. And the share of these long-time resident immigrant households using at least one welfare program is nearly twice that of native households.
At the same time that immigration policy has significantly increased the number of less-educated immigrants, there has been a dramatic deterioration in the labor market position of less-educated natives. Comparing data from the beginning of this decade shows a huge decline in the share of young and less-educated natives holding a job — from two-thirds to just under half. The decline in work among young and less-educated natives began well before the Great Recession. It is very difficult to find any evidence of a shortage of less-educated workers in the United States. Some may argue that immigrants only do jobs that Americans do not want, but an analysis by occupations shows that the vast majority of workers in almost every job are U.S.-born, including three-fourths of janitors and two-thirds of construction laborers and meat processors.
A central question for immigration policy is: Should we continue to allow in so many people with little education — increasing potential job competition for the poorest American workers and the population in need of government assistance? Setting aside the lower socio‑economic status of immigrants, no nation has ever attempted to incorporate 40 million newcomers into its society. Those concerned about population growth point to added sprawl, traffic, pollution, and overall impact on the quality of life that may come from causing so much population growth from one government policy — immigration. Supporters of population growth point to the greater opportunities for businesses, workers, and consumers that it may create. However one approaches population increase, it is clear that immigration has become the determinant factor in U.S. population growth. It is equally clear that while immigration makes the U.S. population much larger, it does not make the population significantly younger.
Whatever one’s view of immigration, it is critically important to understand that its effect on America represents a choice. Selection criteria can be altered, as can the total number of people allowed into the country legally. Moreover, the level of resources devoted to reducing illegal immigration can also be reduced or increased.
The goal of this paper has been to provide information about the impact of immigration on American society to better inform the policy discussion about what kind of immigration policy should be adopted in the future. Absent a change in policy, 12 to 15 million additional legal and illegal immigrants will likely settle in the United States in just the next 10 years. Thus, immigration’s impact will continue to grow if current trends continue.