[Overview] Immigration I – Economic Convergence

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Appendix; Single page]


by David Severa

Up next we’ll be republishing a dialogue comparing immigration to the United States and to Europe originally posted to my Tumblr in September of last year. Even though it’s a dialogue, it’s more data driven than our Dialogue format here, so it’s being classified as an Overview.

  • OPENO: Hello, friend! Something seems to be on your mind.
  • RESTRICTES: Yes, Openo, I am troubled. This migrant crisis in Europe has reawakened my concerns about immigration to the West in general. While I’m sympathetic to the plight of those fleeing civil war (though not to economic migrants), I think that Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic are being extremely foolish and letting sentiment and blank slate ideology blind them to the long term, irreversible consequences of their decisions.
  • OPENO: Then we have very different attitudes. My “sentiment” leads me to believe that the migration from poorer to richer countries will – despite the difficulties associated with any large change – be in the end a great benefit not only to the immigrants and their descendants, but to the host nations as well.  Perhaps we can use reason and evidence to bridge this gulf between us. Can you elaborate on your position more?
  • RESTRICTES: Both the United States and Europe are making the same mistake: they continue to import large numbers of people who are poorer and more criminal than the native population. In America, that means Latinos, mostly from Mexico. In Europe that means mainly Muslims, with the dominant ethnicity of immigrants varying by country. Despite what optimists like you think, these groups aren’t going to assimilate over time. They’re going to remain alien and even hostile to their host countries. (And I’m not even going to bother to address the obvious problems of Multikulti-style permanent multiculturalism.) We aren’t uplifting people, we’re just moving problems from far away to down the block. If this continues, we’re going to destroy what made Western countries the drivers of progress in the first place and make everyone much worse off. The first world is becoming more like the third, not the reverse.
  • OPENO: So your concern is not high-skilled immigration?
  • RESTRICTES: Correct, with a few caveats. Enough high-skilled immigration can lead to ethnic tensions, as we’ve seen in Southeast Asia’s frequent, sometimes genocidal, outbursts of anti-Chinese animus. Also similarly with antisemitism in Europe. Additionally, high-skilled Muslim immigrants may also be more likely to bring terrorism with them. But these are small issues relative to the huge numbers of low-skilled immigrants we’re dealing with.
  • OPENO: Very well. Then can I put your concerns into four related categories: economic, criminal, cultural, and demographic? And let’s focus on Latino immigrants to the US and leave others to the side, since they are the largest immigrant population by far.
  • RESTRICTES: That’s fair.
  • OPENO: Then let’s take them in that order, being careful to distinguish between America and Europe, because I think they have considerably different concerns. It’s cliche but true that America is a nation of immigrants. Millions and millions of people came from poor European countries to America, and they seem to have done quite well economically in the end. I will grant that there was a century of (mostly mild) ethnic tension, but few seem to regret it now or think that it was a mistake. Nobody is defined by being Italian-American anymore.
  • RESTRICTES: Is that true though? Appalachia was settled by poor Scots-Irish and Appalachian whites are poorer than whites elsewhere to this very day. Read Albion’s Seed or American Nations! These differences persist down to the modern day, and we’re only talking about different groups of British settlers. Different white ethnic groups still have considerably different incomes*. Scots-Irish households make $56,658, versus $72,179 for Russian-American households for instance. The past matters, even when it’s less visible because all these groups get lumped together as “white”.

* Wikipedia cites the Census Bureau for these, but I couldn’t get the dumb Census website working to double check, so perhaps discount the exactness of the numbers a bit.

  • OPENO: I’ll grant that economic assimilation isn’t complete anywhere. That’s obvious from looking at different economic regions of the US. But given time, intermarriage and internal migration I bet these differences will recede over time. In any case, relatively poor groups (but still quite rich!) are hardly a threat to the republic, just another normal issue to deal with.
  • RESTRICTES: But I was only presenting the best case scenario, of groups that become fully accepted as Americans over time. Native Americans and African Americans both have household incomes well under $40,000. And Mexican Americans are only at $40,588. That’s a big deal.
  • OPENO: Due to discrimination! That’s a problem that can be fixed!
  • RESTRICTES: Maybe, but “can” and “will” are two different things. We, as a society, have tried very hard to eliminate racism over the last half century, yet the disparity remains. There are two options: racism is subtle and very hard to eliminate, or we’ve eliminated most racism and the problem still persists. Could be cultural issues due to centuries of oppression. It doesn’t matter why. All that matters is that we don’t know how to get rid of it. Neither of those options make more immigration from a poor, visibly distinguishable minority a good idea. There’s already a lot we can’t undo, let’s not dig a deeper hole.
  • OPENO: Half a century is not actually a long time. (And will Latinos still be “visibly distinguishable” after generations of intermarriage, or just one end of a spectrum?)
  • RESTRICTES: Maybe, but are you willing to stake the country on us figuring out an apparently intractable problem?
  • OPENO: That’s over the top. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Some convergence would be enough.
  • RESTRICTES: Is 80% convergence enough? Because that’s all you’re likely to get. Third-generation Hispanic immigrants do no better than their parents in income or education. (And while we’ve just been talking about income, most other measures of well-being show the same gap.) Much like other minority groups, their income seems to grow at the same rate as whites, but from a permanently lower base. Puerto Ricans are still a very poor group overall.
  • OPENO: 80% doesn’t actually sound that bad? Much less than you’d want of course, but still manageable. Not as dire a picture as you’re trying to paint. Plus I’m not sure how much weight to put on those studies, given that the immigrant population is only now settling in after a period of rapid growth. But the worst case scenario doesn’t seem that bad.
  • RESTRICTES: For a group that will make up almost a third of Americans by 2050? That’s very sanguine.
  • OPENO: Perhaps, but I would bet money on Latinos doing better than that over the coming decades. Our expectations still differ, but not our facts I think. Let’s move on to Europe, where I do have concerns.
  • RESTRICTES: You’re right to be worried. In Europe the outlook is even worse. Let’s take France, Germany, and the UK, the three largest EU countries. Each has, over the last half century taken in a large Muslim population. France from Algeria, Germany from Turkey, and Britain from Pakistan and Bangladesh to generalize. Each has taken a different attitude towards immigrants. In France the goal was assimilation; citizens were citizens and public displays of religion were at best frowned upon. The Germans thought they were just importing temporary workers who would go away when asked. Children of immigrants weren’t given citizenship until fairly recently. In the UK the goal was harmonious multiculturalism. Yet despite these differences all these immigrant groups are doing poorly, and in some cases the second generation is not only not converging, it’s regressing. That suggests to me that government policy is simply not a very effective lever, that what’s happening is pretty much inevitable (once you allow this sort of mass low-skilled immigration).
  • OPENO: Regressing?
  • RESTRICTES: This sort of research is rather hard to find (I wonder why?), but in Germany, second generation Turkish immigrants have a bigger earnings gap relative to natives than their parents, adjusting for education. (Granted, they are somewhat more educated than their parents, which attenuates the gap somewhat.) In France, first generation Turkish men are 70.6% likely to be employed. Second generation? 41.2%. Pakistanis in the UK see an almost 14% drop in employement.
  • OPENO: That seems implausibly extreme.
  • RESTRICTES: A few caveats then. Part of the gap may be explained by differences in average age. Also I’ve cherry-picked some notable but still representative examples. But in general, this is the pattern for Muslim second generation immigrants: educational outcomes are improved, while actual economic performance mostly stagnates, with outlying groups in either direction. That’s true both for income and even more so for employment rates.
  • OPENO: Is this a result of discrimination?
  • RESTRICTES: Maybe in part, but I don’t think primarily. In Sweden, the wage gap is entirely skill-driven, with no evidence for discrimination by employers. However, there may be some discrimination in deciding who is hired in the first place. I don’t doubt that racism plays a part.
  • OPENO: What about non-Muslim immigrants? How do they compare?
  • RESTRICTES: Intra-EU migrants don’t fully converge with the natives (just like whites in the US), but they don’t generally have the same issues. But other non-white groups do much better than Muslim immigrants. Indians in Britain do much better than other South Asian groups, which seems difficult to attribute to discrimination. Given how often Sikhs are attacked as Muslims, I don’t think bigots are very good at distinguishing between minority groups. No, I think the difference is mainly in whether groups are skilled when they first arrive. There may also be concerns with Muslim communities being more culturally isolated from the broader nation, which could also have economic effects, but we can deal with that when we talk about culture.
  • OPENO: And this is worse than in America?
  • RESTRICTES: Unfortunately there just isn’t enough research to allow for a full point-by-point comparison, but I think so. For instance, there is a drop in employment among descendants of Mexican immigrants, but it’s much smaller, and basically brings them into line with non-Hispanic whites. (First generation immigrants to the US are more likely to be employed than natives, a point in your favor.) In America, there is a jump in outcomes, then just normal slow progress (but not convergence). In Europe there isn’t even really that jump.
  • OPENO: But if different low-skilled immigrant groups have different outcomes in different countries, surely we could study that and learn which policies work and which ones don’t? The differences imply that we aren’t just seeing the exact same process over and over, like you implied. The debate over the welfare state is another issue, but maybe European countries have created perverse incentives or something like that.
  • RESTRICTES: That would be worthwhile research, but consider this. If America is a positive outlier, then there might not be much room for improvement. We might already be close to the best possible outcome, even if Europe isn’t. Also, if much of the gap is due to the larger cultural gap between Europeans and Muslim immigrants than between Americans and Mexicans then there’s no reason to assume that a policy solution exists. Or maybe Americans are just more accepting of immigrants because of centuries of immigration. It’s not clear if we can fix that either. Though of course we should investigate. I don’t know the causes with any certainty.
  • OPENO: If I may summarize your argument so far. Low skilled immigrant groups to the US are likely to quickly converge to an educational/economic level higher than in their native countries, but considerably lower than other Americans. In Europe second generation Muslims are better educated than their parents, but are often actually worse off economically and less attached to the labor market. Whatever the best case scenario is, it isn’t an indistinguishable melting pot in either case. There are going to be problems and economic gaps for the foreseeable future.
  • RESTRICTES: Exactly. And while much of this can’t be undone, as I certainly don’t advocate expelling citizens from any country on ethnic grounds, this isn’t a mistake we need to keep making. We can stop letting in low-skilled immigrants at any time. Even if there’s some illegal immigration, the numbers will be much lower.
  • OPENO: Well, you’ve convinced me that I was naive to expect some sort of perfect economic melding between immigrants and natives. But the degree of difference matters too. After all, America holds together even if some whites make less than others. Poorer ethnic groups create problems, but ones we have a long history of dealing with. And you still haven’t shown what the actual best case scenario is, just what we’re currently on track to achieve. Maybe that’s all we can do, maybe not. Yet there are greater difficulties than I first allowed.
  • RESTRICTES: Progress!

Next: The economic impact on natives

(Source for header image)

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