Durbin Anecdote Aside, a ‘Strong Back’ Doesn’t Go as Far Anymore
In arguing against merit-based immigration, senior senator from Illinois ignores economic changes over past century
In opposing a U.S. immigration system based more on merit than on family ties, Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) this week offered up an anecdote from his own family history.
Durbin cited his grandfather’s immigration experience.
“My grandfather didn’t come here with any extraordinary skills,” he said on the Senate floor Monday. “He came here with a strong back and a determination to feed his family. And he did it. My grandmother, the same. That’s the story of this country.”
But experts who favor lower levels of immigration questioned the validity of an anecdote from an economy that no longer exists.
“The economy has changed,” said Matthew O’Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). “We’re not in a situation where we’re looking for strong backs … We’re looking for well-trained minds.”
The Senate this week is debating whether to extend legal status to 1.8 million illegal immigrants brought to America as children, as proposed by President Donald Trump. Democrats have offered to pair amnesty with new measures to deter future illegal immigration but have drawn the line at dramatically changing the legal immigration system.
Trump wants to limit future chain migration to the immediate family members of new immigrants and covert 50,000 green cards currently awarded to immigrants randomly from among millions of applicants to other immigration categories. Proponents argue that it makes more sense for a country with a modern, advanced economy to choose immigrants based on education and skill.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), said immigrants in previous generations provided the manual labor that fueled the industrial revolution. The economy had much less of a need for college-educated workers, from either natives or the foreign-born, he said.
"The opportunity to earn a middle-class wage by a person with very modest skills was much greater a century ago," he said.
Camarota said those dynamics can be seen in wage data indicating that the gap between higher and lower earners was much less in the early 20th century than it is today.
O'Brien agreed. He said that in addition to filling factory positions in cities, immigrants helped replace Americans who left agricultural jobs for the new work created by the industrial revolution.
But agriculture and manufacturing account for a much smaller slice of today's economy, replaced by jobs that either require a great deal of education and skill or low-wage service jobs, O'Brien said. And mass immigration of low-skill workers pushes wages earned by natives on the bottom rungs of the economy further down, he added.
Beyond the economic impact, however, O'Brien said immigration has much more profound effect on the public coffers than it once did.
"The other thing Mr. Durbin is not taking into account is we didn't have a giant social safety net then," he said.
A Center for Immigration Studies analysis of 2014 and 2015 census data indicated that 42.4 percent of immigrant households use at least one federal welfare program, compared with 26.9 percent of native households.
Camarota said that largely is due to low-education immigrants. He noted that immigrants earned an average of $34,112, which was 84.5 percent of what U.S.-born workers made. But the gap was less among those with college degrees. College-educated immigrants earned $61,815, or 92 percent of the average income of college-educated natives.
In addition to the $1 trillion the federal government spends on means-tested assistance programs for the poor, Camarota added, the nation spends far more on shared expenses such as public education. Early in the 20th century, he said, government costs amounted to about 5 to 7 percent of the total economy — compared with about a third today.
Immigrants with an ability to earn high incomes help pay for those costs, Camarota said.
"You could bring in lots of poor people and not burden taxpayers in 1900 or even 1910," he said. "The world changed."
While high-earning immigrants pay more in taxes than they use in services, newcomers who did not graduate from college and rely on jobs demanding physical labor have the opposite effect, Camarota said.
"Adding lower-income people to the United States creates a very large fiscal burden," he said.