Immigration’s Golden Door

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

May 25, 1995



Blame Emma Lazarus.

Critics of immigration have bought into her myth-making about “homeless, tempest-tost” vagrants in search of government handouts. It’s not a new idea — Lazarus wrote her poem about the “huddled masses” of “wretched refuse” in 1883. But today it’s just as false, even as it energizes the population protectionists who think we’re wasting too many tax dollars on foreign-born welfare cases.

Polls regularly show more than 60% of the public favoring fewer legal immigrant admissions, which numbered about 800,000 last year. Pat Buchanan called for a five-year moratorium two weeks ago. Sen. Alan Simpson and Rep. Lamar Smith, both of whom will soon introduce sweeping legislation in Congress, aren’t known for their fondness of immigrants, either — The bipartisan and influential U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by Barbara Jordan, may also fiddle with immigrant numbers next month.

So it’s important to point out, loudly and forcefully, that immigrants aren’t the welfare cases that their critics make them out to be. Immigrants today are young and upwardly mobile achievers. When they first arrive in the U.S., their prime working years still lie ahead of them. The median age for legal immigrants who entered in 1993 was 28, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (The average American is 33.) Roughly 95% of all immigrants arrive before retirement age. (About 13% of all residents are senior citizens.) More than 80% come before they turn 45. (Only 68% of the population is under 45.)

Immigrants work hard, too. Male labor force participation among them is slightly higher than among natives, 77% vs. 74%, according to the 1990 Census. Hispanic immigrants, often considered the biggest slackers, have the highest rates of all: 83% labor force participation. Better yet, employed immigrants are more likely than employed natives to work in the private sector: 90% vs. 84%. This tendency is true among both legal permanent residents, who are restricted from working in certain government jobs, and naturalized citizens, who are not.

And all of this hard work pays off. Native households earn only about 6% more income than immigrant households: $30,176 vs. $28,314. But on a per-capita basis, the foreign-born take home a little more pay: $15,033 vs. $14,367. Recent newcomers are actually a drag on these immigrant numbers, since the socially and linguistically isolated foreign-born usually have to begin their lives in America many rungs below where they will finish. Given time, immigrant incomes shoot upward. Those who entered the U.S. before 1980 earned $35,733 in household income and $19,423 per capita — beating natives by 19% and 35%, respectively. Their earnings also outpaced non-Hispanic whites.

It’s true that the foreign-born are more likely than the native-born to receive public assistance — 6.6% vs. 4.9%, according to the March 1994 Current Population Survey. But that’s only half the story. The immigrant numbers are driven artificially upward by two groups: refugees and the elderly. Refugees, of course, flee from persecution, gain admission for strictly humanitarian reasons and are essentially forced by the federal government onto the welfare rolls. Many elderly immigrants also rely on welfare — typically Supplemental Security Income — because they are ineligible for Social Security (which, perversely, isn’t called public assistance).

There are some possible remedies to this problem that don’t require cutting off immigration. Privatizing the delivery of refugee welfare services is one potential solution, since groups like Catholic Charities and the Council of Jewish Federations are much better than government agencies at moving refugees off assistance. As for older, SSI-receiving immigrants, their children — who are often very successful Americans — should be asked to do more to support their parents.

Though welfare rates among refugees and elderly immigrants are far too high, it’s important to stress that most newcomers don’t abuse public assistance. Only 5.1% of nonrefugee, working-age immigrants are on the dole vs. 5.3% of the natives.

Part of the immigrants’ success stems from education. Even though 41% lack a high school education (compared with 23% of natives), immigrants understand that schooling leads to personal advancement. They are just as likely as natives to have graduated from college and twice as likely to hold doctorates.

Their kids pick up on these signals. In a recent study by Grace Kao and Marta Tienda of the University of Chicago, the children of immigrants outperformed both first- and third-generation Americans on grades and test scores. In this year’s Westinghouse Science Talent Search — arguably the most prestigious reward given to high schoolers — the list of 41 finalists included students with last names like Khazanov, Lin, Mishra, Srivastava, and Yeh. Irene Ann Chen of San Diego won the grand prize. When she attends Harvard this fall, she will join her sister, Connie, who took fourth place in the same contest two years ago.

Emma Lazarus may have done more than her fair share to scandalize immigration, but she did one thing right in her sonnet: America still presents a “golden door” of opportunity to the world. Let’s keep it open, for their sake — and for ours.

Mr. Miller is vice president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based think tank. He recently compiled the “Index of Leading Immigration Indicators.”

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