36 Million International Migrants in Two Decades

by Reihan Salam

Yesterday I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to get a sense of the extent to which the CBO believes international migration will increase the U.S. population. Brad Plumer of Wonkblog has a helpful post on the same subject, and I’m pleased to report that we’re in the same ballpark. My guess was that the CBO anticipated that 20 million immigrants would settle in the U.S. over the next decade, and Brad’s guess is that the CBO anticipates that 36 million will arrive over the next two decades. Brad observes that 36 million is roughly the number of people currently residing in Canada. (One frustration that Brad and I both had to deal with is that, as he notes in his post, “the CBO doesn’t publish a detailed forecast of what it expects immigration to look like under current law,” and so we were forced to make educated guesses.)

Brad teases out another important aspect of the CBO report:

Legal immigration will continue to expand in the future — with high-skilled immigrants making up a small fraction of the total.

Again, we’re assuming the Senate bill passes. The number of additional legal residents in the country goes up an extra 12.7 million in 2018, then to 18.5 million in 2023, and then to 24.1 million in 2033. (Again, this is over and above the legal immigration that was already expected.)

A few things are happening here as time goes by. Many amnestied immigrants who received provisional status become permanent residents. The number of legal immigrants who come through employers rises — to an extra 5.1 million in 2033. And the two “merit-based programs” to cut the backlog expand significantly, bringing in family members of existing residents, people who speak in English, people with education, and people from countries that have had little that have had little immigration to the United States.

Note that the number of high-skilled immigrants and temporary workers also rises, though not quite as quickly as the number of low-skilled workers. The H1-B program, for instance, doesn’t expand as quickly as programs like the W-visa for farm workers and low-wage workers. 

Advocates of the Senate bill focus on the fact that the CBO has found that it is deficit-improving. It seems clear, however, that it would be more deficit-improving if the amount of high-skilled immigration were substantially increased while the amount of less-skilled immigration were substantially decreased, as high-skilled immigrants tend to earn higher incomes than less-skilled immigrants and that are less likely to rely on means-tested transfers. Some might find the idea of annexing Canada rather attractive, in light of its natural resources and its highly educated population. But imagine if we instead annexed a country in which the share of the population that has attained at least upper secondary education were much lower than it is in Canada, where 93 percent of adult women and 91 percent of adult men have at least a high school diploma in the 25-34 cohort – levels higher than the U.S., where the share is 90 percent for women and 87 percent for men. (The upper secondary school completion numbers for Canada and the U.S. are lower for adults in the 45-54 cohort, but not dramatically so.) 

In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center published a demographic profile of the unauthorized immigrant population which included the following data on its level of educational attainment:

The education profile of adults who are unauthorized immigrants differs markedly from that of U.S.-born adults and from that of other immigrants because unauthorized immigrant adults ages 25-64 are disproportionately likely to have very low education levels.

Nearly three-in-ten (29%) have less than a ninth-grade education; an additional 18% have some high school education but have not completed high school. The proportion of unauthorized immigrants with either less than a ninth-grade education or less than a high school education is roughly double the share of legal foreign-born residents with those educational levels. It is far greater than the share of U.S.-born adults—only 2% of those ages 25-64 have less than a ninth-grade education, and only 6% have additional years in high school, but no diploma.

Unauthorized immigrants are considerably less likely than both other immigrants and U.S.-born residents to have achieved at least a high school diploma. Among adults ages 25-64 who are unauthorized immigrants, 27% have finished high school and gone no further. The corresponding figure for legal immigrants is slightly lower at 24%; the U.S. born are slightly higher at 31%. But there are very large differences among the groups in the share that go beyond high school. Most U.S.-born adults ages 25-64 (61%) and legal immigrants (54%) have attended college or graduated from college, compared with only one-in-four unauthorized immigrants.

Another way to look at the education distribution is that 22% of U.S. residents ages 25-64 with less than a high school education are unauthorized immigrants— a rate that is five times the proportion of unauthorized immigrants in the adult population. The share of unauthorized immigrants is even higher—35%—among those with less than a ninth-grade education. [Emphasis added]

This is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but because the difference between the 25-34 and 45-54 cohorts is not great in either the U.S. or Canada (a somewhat discouraging fact in itself, as one would hope that upper secondary completion numbers would have gone up more) is small, the contrast remains at least somewhat useful. And so even if we bar all future migrants with less than a high school diploma, we are set to absorb a large number of individuals with less than a high school diploma into our networks of mutual civic obligation under a path to legalization. If we accept the premise that workers with less than a high school diploma are more likely to depend on means-tested transfers once they are eligible for them and that it is important to legalize much of the current unauthorized population, it is worth asking whether inviting still more less-skilled workers to settle in the U.S. means biting off more than we can chew. I continue to be by the fact that many liberals and moderates who believe that we as a society aren’t doing enough to meet the needs of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens and lawful permanent residents, many of whom are also among our least educated citizens and lawful permanent residents, believe that increasing the share of the adult population with less than a high school diploma is a wise course of action. The argument from global poverty alleviation is not an unreasonable one. But given the limitations of U.S. institutions that serve the very poor, my sense is that it would be prudent to sharply reduce less-skilled immigration.