Heather MacDonald, a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal. She also is a recipient of 2005 Bradley Prize for Outstanding Intellectual Achievement.
Steven Malanga, Senior Editor of City Journal and a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He writes about the intersection of urban economies, business communities, and public policy.
Victor Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.
FP: Heather MacDonald, Steven Malanga and Victor Hanson, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Heather MacDonald, let’s begin the discussion with you. Tell us some of the themes you deal with in your sections of the book, especially the issue of how the epidemic of crime, gangs, and illegitimacy is creating a new Hispanic underclass.
Macdonald: In observing the standard discourse about immigration I noticed a certain archetype popping up again and again, especially in the discourse of open border conservatives: what I call the “redemptive Hispanic.” It was said that Hispanic immigrants would save America from itself by reinvigorating those family and religious values that it was in danger of losing.
Certainly, there are millions of Hispanic immigrants and their children who fit this paradigm; their admirable work ethic has revitalized neighborhoods and brought valuable cultural traditions to this country. But as a Los Angeles native, I was not so sure that the archetype of the “redemptive Hispanic” captured the entire story of Hispanic immigration. So I visited schools and jails throughout Los Angeles and Orange County, talking to students, teachers, counselors, inmates, and police officers, and discovered a picture that is far more complex than the open borders advocates acknowledge or even allow in polite discourse. And looking at social statistics, I could only conclude that the “redemptive Hispanic” is more myth than reality. Especially among second and third generation Hispanics, gang involvement, illegitimacy, and school failure are serious problems that are creating a second underclass.
Speak with students in any heavily Latino school and you will come across comments like this, told me by Jackie, a vivacious illegal alien from Guatemala, who was getting her GED at Belmont High School in Los Angeles’s overwhelmingly Hispanic, gang-ridden Rampart district: “Most of the people I used to hang out with when I first came to the school have dropped out. Others got kicked out or got into drugs. Five graduated, and four home girls got pregnant.”
Jackie’s observations have been confirmed by every teen I spoke to while researching teen pregnancy and out of wedlock child-bearing in Southern California. “This year was the worst for pregnancies,” said Liliana, an American-born senior at Manual Arts High School near downtown Los Angeles. “A lot of girls get abortions; some drop out.” Are girls ashamed when they get pregnant? I asked . “Not at all,” Liliana responds. Among Hispanic teens the stigma of single parenthood has vanished.
Statistics bear out these first-person accounts. Mexican girls—who come from by far the largest and fastest-growing immigrant population--now have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. The Mexican teen birthrate is 93 births per every 1,000 girls, compared with 27 births for every 1,000 white girls, 17 births for every 1,000 Asian girls, and 65 births for every 1,000 black girls.
Hispanic women have the highest unmarried birthrate in the country. Moreover, 48 percent of all Hispanic births occur outside of marriage, compared with 24 percent of white births and 15 percent of Asian births. Only the percentage of black out-of-wedlock births -- 68% -- exceeds the Hispanic rate. But the black population is not going to triple over the next few decades.
There is no greater predictor of future dysfunction than growing up in a single-parent home. Children raised in single-parent homes are at far higher risk of school failure, juvenile delinquency, emotional problems, teen pregnancy, and poverty than children raised by married parents.
Gang life is thriving in Southern California schools, and is spreading across the country with the migration of Hispanic immigrants. Crime involvement worsens dramatically from the first to the second generation of Latinos. The incarceration rate of Mexican-Americans is 3.45 times higher than that of whites. A whopping 28% of Mexican-American males in San Diego between the ages of 18 and 24 reported having been arrested since 1995, and 20%reported having been incarcerated -- a rate twice that of other immigrant groups.
This summer in Southern California, in two separate incidents just weeks apart, Latino gang members fatally gunned down two grandmothers who had confronted them while they were spraying gang graffiti. The gunmen were not recently arrived illegals, but part of a burgeoning Hispanic-American gang culture.
I should also mention that Hispanics have the highest school drop-out rate in the country -- a recipe for economic decline.
These are problems that are currently taboo to speak about, but they must be looked at unflinchingly as we decide what our immigration policy should be. While many immigrants continue to thrive and to enrich our country, too many from the second and third generation of Hispanics are developing behaviors that will fray the social fabric and cost taxpayers millions in welfare and criminal justice outlays.
FP: Steven Malanga, kindly give us your thoughts on Heather Macdonald’s findings. Then tell us your angle on the cost Hispanic immigrants have produced to the American economy.
Malanga: Many of the social problems that Heather outlines are prescriptions for economic failure, too. Studies of the poor, for instance, indicate that a big chunk of poverty in America is not a result of a lack of economic opportunity or a failure of our economic system, but of poor choices that individuals make in life that bring them great disadvantages. For instance, two-thirds of all families in poverty in America are headed by single-parents, and in fewer than 20 percent of those families is the parent working full time.
That’s why we look at statistics on teen pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births among immigrants and their American-born children with such alarm. They are one reason why the old formula of immigrants coming to America and finding economic success for themselves and their children apparently doesn’t apply as widely to this generation of immigrants.
In the book I go into some detail about what the latest research shows us about the economic performance of immigrants in this, the so-called Second Great Migration, especially in contrast to previous generations of immigrants who came during what is often called the First Great Migration—from 1880 to about 1925. There are crucial differences which it is important to understand.
For one thing, studies have shown that although immigrants during the First Great Migration were described as the ‘tired’ and ‘poor’ of Europe, they actually came with skills and trades, and as a result, they fit into the American economy of the time fairly well. A study by the National Academies found that immigrants of that migration were actually on average slightly more skilled than the average American worker of the time, which is one reason why they attained economic parity with Americans quickly, and also why their children succeeded so well, on average. Another reason so many immigrants from the First Great Migration succeeded is because America put immigration restrictions in place starting in the 1920s, which greatly reduced migration and also minimized the competition that those already here would face from additional newcomers.
By contrast, today’s immigrants are largely out of step with our economy and confined to low-wage work where, because of their lack of education, they get stuck. A study by economists at Harvard, for instance, found that 63 percent of Mexican male immigrants do not have a high school education. As a result, those immigrants not only experience a larger wage gap with the American workforce when they first arrive than immigrants of 100 years ago experienced, but the wage gap persists. A study of Mexican immigrants who arrived in the 1970s found that 20 years later they hadn’t made much economic progress. Traditional economic mobility wasn’t working for them. Even more startling is that young Mexican male immigrants arriving more recently have an even larger wage gap relative to American workers.
This research has implications not only for the workers themselves, but for their children. Although we cherish the idea of immigrants’ kids working hard to succeed in America, economists will tell you that on average an entire generation of offspring can only better their parents by so much in terms of educational achievement and economic gains. This is why one study by Harvard economist George Borjas predicted that by 2030 the children of today’s Mexican born immigrants will still have a significant wage gap with the average American worker.
The size of the wage gap and the problems that the children of immigrants in school are having also probably explains why today’s immigrant families use social services to a far greater degree than the average native-born American family. I cite a number of groundbreaking studies done by economists for the National Academies on usage and costs of social services in two states—California and New Jersey. The California study estimated that every native-born family in the state was paying nearly $1,300 in additional taxes because the cost of providing government services to immigrant families so heavily outweighed the taxes they pay. Economists have replicated these studies in other places now, including Florida, with similar results.
Because so many immigrants are low wage workers, their contribution to the economy is not as significant as the contributions that immigrants once made. The National Academies study estimated in 1998 that immigrants produced a net economic benefit of some $10 billion to our economy, which in an economy of our size is a very small contribution, especially when contrasted with the costs. Studies which estimate a bigger benefit typically include the wages being paid to immigrants themselves as part of the contribution to our economy, or they often make projections into the future based on questionable assumptions to ‘find’ a time in the distant future when today’s immigrants will finally produce a net benefit to the economy.
Of course, some advocates for today’s very liberal levels of immigration say that immigrants are doing jobs that Americans won’t do. Yet we have had so much immigration since the early 1970s that immigrants are now competing with other immigrants for jobs here in the U.S., driving down each other’s wages and making economic progress more difficult. A number of studies have shown that today’s immigrants have the biggest impact in the job market on other immigrants and on native-born Hispanic workers, with whom they often compete.
Today, moreover, some U.S. industries have failed to invest in automation and productivity because of the opportunity for low-wage workers that immigration presents to them. Two noted agricultural economists, for instance, have estimated that the long-term price increases in produce would be very modest if American farmers had to do without immigrant workers because the cost of labor is such a small part of the retail price of produce, and because there are farming techniques and automated systems being used around the rest of the world that our farmers could adopt to replace some of the work now being done by immigrant farm hands.
You rarely hear many of these issues discussed in our debates today on immigration. If I had to characterize how the debate is carried out in the media, I would say that it’s largely based on old facts and myths which have little to do with today’s immigration and its social and economic impact on 21st Century America.
FP: Victor Hanson?
Hanson: Empirically-after living over a half-century in the San Joaquin Valley, the ground zero of illegal immigration from Mexico-I could confirm many of the statistics Steven and Heath present. But I would add two observations. One, what should one expect when millions arrive with the three strikes of no English, no legality, and not much education-at a time when America itself has lost confidence in its own traditions, and so asks very little of any immigrants, and has replaced the successful melting pot with the bankrupt and illiberal notion of a salad bowl?
And second, I think one tragedy of illegal immigration is that tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants do assimilate, integrate, and intermarry citizens-and their children succeed in the manner of traditional second-generation immigrants. BUT, that being said, the pool of illegal arrivals from Mexico and Latin America is so large that in recent years for every imigrant that perhaps makes the successful transition, another two arrive, the result being that we have a permanent pool of illegal immigrants that exhibit the sort of dependencies on the entitlement industry that we have come to expect in the American Southwest, and do not find upward mobility amid what are de facto growing apartheid communities
Close the borders-through a multifaceted effort to beef up security, fortify the easiest transits, fine employers who hire illegals, provide verifiable IDs- and return to the assimilationist model of the past, and by attrition many of our present problems will begin disappearing while we spend years squabbling over amnesties and deportations.
Macdonald: If I may make a macro-point: The fact that we are engaged in this debate at all represents a radical shake-up of the immigration status quo (‘we’ being not just my coauthors but the pundit class and reluctant politicians as well). For the first time in decades, the public has forced the political and media elites to respond to its dismay at illegal immigration. Though liberal and—more surprisingly—conservative opinion-makers are untroubled by illegal immigration’s massive assault on the rule of law, the public still cares deeply whether our laws are respected or not. Moreover, people who live with the influx of poorly-educated, low-skilled illegal immigrants see the strains that this demographic wave puts on their communities.
The prominence that illegal immigration has had in the public debate over the last two years represents a triumph of democracy, in my view. After decades of being silenced, the popular will is finally being heard, amplified by the rise of the new media. And this change in the political climate is more than cosmetic. Though the Bush Administration had to be dragged kicking and screaming into its current enforcement policies, those policies are many magnitudes more aggressive than anything that has been seen for years—if still a fraction of what they need to be. Even more responsive have been local and state legislatures, which are forging ahead with efforts to stop rewarding and start penalizing immigration law-breakers, both American and foreign.
Are the political ferment and the ensuing government actions perfect? Of course not. As Steve has pointed out, the debate has largely failed to take up the question of what a more nationally beneficial immigration policy should look like. And it is still possible that after the Presidential election, politicians will go back to ignoring the public will. Still, I think that the public deserves credit for persisting in its demand that our national borders and immigration laws be respected.
Malanga: Speaking of the public, as Heather has, I think that immigration is a good issue on which voters can judge candidates, especially presidential candidates, because there is no such thing as a typical liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican view of immigration. Most candidates who take a clear-cut position on immigration policy will offend some voters who are otherwise their supporters, and the degree to which candidates are willing to take a principled stand and risk alienating some supporters should tell us something about their political courage—or lack of it.
We saw this with Hillary Clinton and the issue of drivers’ licenses for illegals. What caused her so much grief was her refusal to give a clear outline of her policy for so long. Although polls showed that most Americans objected to the idea, those Democrats who came out in favor of the plan by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, including Barack Obama, got in far less trouble that did Clinton, with her equivocating.
It’s precisely because the immigration issue has created atypical political coalitions that some candidates, especially some of the frontrunning presidential candidates, have tried simply to dodge the issue. It’s quite amazing, if you look over the position papers of most presidential candidates, the degree to which they either ignore immigration as an issue or treat it in the most cursory and superficial manner, as if it’s merely a minor matter to most Americans. Most of the candidates—from Hillary Clinton on one hand to Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani on the other—would probably just love to see the issue disappear, though it’s the voters who are refusing to let that happen.
What is especially missing from the debate is any discussion of what our legal immigration policy should look like. We currently allow into the country some 1 million legal immigrants every year, so their impact is profound even without discussing illegal immigration. Moreover, most legal immigrants are coming on visas determined by family relations. Our current legal policy, in other words, has little to do with favoring immigrants who might actually make a contribution to our economy and our society. By contrast, in Australia, which has retooled its immigration policy in recent years, 70 percent of visas are skills-based. Australian officials have proclaimed that because of their immigration policy, they are winning the worldwide battle for talent.
We need to think about narrowing the range of people who can come here based on family relations, because there is little sense to our current policy. Today, we allow not only the spouses and minor children of those who are here legally to join them (which makes sense), but we also allow the adult parents and adult siblings of those who are already here to get in line for legal visas. Once those adults get here, of course, then a whole new set of family relations (the adult siblings of their spouses for instance) become eligible to immigrate, and many apply to get in line for visas. What this has done over the years is make the list of those seeking legal admission lengthy, and periodically the immigration advocates call for increasing our legal immigration limits to clear up the backlog of those waiting to get in. It’s by this haphazard process that we’ve established our current legal immigration quotas, with about two-thirds of the 1 million coming on family relations visas. No other country lets in remotely as many people legally based on family relations.
In our book I outline a set of potential options for reforming our legal immigration system based on a policy that favors those with skills and restricts visas based on family relations to the spouses and minor children of legal immigrants. I discuss the ways that other countries which are immigrant magnets—Australia and Ireland, for instance—have reshaped their policies in recent years with the skilled immigrant in mind. There are a number of interesting things we could do, and it would be wonderful to have a debate about that, but right now, the candidates are ignoring the issue of our legal immigration system, and I guess they won’t address it until the public requires them to.
Hanson: The issue should favor the Republican candidates who reflect the public's desire to close the borders first, and then worry over the other controversies later. Both Sens. Obama and Clinton are hostage to the identity politics wing of their party, and are pretty much for the status quo. Expect the volatile issue to break out in the campaigning for the general election in a way few expect.
As long as Republicans can't be pegged as the pro-mass-deportation party, they do much better. After weeding out very recent arrivals, felons, and those not working on public assistance, there are still several million illegal aliens who may not volunteer to return home or won't marry US citizens. These longtime working residents need to find some sort of mechanism to apply for a verifiable ID, and then citizenship while legal residents-but after paying a fine, learning English, and going through the citizenship process. Putting 7-8 million on buses en masse to Oaxaca won't work.
A few other observations: there is a great latent anger in the US that erupts once politicians--cf. the backlash over the 2006 May-Day demonstrations, or the recent immigration comprehensive reform package--treat the public as racists or Neanderthals for wanting their government to enforce the very laws they are entrusted with enforcing.
Second, there are entire issues touching on illegal immigration that are completely taboo subjects: the drop-out rates of second-generation children of illegal aliens; the racist attacks of alien gangs against blacks in Los Angeles; the costs of unfunded entitlements for illegal aliens such as health care and special remediation in schools and of incarceration of alien felons (over a half-billion dollars alone per annum in California.
Third, there is a complete pass given the fossilized and racialist Latino groups that oppose English as our official national language, buy into the La Voce de Aztlan nonsense, and still employ tribalist nomenclature like "La Raza" ("The Race") that would be tolerated for no other group.
Fourth, we pay far too little attention to the near bellicose stance of the Mexican government that systematically thwarts US law in desperation to keep billions in remittances, to keep open its export of those it can't or won't feed and house, and to foster a sympathetic expatriate community that loses its animus to Mexico the longer it is away from the motherland.
Fifth, there is silence about the stunning manner that illegal immigration harms American low-wage earners, in the most illiberal fashion.
Illegal immigration is one of the great moral issues of our times-it contaminates everyone involved, not surprising when federal law is systematically ignored as the Right seeks profit and the Left a collective political constituency. Illegal immigration is illiberal immigration.
FP: Heather MacDonald, Steven Malanga and Victor Hanson, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.