It is the unique circumstances of existing residents that mostly determine their attitudes toward new immigrants. The primary reason why some residents are for immigration and others are against it is because those residents expect to gain economically or suffer economically. Some residents of that population will financially benefit from the new arrivals while others will suffer.
Even in the past centuries when the level of government involvement into society was much smaller, large groups of existing residents were hostile toward new arrivals, particularly foreign newcomers. The main reason for their attitudes was the fear that new arrivals would take their jobs, often in the form of accepting lower wages for the same work. A large group of foreigners who were willing to work for low wages would often lower the wages for the enter workforce, foreign or not. Thus a new arrival, particularly a foreign one, brought the immediate threat of a lower income or a loss in income altogether. This attitude has not changed much over the centuries, but with the rise in taxes and government programs, individuals face not just a direct threat from new arrivals in the form of lower wages, but the indirect potential threat of higher taxes to pay for more government services.
As the percentage of foreign-born residents has grown sharply over the past 40 years, so has U.S. government spending on welfare programs, growing more than 10 times, after adjusting for inflation. Today, total spending on welfare programs, at the federal level alone, is now in the area of $1 trillion, not counting state and local welfare programs.
As government spending has increased, along with the number of foreign-borns, there is an increase in the level of government services directed toward new immigrants, legal or not. In past decades, immigrants were less likely to be eligible for government programs and/or often avoided such programs for fear of prosecution or deportation. Now however, the extent and range of government programs as well as eligibility status of qualified immigrants have expanded greatly, by both the federal government as well as many state governments. I believe that it is primarily this issue that now makes immigration an increasingly divisive issue.
Because of the growth of the welfare state, when people talk about the benefits or problems resulting from immigration, they are talking about government, government spending and taxes. Without government involvement into immigrants’ lives, immigration would generally be seen as something as innocuous as a family moving over to the next city. But when government is as pervasive as it is in the U.S., every benefit that someone receives is paid by another.
Unlike in markets, where the trading of goods and services is for the most part, win-win, in governments, nearly all services and benefits are win-lose. The benefits offered to one group of people will be paid for by others. This was very visible in the “stimulus” bill (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) several years ago where billions of dollars spent on new statues, government buildings, childcare centers and bike paths were paid for, not by taxpayers within those communities, but via taxpayers often hundreds or thousands of miles away. Individuals in the communities who received the money for projects in those areas (may have) benefitted in some way, but the cost was paid by the taxpayers who funded the program. One group of people won and one group lost. This is the nature of nearly all government programs. Even when taxes are not increased in the short-term, taxpayers know that they will be in the long-run, or if money is be printed to cover the debts, they will suffer in the form of higher inflation.
In the case of immigration, in general, those against immigration are afraid of losing more tax money to pay for the government programs and benefits for new immigrants. In contrast, those for immigration are generally that class of people expected to personally benefit financially from the increased consumption of services from immigrants. For example, the director of a school in an area of potential immigrants might be likely be in favor of immigration because it would result in more power, money and prestige to operate larger and growing schools.
Similarly, the owner or operator of a hospital or hospital chain would be more favorable to immigration if he or she expected to receive a net financial benefit. Since the majority of immigrants’ hospital and medical services will be paid via taxpayers, the owner of that hospital is the winner and taxpayers (especially distant taxpayers) are the losers. An upper-income owner of an ethnic restaurant might also look upon immigration as a positive, with opinion swayed in large part because of the greater likelihood of more customers and a higher income. On the other hand, a professional such as an engineer or psychiatrist who doesn’t expect immigration to result in a greater personal income, is likely to see immigration as a negative because of the higher taxes imposed on him or her.
In short, just as with nearly all government programs, families or individuals who anticipate being hurt financially because of immigration are likely to be anti-immigration, while families who think immigration will result in greater job security or a higher income will likely be in favor of immigration. Despite the way that immigration is portrayed, it really is not a macro issue. It does not impact states across the country proportionately, nor cities or neighborhoods. Immigration is primarily an economic issue, and one personal to families and individuals based on their geography and individual circumstances.
Further evidence that immigration really is mostly about money is the general attitude that “professionals” from foreign countries like China and India are much more “acceptable” immigrants than unskilled workers from Mexico and Central America. Taxpayers know that higher-income professionals are more likely to be paying taxes than using government services than lower-income residents. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 the median earnings of U.S. residents from India was over $70,000 a year, while foreign-borns of Mexican heritage earned less than $24,000 per year. This is likely one more reason why resistance to immigration with a higher percentage of immigrants from Asia and Europe seems lower than areas where immigrants from Mexico and Central America are more likely to settle.
Every person, immigrant or not, wants to maximize the amount of resources he or she takes home for his or her family. This exists in every community and neighborhood across the globe. Government benefits and taxes are now so embedded in the immigration equation that immigration really does affect nearly everyone. I believe that it is the impact on family personal finances that is behind the strong feelings both for and against immigration, regardless of efforts to wrap the issue in non-economic terms like compassion, fairness, “American Values”, etc.
Some of these same issues are responsible for the trends in migration we see between states in the U.S., which is what I’ll talk about next time.