The Legacy of Immigration: It's Complicated
In contemporary America, the success of immigrants is celebrated as a source of American vitality. Indeed, immigration is frequently lauded by American elites as a tool to raise economic growth and living standards. Many marvel at the success of Indian and Nigerian Americans, who are superbly educated. Some immigrants enhance American prosperity, but critics argue that mass immigration has an adverse impact on American institutions.
However, economists in a slew of new studies are arguing that immigration fails to degrade economic institutions in America. In a 2020 paper, Meg Tuszynski and Dean Stansel examined the proposition that immigrants transfer bad institutions and policies from their country of origin into the host country and concluded that immigration is not associated with a decline in economic institutions in the United States. Their analysis shows that immigrants are likely to relocate to countries with better institutions than their home country.
The primary message of Tuszynski and Stansel is that high-quality institutions tame the corrosive effects of immigration from countries with defective institutions. Invariably, good governance in richer countries incentivizes immigrants to become more productive and law abiding. More recent research has shown that poor countries with higher immigrant concentrations and cultural polarization exhibit lower levels of institutional quality. However, the impact on countries with robust institutions is negligible. Evidently, better governance mitigates the negative effects of immigration.
A further companion to these studies is a 2022 paper by Alex Nowrasteh and coauthors. In this study, Nowrasteh and his coauthors test the thesis that immigrants undermine the dynamism of economic institutions in the United States. Instead of agreeing with the theory, they contend that institutions in the home countries of immigrants have been improving, and the quality of American institutions would be higher if the economy was more responsive to changes in immigration. A recurring leitmotif in these studies is that the strength of American institutions orients immigrants to become more industrious citizens.
Therefore, if American institutions were to weaken immigration, it would have a deleterious effect on American society. On average, immigrants do assimilate in America, but recently there has been a campaign to smear American culture as racist and hostile to the interests of non-whites. Moreover, cultural attributes that promote economic success such as punctuality, scientific thinking, and rationality are perceived as instruments of white supremacy by cultural activists.
Clearly, some cultural beliefs hamper development. Since it’s becoming politically untenable to encourage assimilation, how can we say that all immigrants enrich America? Scholars have known for decades that diversity is negatively associated with trust, and even the Cato Institute admits that immigration curbs the growth in state-level taxation because the amplification of racial and ethnic diversity by immigrants reduces social solidarity and discourages politicians and voters from supporting larger budgets that serve immigrants.
Immigration has failed to undercut America’s prosperity due to the strength of its institutions. Without immigrant assimilation, these institutions will surely get weaker because immigrants migrate with their cultures. The studies explored earlier show that immigrants have a negligible effect on the quality of economic institutions, but this effect is minute only because American institutions are durable. For example, research indicates that groups from countries with higher economic development and with cultural traits that favor cooperation have a positive impact on the county-level gross domestic product (GDP) per worker in America.
However, many immigrants will not come from such countries. If American institutions implode due to the failures of assimilation, it will become unlikely for such people to thrive in America. At some point, immigration activists should concede that not all people contribute positively to America. As such, America must not court all immigrants. Activists are fond of saying that immigrants are entrepreneurial, but most studies specifically examine the ingenuity of European immigrants.
Likewise, Nigerians are star performers in America, although some Nigerians in their home country engage in unscrupulous activities. Similarly, Indians who come to the United States tend to vote for progressive politicians, yet India itself has a reputation for corruption, which progressives supposedly stand against. So, despite the success of some Indian Americans and Nigerian Americans, there may also be rogue actors that come here.
Companies, civic groups, and churches are free to sponsor immigration schemes to the United States, and people who wish to reside in America must do so legally by proving that they will be productive citizens. However, advocates should desist from acting like all immigrants are desirable because nothing could be further from the truth. Immigration has benefits, but not all immigrants contribute to our economy and society equally.