National Data | Rector Routs White House On Senate Bill Numbers—But Should Go Further
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What impact will the Senate Guestworker / Amnesty bill have on U.S. population? A startling estimate by the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector —103 million legal immigrants by 2026—precipitated a war among Washington wonks. Cato complained of "cheap tricks." CBO defended its (far lower) estimates. Even the White House deigned to comment—unfavorably of course—on Robert Rector's analysis.

Nevertheless, Rector's estimate did achieve one telling result:   an amendment significantly reducing the number of legal immigrants who could enter under the bill's "Guest Worker" program. As a result of this change, Rector's estimated number of the number of legalizations falls from 103 million to around 66 million over the next 20 years. But that lower figure is still more than three times the current legalization rate.

My view: in general, Rector's figure is reasonable. And there are other reasons to expect the impact of the future immigration inflow to be even larger than he suggests.

Amnesty for Current Illegals: Rector assumes amnesty will be granted to 85 percent of the 11.9 million illegals currently in the U.S.—a total of 10 million new citizens. Under current law, with its focus on "family reunification," newly-amnestied illegals would be allowed to bring dependents into the country, adding another 6 million legals.

But what if, as many of us believe, the current illegal immigrant population is closer to 20 million? Rector does not consider this possibility. But it would increase the immigrant inflow by about 11 million.

Guest worker program: The Senate bill creates an entirely new "temporary" visa program—the H-1C. The initial limit was a whopping 325,000 rising to 390,000 in year two. After that H-1Cs are to be allowed to increase by 20 (Twenty!) percent each year. Rector assumed H-1C growth will be a more moderate 10 percent per annum—enough to bring in an additional 44.6 million guest workers and their dependents over the next 20 years. (It is this part of the inflow that has been reduced somewhat by amendment.)

Rector's moderation notwithstanding, the New York Times slammed his immigration figure as "a staggeringly ridiculous sum, considering that Mexico's entire work force is only 43 million." [ An Immigration Victory, May 27, 2006]

Unfortunately, the NYT is engaging in a bit of racial profiling: temporary visas are made available to all comers, not just Mexicans. The top two countries of origin of H-1b visa holders are India (population 1.1 billion) and China (population 1.3 billion).

Permanent employment visas ("green cards"): The Senate bill would increase the yearly number of employment-based visas from 140,000 to 450,000 between 2007 and 2016. After 2016, the number will fall to 290,000 per year. More importantly, the bill exempts spouses and children from the visa cap. Historically 1.2 dependents enter with each incoming worker. Bottom line: a 13.5 million overall increase in legal entrants by 2026.

Current law: Legal immigration has been running at about 950,000 per year, a rate that brings in 19 million legal immigrants over 20 years. Rector included this in his 103 (now 66) million figure. Arguably, therefore, Rector overstated the incremental impact of the Senate bill by some 19 million. That 19 million are coming anyway, under current law—and they will still come under the new law, but now with a lot of company.

Now for the really depressing news: two factors unmentioned by Rector could push U.S. population up by even more than his 103 (now 66) million estimate.

Continued illegal immigration: Rector makes no provision for it, as if a steel curtain miraculously descends over the southern border. Some researchers have estimated current crossings at 2.2 million per year. A 75 percent reduction would still leave more than 500,000 illegal entrants each year—or over 10 million over the next 20 years.

Foreign stock: Immigration's direct contribution to population growth does not tell the whole story. Immigrants have children after they arrive in the United States. The immigrants, by definition foreign-born, and their U.S.-born children together constitute what demographers call the "foreign stock."

Under normal circumstances immigrants have children at a faster pace than native-born Americans. Fertility rates (births per 1,000 women of child bearing ages, 15 to 44) in 2002 were:

  • 102 births per 1,000 immigrants
  • 59 births per 1,000 native born

But amnesties seem to heighten the baby-making instinct among their beneficiaries. This is the message conveyed in a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Laura E. Hill and Hans P. Johnson of the PPIC wrote:

"Between 1987 and 1991, total fertility rates for foreign-born Hispanics [in California] increased from 3.2 to 4.4 [expected babies per woman over her lifetime]. This dramatic rise was the primary force behind the overall increase in the state's total fertility rate during this period. Were it not for the large increase in fertility among Hispanic immigrants, fertility rates in California would have increased very little between 1987 and 1991.

"Why did total fertility rates increase so dramatically for Hispanic immigrants? First, the composition of the Hispanic immigrant population in California changed as a result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. In California alone, 1.6 million unauthorized immigrants applied for amnesty (legal immigrant status) under this act. The vast majority were young men, and many were agricultural workers who settled permanently in the United States. Previous research indicates that many of those granted amnesty were joined later by spouses and relatives in the United States..." [Understanding the Future of Californians' Fertility: The Role of Immigrants, April 2002]

Over the next twenty years an estimated 30 million family members of newly legalized immigrants will enter the country. It's not unreasonable to assume that three-quarters– or about 22 million—will be wives of foreign-born men working here. At current fertility rates—102 births per 1,000 immigrant women—this group will give birth to 2.2 million children in 2026. Absent the Senate bill, immigrant mothers would have given birth to an estimated 1.1 million babies that year. Only about 2.6 million babies will be born to U.S.-born mothers in 2026… (And those mothers themselves will include many born to immigrants, but let's leave that for now.)

Literally, immigration law is electing a new people.

Rector is right—but he doesn't go far enough.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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