Members Only | January 11, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

The leaders of the Democratic Party must be honest about the real effects of immigration

Everyone will not gain today, even if everyone may gain tomorrow.

Image courtesy of Getty.
Image courtesy of Getty.

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Editor’s note: On January 3, I tweeted this sentence: “I think we should open the borders.” Rod Graham responded by saying, “Absolutely not.” So I challenged him to argue his position. The following is the result.

There are about 50 million foreign-born people in the United States. In a nation of about 330 million, that is around 14 percent of the population. That is a sharp rise from around 5 percent in 1970. Since 2001 nearly 1 million legal immigrants have entered the US each year. 

I can imagine in broad strokes how liberals would interpret these statistics.

Socially, it’s all good. Immigrants bring creative energy and enrich our cities with cultural diversity. Economically, even better. Economists say immigrants add much more to our economy than they subtract. Immigrants come in, and the GDP goes up.  


The problem is that while everyone may eventually reap these benefits of innovation, some people will be in a position where they don’t feel at home in their community, become more socially isolated and cannot work with neighbors to address issues in their community.


And morally? Most liberals, including myself, were equal parts appalled and ashamed at the rhetoric used by the former president around non-white immigrants. We are probably angry now at the Biden administration’s fumbling of the border crisis last year. 

Even with new instructions for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, a Biden-led ICE still managed to detain about 1.7 million unauthorized migrants in 2021. This was twice as many detained from the year before. This is unconscionable given the harsh treatment of detainees and how families separated. 

Rather than restricting immigration, we should allow more immigration and allow immigrants to infuse this country with their youth, work ethic, creativity and culture. 

I think the moral claims here are unassailable. Therefore, I want to problematize the social and economic arguments. At its core, my argument is that when it comes to immigration, everyone will not gain today, even if everyone may gain tomorrow.  


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Hunkering down
Robert Putnam is one of the more well-known political scientists in the United States. He is a leading expert on community and civic engagement. In a 2014 interview describing some of his more recent research, Putnam argued that newly diverse communities face a raft of challenges. 

The main challenge is that in newly diverse communities, trust declines. It is not only that natives mistrust immigrants. Natives also lose trust in each other. The community as a whole breaks down. 

New diversity, says Putnam, “brings out the turtle in all of us,” and we “hunker down.” Over the past several years, much of his work has been focused on addressing the short-run challenges of diversity in neighborhoods.

A summary of Putnam’s research states: 

The greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Although I am familiar with Putnam’s early 2000s research on social capital, I find this new research more compelling. In the long run, diversity benefits our nation, but with respect to building communities, not in the short run. It can hurt communities.  

So where do immigrants live?
Most immigrants live in low-income neighborhoods, poorer towns or about 20 metropolitan areas, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York. They move into neighborhoods alongside people who are poor or native people of color. Inner-city Boston is “newly diverse.” 

Meanwhile, the wealthy and white liberal residents of Boston’s suburb Newton can benefit from being morally virtuous in supporting immigration without weathering any of its side effects.

Just in case any conservatives are peeking from around the corner, in the long run, these issues tend to dissipate, and even in the short term, immigrants still bring innovation and creativity that makes cities so vibrant. 

The problem is that while everyone may eventually reap these benefits of innovation, some people will be in a position where they don’t feel at home in their community, become more socially isolated and cannot work with neighbors to address issues in their community. 


Just in case any conservatives are peeking from around the corner, in the long run, these issues tend to dissipate, and even in the short term, immigrants still bring innovation and creativity that makes cities so vibrant. 


“We wanted workers, but we got people”
Immigration economist George Borjas frames his recent work on immigration with a quote from Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch. Frisch, commenting on guest workers entering Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, said, “We wanted workers, but we got people instead.” 

Borjas’ most recent book, We Wanted Workers, is a counternarrative to common economic arguments about immigration. Borjas argues that instead of thinking of immigrants in purely economic terms, we must also consider their lives outside of the factory door. Immigrants add to the economy by their participation in the workforce, but they also use federal and state services. 

This is not controversial, and most people would argue that the gain in worker output exceeds the loss in public expenditures. But Borjas has said, in presentations that can be viewed on YouTube, that it is a “wash” (his slides are available here). For many, this still sounds like a good thing. Even if there is no net gain, we get the energy, creativity, and diversity without losing anything. 

Not so fast. People do lose. Everyone will not gain today, even if everyone may gain tomorrow.


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With immigration comes a redistribution of wealth. The immigrants gain by working for wages that are higher than they would have gotten in their home country. Businesses gain by employing low-wage, pliable immigrants who are unlikely to unionize. 

Wealthy Americans also benefit. The value of their investments increases with the increasing profit margins of businesses. These same wealthy Americans are employers as well, hiring immigrants as low-wage service workers in their homes. 

Meanwhile, poor and low-skilled native workers lose. They are pushed out of labor markets or must accept wages far lower than what they would have gotten had immigrants not entered that market.

Moreover, immigrants are political actors. And so, these groups will organize and vote for their interests. To the extent that immigrant interests diverge from native interest, and immigrants have enough political capital to actualize their interests, the native population loses again. 

A call for a new immigration narrative
Putnam is a liberal. Borjas is a conservative. These two distinguished scholars, orienting their research and public commentary toward different political ends, come to a similar conclusion. 

Immigration is not an unalloyed good in the short term. Immigration has costs for specific native populations, and those populations are often the least able to absorb those costs. Relaxing our immigration policy without attending to those costs is precisely the type of thought process that CNN’s Van Jones calls out as “offensive” and “out of touch.” 

Republicans can leverage the insensitivity of the Democratic Party to these costs and demonstrate, yet again, that liberals ignore working-class and poor (white) Americans. 


People of color may view immigration as threatening their hold on community and respectability. This reaction may be most intense among native Black populations witnessing changes in their communities and among second and third-generation Asians and Hispanics who may wish to distance themselves from first-generation immigrants. 


It may also alienate native Black, Latino and Asian populations. People of color may view immigration as threatening their hold on community and respectability. This reaction may be most intense among native Black populations witnessing changes in their communities and among second and third-generation Asians and Hispanics who may wish to distance themselves from first-generation immigrants. 

These groups may point the finger at Democrats labeled “soft on immigration.”  

The leaders of the Democratic Party must speak with the American people and be honest about the real effects of immigration. 

Tell the American people straight up that everyone will not gain today, even if everyone may gain tomorrow. And then, we can use the effectiveness of progressive policies to manage these costs.  


Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.

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