The Trump administration (officially) wants to reduce legal immigration to the United States, maximize economic growth, do everything in its power to contain a rising China, and protect Social Security.
It is succeeding at that first objective — and, for that very reason, failing at all of the other ones.
The conflict between Donald Trump’s disparate goals is straightforward: The birth rate in the United States is dramatically falling, while its population is rapidly aging. These demographic trends are afflicting much of the developed world, and have taken an especially severe toll on Europe’s economic fortunes. To this point, the aging of the baby-boom generation has done less damage to America’s prosperity because our nation has been exceptionally attractive to — and welcoming of — working-age immigrants from overseas.
But in the Trump era, that is beginning to change. While White House senior nativist Stephen Miller failed to get his plan for halving legal immigration through the Senate, the Trump administration has succeeded in scaring away those huddled masses yearning to fill the gaps in America’s graying labor force. In 2018, our nation attracted 70 percent fewer immigrants than it had the year before, the largest such decline since the Great Recession, according to a new Brookings Institution analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data.
This drop is remarkable, given the economic context in which it occurred. In 2018, America’s unemployment rate dipped near historic lows, and reports of labor shortages in several parts of the country proliferated. Historically, such conditions have typically sparked an acceleration in new arrivals to the U.S. But the xenophobic drift of U.S. policy ostensibly repelled more immigrants than the strength of our economy attracted. As the New York Times reports:
Experts said much of last year’s drop was probably an indirect effect of President Trump’s approach to immigration policy. Congress sets most limits on immigration, but a president’s policies can also have an effect. Mr. Trump’s ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries in 2017 has stranded thousands of immigrants abroad. He has cut the number of refugees and created new procedures that make processing visa applications more onerous.
… “It’s probably no one factor,” said Randy Capps, director of United States research for the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s probably a number of small factors, a lot of which are related to policy changes and to the general effect of Trump being president.”
He added, “It’s what you would expect if it became more difficult for some immigrants to get to the U.S. and others found the country less welcoming.”
Trump’s “nationalist” supporters may applaud these developments. After all, in their telling, mass immigration has been eroding America’s social cohesion (and/or racial homogeneity). But those same nationalists also tend to be deeply concerned about safeguarding American prosperity and checking the power of a rising China. And those goals are simply incompatible with reducing immigration inflows into the U.S. Human beings are the ultimate resource. China has a lot more of them than we do. It will be exceedingly difficult for America to sustain its living standards or preeminence on the world stage unless it makes expansionary immigration a priority of public policy.
To be sure, there are policies that could help arrest America’s declining birth rate. Providing U.S. families with the kinds of child allowances and subsidized day-care benefits that are commonplace in other developed countries would be a start. But as Bloomberg’s Adam Minter has explained, these policies have proven insufficient to avert demographic decline in every nation that’s tried them:
Singapore’s efforts on this front date back to 1984, when the government established a matchmaking agency for university graduates. Over the years, official initiatives have expanded to include paying cash bonuses to families for having children (the more kids, the more lucrative), generous maternity and paternity leave policies, childcare subsidies and other benefits. In Japan, pro-natalist policies were first introduced in 1991 and many go further than Singapore’s; for instance, men can qualify for a year of partially paid paternity leave. And in South Korea, spending on pro-natalist policies adds up to around half of the defense budget…But the fact is that they’ve failed to meaningfully increase fertility rates. As a result, Asia’s wealthiest economies are increasingly turning to immigration as a short and long-term means of addressing worker shortages.
All of which is to say: Trump’s immigration policies appear to be working. And if America’s nationalist right can sustain that success, they will do their counterparts in Beijing a great favor.