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The Great Immigration Turnaround: New Facts and Old Rhetoric

April 2012

Karen Leone de Nie: Hello, I'm Karen Leone de Nie, research director of the Community and Economic Development group at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Today we're speaking with Dowell Myers, a professor of the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. He's also a director of Population Dynamics Research Group. Myers is a well-known expert in demographic trends and their implications for many areas of public policy and planning. Dr. Myers shared his recent research with an audience at the Atlanta Fed in February 2012 and is here today to talk with us about immigration trends in the United States.

Dr. Myers, thank you for joining us.

Dowell Myers: Thanks for having me.

Leone de Nie: So, to begin, I just wanted to ask, as we look at immigration trends in the U.S. since the recession we've seen a decline, and I wonder, as you're looking toward the future, do you anticipate that immigration will pick up as the economy recovers?

Myers: Well, there's no doubt that it will pick up. We pooled a group of a dozen experts and they all agree it's going to bounce back some after the recession. But, you know, immigration has peaked at different times in different places. It already peaked in California in 1990 and subsided, and it's peaked in New York, peaked elsewhere. The South is the last place where it has peaked, and it will bounce back. But it's a question of, "Are there enough construction jobs to really bring them back in?" So it depends on the whole economy.

Leone de Nie: And I think that leads to another interesting question about immigrants in the United States. What happens as someone immigrates to the U.S.? How do their conditions change, and their status change, over time?

Myers: Well, that's one of the funniest things about how we react to immigrants. Many people unconsciously assume they are like Peter Pan. The immigrants don't really change the longer they are here—they don't get older, they don't assimilate in any way, they're going to remain just like newcomers their entire lives. When, in fact, all the data show that they change tremendously. They certainly get older the longer they are here. When they're newly arrived, about 30 percent are oftentimes in poverty, and only 20 percent are homeowners—so poverty outweighs homeownership. But after 30 years poverty is cut in half, nearly half, to 18 percent, and homeownership goes from 20 percent to 60 percent. So now homeownership is now way outweighing poverty after 30 years. It's the same people, but they're really not the same people anymore.

Leone de Nie: And how do those conditions relate to nonimmigrants in the United States?

Myers: Well, the nonimmigrants—the host society—they assume they also are not changing, and they assume they're not getting older either. We all unconsciously do that. But, of course, we all know that the baby-boomer generation is getting older, regrettably one year at a time. And we hope to all survive to age 90, or thereabouts; that's a lot of people. And we are all going to retire, the boomers: 78 million of us. That's a lot of job openings coming that are going to be hitting into this decade and it creates a major crisis for us. We've never had that problem ever in America of having a top-heavy society that is so age top heavy. And the immigrant reenforcements that are coming at younger ages are vital to helping to shore up the whole economy.

Leone de Nie: So Dr. Myers, in closing, I just wanted to ask, what are the differences in perspective in the federal versus local opinions about immigration?

Myers: Well, in the immortal words of Tip O'Neill, our former Speaker of the House, "all politics is local." Certainly all immigration is local, too. People observe day laborers on the corner, they observe kids in schools, and they react politically at the local level. We're seeing this picked up by the national press and spread all over. We've seen reverberations in California, coming back to our state where I live, from events in other states. The problem is that the local perspective is oftentimes shortsighted and very present focused and they don't know the longer term, but they have legitimate concerns. They see an explosion in the number of people, it falls on the local taxpayers—they're paying the bill for schools and for health—and they might protest that it's unfair that it's falling on them. I think they are doing the nation's business. They are helping to incorporate newcomers, they're investing in them, and these will be productive citizens. But when they become productive they might move across the city line or across the county line, and it will be a different locality that will get the benefits.

So, at the national level we're pretty sure immigrants are real positive all the way around, but the local costs are uneven. Probably it would be useful if the federal government would help the localities that are making these investments in doing the nation's business because they are growing the future taxpayers and the future workers that we know we'll need, and they are also growing the future homebuyers who are going to be able to step up and buy those baby boomers' houses. So, it's a big question today, "Who's going to buy your house?" Very likely it's an immigrant kid who's in school today, but he's being paid for by a local taxpayer.

Leone de Nie: Dr. Myers, thank you for joining us today.

Myers: My pleasure.

Leone de Nie: Today we've been speaking with Dr. Dowell Myers of the University of Southern California about immigration trends in the United States. If you'd like more information about Atlanta Fed's podcast series or video series, please visit www.frbatlanta.org. Thank you.

 

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