Proponents of our current immigration system often argue that we should preserve or even expand it because immigrants are essential to our cities’ health. Foreign-born workers, this argument goes, replace American-born city-dwellers who would rather live in the suburbs, and use their talent and energy to help urban neighborhoods and industries revive and thrive.

A classic example of this reasoning was a
recent New York Times article about proposed federal immigration reforms, which would give immigration priority not to the families of recent immigrants but to skilled workers. Such reforms, the article warned, might close off “the currents that have long fed the city’s mom and pop entrepreneurship . . . and the family networks that nurture and help assimilate newcomers.” Experts cited in the story argued that immigrants who arrived under the current system have been central to the city’s revival, and noted that 40 percent of the city’s population today is foreign-born.

That argument was valid back in the 1970s and 1980s—when immigrants helped renew New York by replacing fleeing middle-class families—but it isn’t any longer, because today’s immigrants are driving away our own native-born, unskilled workers, who otherwise might want to stay and grab a piece of the economic opportunity that flourishing big cities offer.

Remember how dramatically different a place New York was in the mid-1970s. Rising crime, a deteriorating school system, and high taxes prompted an exodus from Gotham, so that by the end of the 1970s, the city’s population had shrunk to its lowest level in decades. Reflecting that flight were shrinking property values, rising vacancies, and increasing abandonment of properties.

But amid the gloom, newcomers flooded into the United States, thanks to 1965 legislation that sparked far more immigration than anyone anticipated. Many headed for struggling cities like New York, where they could find inexpensive housing and an economy that, while foundering, still offered enough opportunity to gain a foothold in America—and a chance at a far better life than available back home. The immigrants repaid the city by bolstering many neighborhoods and by rolling up their sleeves, creating new businesses or staffing existing ones.

That wave of the 1970s and 1980s was the start of what’s now called the Second Great Immigration. Wave after wave followed it, totaling some 45 million people (as many as 4 million coming to New York), a growing proportion of them unskilled and lacking even high school educations. And they keep coming, about 1.8
million immigrants annually—legal and illegal, permanent and temporary—more than 100,000 of them to New York.

The city they reach today, very different from the New York of the 1970s, is the product of several decades of reform that have reversed some of that era’s problems and made Gotham shine again. Property values are soaring, vacancies are lower, and abandoned buildings are a smaller problem than is finding vacant land for new construction. Other cities that are traditional immigrant magnets, notably Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, have seen similar improvements.

Yet all of these locales are still plagued by high levels of out-migration—that is, by a continued flow of native-born residents out of town. And many of those leaving today are the very people who compete directly with today’s
unskilled immigrants in the workforce. Demographer William Frey’s 2002 analysis of the
migration patterns in four immigrant-magnet cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco—concluded that the highest rates of out-migration occur among adults without high school educations, exactly the demographic profile of most immigrants entering those cities. More recent domestic migration data, from the 2005 American Community Survey, also suggest a great migration of the unskilled out of immigrant-saturated cities. The ACS data show that those without high school educations, those who are unemployed, and those who work in industries heavily populated by immigrants are far more likely to be on the move than the average American.

No doubt part of the explanation for such migration is the impact of unskilled immigrant workers on blacks and native-born Hispanics, disproportionately represented in cities. A study by immigration’s leading economist, Harvard’s George Borjas, calculates that immigration has reduced the wages of blacks and lowered the black employment rate in America. Blacks themselves see the link between their employment struggles and immigration. A Pew Research Center poll found that 58 percent of blacks in Chicago believe that illegal immigrants take jobs and housing from U.S. citizens.

The media in most big cities simply ignore such studies. A recent New York Times story on Gotham’s black population, which is declining for the first time since the Civil War, speculated at length about the reasons for the drop-off but said nothing about immigration, despite the compelling evidence that it accounts for at least some of the flight out of New York.

Given what we now know about low-wage immigration and cities, one could write a story about the influence of proposed changes in U.S. immigration policy on New York—or Chicago, or Los Angeles—quite different from the one peddled in the press. This story would suggest that a new, skills-based immigration system would relieve some of the pressure that the city’s native-born, low-wage workers regularly face and might slow their move out of the city; that the entry of more skilled workers could benefit the knowledge-based economy of New York; and that the arrival of more workers with higher education levels and better language skills would encourage faster economic and cultural assimilation and put less demand on the city’s social services, used increasingly by legal and illegal immigrants.

For New Yorkers—who continue to be fed the myth of the essential immigrant—that might be a startling story to read.


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