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Hard Times: Will They Help in The End?

4 Apr

By Gary Endelman

There is a fascinating observation in a recent column by noted demographer Michael Barone. Listen to what he says:

“The 2010 Census tells something else that may prove important: There’s been a slowdown of immigration since the recession began in 2007 and even some reverse migration. If you look at the Census results for Hispanic immigrant entry points — East Los Angeles and Santa Ana, Calif., the east side of Houston, the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago — you find that the Hispanic population has dropped sharply since 2000.

One reason is the business cycle. The 2000 Census was taken on April 1, 2000, less than a month after the peak of the tech boom. Unemployment was low, immigration was high, and entry-point houses and apartments were crammed with large families.

The 2010 Census was taken after two years of recession, when immigration had slackened off. We simply don’t know whether this was just a temporary response to the business cycle or the beginning of a permanent decline in migration.

Past mass migrations, which most experts expected to continue indefinitely, in fact ended abruptly. Net Puerto Rican migration to New York City stopped in 1961, and the huge movement of Southern blacks to Northern cities ended in 1965. Those who extrapolate current trends far into the future end up being wrong sooner or later.”

What makes this so intriguing is the fact that conventional wisdom holds precisely the opposite, namely that the US is subject to never-end waves of unlawful migration to which we can offer no meaningful resistance. Yet, this is not all.  While it is certainly true, whether we are speaking of the 1930’s or the 21st Century, that hard times makes many Americans less receptive to  calls for more immigration,  the influence of  dismal economic forces will, over time,  diminish these same demographic trends. Reinforcing the basic truth that, at bottom,  migration is an economic phenomenon,  it is the business cycle and not government policies that have the most powerful and sustained impact on who and how many come to America.

One final thought. Since the American public does not distinguish between legal and illegal migration, and tends to support the former while opposing the latter, particularly if we speak of high-end migration with advanced education,  it may be that the pain we are all going through now in the Great Recession of the last few years will, in the end, make enactment of comprehensive immigration reform more, not less, likely. If migration outside the law ebbs, then perhaps the American people will be less prone to see all immigration as a threat and consider the case for letting more of the best and brightest come on its own merits. That is a conversation that America needs.  As the great philosopher Mel Allen of Yankee Broadcaster fame in yesteryear used to say “How ‘Bout That!”