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Does the US Really Have an Immigration Crisis?

An interview with American University’s Ernesto Castañeda

People walking dirt road along barbed-wire fence.

Immigrants at the US-Mexican border are dominating news headlines and a heated political debate. According to the Pew Research Center, “Monthly encounters between US Border Patrol agents and migrants attempting to cross into the United States at the US-Mexico border remain at levels not seen in more than two decades,” even when the counting methodology has changed. Meanwhile, the media is featuring footage of migrants sheltering in airports and being transported by bus to sanctuary cities like New York and Chicago. Political pundits are arguing that the nation is facing a historic immigration crisis.  

But is this the full story? Are the numbers of immigrants staying the United States at historic highs? Might we actually need a steady flow of immigrants to our nation? Without robust immigration, could we have a shortage of workers in our nation? And could our economic strength actually decline without an influx of new immigrants?

It's a complex situation, and one that is highly politicized. But what are the facts? Is immigration a crisis right now, or an opportunity, or both? We turned to Professor Ernesto Castañeda and asked him to share his thoughts on the current immigration situation. Castañeda is the director of the American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, founding director of the Immigration Lab, and graduate program director of the MA in Sociology, Research, and Practice. Castañeda widely publishes research on migration, urban issues, health disparities, marginalized populations, and social movements. Most recently, he is a lead author of Migration as a Driver of Economic Growth: Increasing Productivity and Filling the Labor Gaps, a report published by the Immigration Lab.

Can you start by giving us an overview of the situation?

Politicians and pundits claim there is a crisis at the border and that the situation is not sustainable. Based on US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) December numbers, there were approximately 300,000 encounters at the border in December, meaning around 10,000 per day.  

However, the numbers from January have already gone down. Moreover, encounters do not equal individuals, because, for example, Mexican nationals can be sent back to Mexico immediately, and then they can try again and be counted multiple times. Also, it is important to remember that the Biden administration has deported more than 142,000 migrants in fiscal year 2023. The border is not “open” to anyone just to walk in.  

Despite all these important caveats, let's assume that the “nightmare” scenario some talk about happens in 2024. Let's use the 10,000 daily arrivals for the rest of 2024; assume that every one of those encounters is a different individual; that they are all allowed in while they wait for their immigration and asylum hearings; and that everyone wins their case and remains in the United States (although most of these things never happen). In this scenario, this would add up to 3,650,000 immigrants in a year coming through the southern border. Those are a lot of lives saved from war, persecution, gang threats, domestic abuse, religious persecution, poverty, and starvation, but is this too much for the United States to handle?  

Let’s put this scenario into perspective. The US population is over 342,000,000, according to the Congressional Budget Office. New immigrants coming through the border without a visa under in one year would be around one percent of the US population.  

Is that too much or too little? Is this good or bad for the country? 

Before rushing to answer that question, let’s consider a few demographic facts. The United States is an aging country; people are having fewer kids, around two per couple. In 2020, the US population growth was close to zero, which has rarely been the case historically. In 2021, the nation saw the lowest growth rate since its founding. Currently, new births in the United States are basically offset by deaths, so the population is staying barely around what demographers call the replacement rate. The CBO forecasts a 1.2 percent population growth for 2024, primarily driven by a 1 percent net migration increase. If migration does not increase in the coming years, we will see a population decline. This is bad in the sense that given the low unemployment rates, decreasing inflation, and economic growth all around 3 percent in February 2024, we need more highly educated and “unskilled” working-aged people to drive economic growth and innovation. Like in the past, immigration is the answer to keeping the economy moving, sustaining social security, and keeping national cultures alive and vibrant. 

The text of the Senate bill released on February 4 qualifies several days at over 5,000 immigrant encounters at the border as a reason for the president to declare a national security emergency and temporarily close the border to immigrants and asylum seekers. This could result in population and economic contraction.  

Does emigration play a role? 

More than 360 million people traveled into the United States in 2023. Most of these people were US citizens (often the same individuals taking multiple trips abroad), tourists, and truck drivers. Foreign-born investors, international students, immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees arrived in the United States on airplanes. Likewise, many immigrants and US-born citizens leave the country by plane to move abroad. Around 9 million US citizens live abroad. Many unauthorized immigrants regularize their status or leave, which is why their numbers have remained stable for around two decades. 

So, the United States needs immigration?

Net international migration to the United States was a bit over 1.2 million in 2016, but it declined yearly until 2021, when it was just over 376,000. More than one million US residents died from COVID. Since then, the US economy has recovered, and currently there are over 10 million unfilled jobs. At a time when politicians from both parties want to bring some industrial production back to the United States, there is a need for more workers to make products in America. People who are willing to relocate to the United States to build a better life are a win-win for both immigrants and the country. A recent report from CLALS and the Immigration Lab calculates the many economic benefits that immigrants and their families have in the US economy including over a 2 trillion boost through the labor market. A recent report from the World Bank shows the many benefits of immigration across the globe.  

Therefore, there is no reason to be worried about immigration numbers that allow the United States to continue its rate of demographic and economic growth. Unless one believes in the ahistorical imaginary concept of the nation-state where all people in a given territory share a language and culture, and supposedly religion and blood, and thus, one believes that “immigrants pollute the blood of our country.” The United States has always been populated by people from diverse geographical origins, multidenominational, and respectful of freedom of religion. Since colonization, there has never been a common country of origin of immigrants across time or across the current 50 states. Immigrants gradually learn the language and culture, and their children and grandchildren become culturally distinguishable from other Americans. We have been doing this for centuries. Immigration is an American tradition and a necessity for the United States to continue its vitality and global competitiveness. 

The opinions expressed in this interview are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of American University.