President Trump’s obloquy—calling a number of countries “shitholes” and asking why we are expected to accept their immigrants—is offensive for all the reasons you’ve probably heard: it’s insulting, racially divisive, callous, and so on. The United States has welcomed immigrants from various “shithole” countries for much of its history. Those schleppers worked, sweated, and saved, started businesses, paid taxes, and asked God to bless America.
If only that was all there was to it. As is so often case in this president’s administration, noxious wording is distracting from a serious public-policy debate. The truth is that an “hourglass,” low-mobility, big-government economy presents a new set of questions about immigration policy. Today’s immigrants face a different economic reality from their predecessors.
During the mass migration that took place in the period between 1850 and 1930, more than 12 million immigrants arrived in the United States. Many were uneducated and unskilled people from countries that were largely shitholes. Immigrants from nineteenth-century Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia, Austro-Hungarian, Greece, even the now-flush Scandinavian countries, were escaping poor, stagnant places where the future promised more of the same.
Poverty and lack of skills didn’t stop newcomers from finding work because there was plenty of it—on the piers of New York and Philadelphia, the meatpacking plants of the Midwest, and in the factories that were spreading to cities all over the country. In 1914, over 70 percent of the factory workers at Ford Motor Company were foreign-born. Immigrants and their children were over half of all of American manufacturing workers in 1920. New technologies and a swelling population also meant more jobs for construction and transportation workers. The pre–World War II industrial economy, sociologists Roger Waldinger and Joel Perlman have written, offered a “range of blue collar opportunities” for immigrants and their children.
Today’s unskilled immigrants are not so lucky. Automation and offshoring to Third World countries have seriously eroded the number of blue-collar jobs. Manufacturing positions plummeted from 19.4 million in 1979 to 11.5 million in 2010, even as immigrants were adding millions to the population of job seekers. In 1970, blue-collar jobs were 31.2 percent of total nonfarm employment. By 2016, their share had fallen to 13.6 percent of total employment. Today’s immigrants are more likely to be hotel workers, agricultural hands, bussers, janitors, and hospital orderlies. They may be earning more than they could have in their home countries, but their wages—assuming they work full-time—are enough only to keep them a notch or two above the poverty line in the United States. Adding to their troubles is frequently a lack of benefits, unreliable hours, and little chance for moving up the income ladder.
Which takes us to the other crucial shift in immigrant America. In the Ellis Island era, the country took in “the tired and poor,” but it did not—it could not, in those hard-knock times—offer them more than a chance to manage on their own. Private charitable organizations, mostly religious, sometimes kept greenhorns from starving or living on the streets, but there was no Department of Health and Human Services, no state and city welfare offices, no food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, no Department of Education with Title I funds to augment local school budgets, no ESL classes or special education for immigrant children. According to a 2016 National Academies report, immigrant-headed families with children are 15 percentage points more likely to rely on food assistance, and 12 points more likely to rely on Medicaid, than native-born families with children.
Immigration absolutists respond to concerns like these by pointing out that the United States needs low-skilled workers to fill positions “Americans won’t do;” someone has to pick the grapes and empty the bedpans. They also might say twenty-first-century Americans will not and should not accept the sort of deprivation pre-safety net immigrants had to endure. True enough. But Americans are also dreamers. Immigration was part of the nation’s identity not because Americans loved living next to foreigners—few human beings do—or because immigration is a foundational principle of the nation, but because the rapidly growing American economy had a need for unskilled workers, and offered them an opportunity for advancement.
And there’s the rub. Postindustrial economies create a far more challenging path to upward mobility than the manufacturing economy. Unlike during the later industrial era, when even high school dropouts could get decent employment, education is now the most likely route to middle-class comfort and relative stability. Though as a group the number of foreign-born kids graduating college has grown faster than native-born, the children of low-skilled immigrants, particularly Latinos, are struggling. Instead of climbing the income ladder, they are slipping down. Between the second and third generation, Hispanic high school dropout rates go up and college attendance declines. Canada, Australia, and several other countries have introduced a points system giving preference to skilled immigrants precisely to avoid this scenario.
The U.S. may want to welcome low-skilled workers to do the jobs “Americans won’t do” and to help them in the early years of assimilation. But the prospect of a multi-generational proletariat class, hovering near the poverty line and dependent on government help, is probably not what most Americans had in mind.