Ever since 9/11, the general perception has been that America is over-building walls—both real and regulatory—to keep out immigrants. Horror stories about Indian engineers getting strip-searched as suspected terrorists provoked business leaders like Bill Gates to argue that the U.S. is scaring away talent, to its own disadvantage. Now the storyline has shifted, to focus on immigrants who are voluntarily leaving or avoiding America because the global financial crisis has tarnished its reputation as a land of growth and opportunity.
But the numbers tell a different story. According to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), total migration flows have been steady throughout the current decade, despite tighter background checks and interior crackdowns following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and despite the slowdown of the economy starting in 2007. Every year since 2000, the U.S. has attracted more than 1 million legal immigrants, including more than 1.1 million last year, and another half million illegal migrants. The walls are not as high as we thought.
American immigration may not be as crudely self-defeating as critics suggest. The MPI examination of census data looks at where immigrants come from and found that migration from Europe is down slightly since 2000 and that migration from Latin America has slowed since 2007. But the population hailing from Asia, the continent contributing most to the competitiveness of Silicon Valley, has been rising at an average annual pace of roughly 25 percent, or about 250,000 newcomers in 2008. The Asian arrivals appear to be undeterred by America's faltering economy. While other studies have argued that immigration has slowed with the economy since 2007, MPI president Demetrios Papademetriou says that's not likely: "Nothing's changed in terms of legal, permanent immigration." He also notes that, historically, recessions rarely deter immigrants, particularly legal immigrants. And most Asian immigrants to the U.S. are legal.
Migrants from Latin America are more often illegal, but the crisis has not produced an exodus. According to the Pew Hispanic Center,
from 2000 to 2008 the illegal Latin American immigrant population swelled from 8.4 million to 11.9 million, stalling twice (in 2001 after 9/11 and in 2007) but never reversing. The reason? "People are holding as tight as they can to what they've done here, either legally or illegally," says Papademetriou. "Part of it is: what are you going to go back to? The other part is this eternal human hope that things are going to turn around." While U.S. recessions don't deter Mexican migration flows, recessions in Mexico do encourage them. With Mexico's economy forecast to contract by as much as 2 percent in 2009, the wall going up on the border may be tested severely.