Immigration is a dying issue

CNN poll: Americans split on immigration
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Story highlights

  • Tim Kane: Despite the images of Central Americans migrating north, immigration is no longer on the rise in America
  • As Central Americans get richer and older, they are less incentivized to make the treacherous journey, writes Kane

Tim Kane is the JP Conte Fellow in Immigration Studies at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His most recent book is "Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America" (Simon and Schuster), co-authored with Glenn Hubbard. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)A joke about the politics of immigration is that things are going nowhere, faster than ever. Even though the immigration debate hasn't changed in years, someone should tell Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that the immigration reality has. Demographics have shifted in Mexico and in Central America because women are having fewer babies.

In fact, a decadeslong wave of Mexican immigration to the United States simply stopped when the Great Recession started in 2007. It won't be coming back, regardless of who becomes president or what policies the federal government enacts.
    Tim Kane
    The debate during the past three, maybe four, presidential elections focused on what to do about 11 million undocumented immigrants. But notice that George W. Bush, John Kerry, Barack Obama, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and now Trump and Clinton have been talking about the exact same number? It's been oddly steady for eight years, according to a new analysis from the Pew Research Center. The growth of illegal immigrants grew 10% annually from 1990 to 2007, and has been zero since. Mexican immigration has actually been negative.
    The new immigration reality was easy to miss last summer, when two other migrant waves surprised the West. In Europe, refugees from Syria's civil war crowded onto boats headed for the beaches of Greece. And for the past three years, an average 100,000 refugees from Central America have been seeking asylum at the southern US border. Were those images, endlessly repeated on cable television, wrong? Were they falsifying a reality that wasn't?
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    To be sure, there are still millions of "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" on every continent. But the tide of migration overall is ebbing, even accounting for the recent increase in refugees worldwide. The typical immigrant is young and motivated by economic disparity -- and always has been. That said, two things have fundamentally shifted in our era: The world is getting richer and the world is getting older.
    Inflation-adjusted Mexican incomes have more than doubled since the middle of the 1970s, and quadrupled since 1950. Mexico's GDP per person was $17,500 in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund. The average Mexican income in 2010 was identical to the average American income in 1970. Similarly, the per capita GDPs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have grown rapidly in recent decades and today are equal to Mexico in 1970. Across the hemisphere, literacy rates are increasing, poverty is decreasing and incomes are growing, which taken together reduces immigration pressure significantly.
    What the numbers miss is the more important demographic shift. Fertility rates have essentially collapsed throughout Latin America. The average woman in every Latin American country gave birth to nearly seven children in the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s. Today, the average is two to three children per woman (only Guatemala is near three). Indeed, fertility is nearing the demographic tipping point of 2.1 children per woman in many developing countries, below which a society shrinks rather than grows. In Japan and some European societies, fertility has been far below the replacement rate for a long time, and their labor shortage has become acute. Demographers now admit that the overpopulation alarmism of yesteryear was misplaced.
    That explains why the wave of Mexican immigration evaporated. And while migration pressure from Central America in a sense has replaced the Mexican cohort, that entire region has a third of Mexico's population. And it is unlikely to supply a young migrant wave because all those nations are graying, too. In Guatemala, for example, the median age during the 20th century was 17.5 years. It was steady for half a century. Suddenly, in 2000, it jumped to 18.1 years. The median age proceeded to rise by nearly a full year during each five-year census: in 2005 (18.9), in 2010 (19.9), again in 2015 (21.2) and is projected to be 22.6 years in 2020. In the United States, the median age rose by two years between 2000 and 2010. It's no joke to say the growth industry of tomorrow will be elder care.
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    None of this means that concerns about culture clash, assimilation, terrorism and nativism are misplaced. Immigration is complicated. But the fear of "immigrants stealing jobs" was always a myth, and it will simply disappear in years to come. Instead, we will worry about a low-skill labor shortage and bemoan inflation in labor-intensive sectors, especially agriculture.
    As for policy, let's recognize the debate over whether a wall is or is not necessary (or racist) for what it is: irrelevant political theater. Reform with an eye to America's future will need to focus on a modernized work visa system that will enhance GDP growth and flexibly respond to the labor needs of our own aging society.