How immigration affects the three Americas

Immigration is reshaping both the United States and the U.S. Catholic Church. As a political issue, it helped to put Donald J. Trump in the White House, and voter reaction to his administration’s punitive measures toward migrants and near-total ban on accepting refugees will be key issues in the 2020 election. For the Catholic Church, immigration has been driving a major geographic shift to the South and West, with more parishioners, mostly Latino, in states that historically have not had such large Catholic populations.

Immigration is also a possible solution to the problem that both the country and the church are aging while birthrates are declining and young people leave the church. Both the church and the nation will steadily shrink without newcomers from beyond our national borders. Yet a rapid increase in the foreign-born population risks a social and political backlash. Immigration has also become another point of debate over the extent to which society as a whole should follow Christian principles: Even if your parish should “welcome the stranger,” does that mean your national government has to?

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Both the church and the nation will steadily shrink without newcomers from beyond our national borders.

One reason immigration is such an intractable issue in Congress and in the United States as a whole is that it means different things to people in different places. This should not be surprising in a nation so complex that there is an ever-growing genre of geographic revisionism, with books and magazine articles devoted to carving it into regions more sensible than our 50 states. But we can boil down the history of and attitudes toward immigration into three main regions, regions with some constancy but also with continuously shifting boundaries.

In the Frontier region, America is still being built. This region currently includes states in the Southeast and West states where land is plentiful and U.S. citizens are moving in by the thousands every day. This region is where immigrants are welcomed by the construction and retail industries, but rapid population growth worries environmentalists and taxpayers who wonder how to finance new schools and social services. The creation of “mega-parishes” in these areas can serve Catholics at a time when it is hard to find pastors, but not everyone is comfortable with having 1,000 people at a Mass.

The dynamics of population change from 2010 through 2018 have been very different in different parts of the nation.

The Gateway region has long accommodated migrants. It currently includes the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, Chicago and other parts of the Upper Midwest, and California—places where the civic and church infrastructure is already there for large populations, and immigrants are largely replacing American citizens who are moving elsewhere. Indeed, without immigrants, many of these communities would face economic decline.

Finally, there is what could be called the Great Interior of the United States—places like Appalachia, the interior South and the Farm Belt. After initial growth spurts when they were absorbed by the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, these regions generally grew slowly and rarely experienced large influxes of migrants, either from other states or other nations. Population growth came from families having children. But now much of the country’s interior is experiencing population loss, thanks to low birth rates and an outflow of educated residents looking for well-paying jobs. There are conflicted attitudes toward immigration here. Resentment toward “globalization” and the outsourcing of jobs runs high, but there is also a realization that immigrants are needed to replenish the workforce.

Indeed, this region is now experiencing the most rapid growth in the foreign-born population (easily accomplished when it had been so low for so long) and, not coincidentally, in the Catholic and Latino populations. But this growth is unevenly distributed within the region. And political analysts noted that sudden increases in the foreign-born population in communities scattered throughout states like Iowa, Kansas and Georgia (in places where meat-packing plants and other employers seek low-cost labor) were correlated with support for Mr. Trump in the 2016 election.

A Brief History

Sometime between 1910 and 1920, the population of the United States passed 100 million (behind only China, India and the Russian Empire at the time), and about 14 percent were immigrants. As of Aug. 1, 2019, the United States was home to just under 330 million people, and, again, about 14 percent were born in other countries.

Those similar numbers do not reflect that the scope and character of immigration to the United States has changed drastically over the past century. After a long wave of immigration from Europe, the 1920s brought a major effort to reduce the flow of newcomers for a variety of reasons. These included an isolationist mindset after the horrors of World War I, revulsion at the crowded conditions of immigrant neighborhoods in major cities, a eugenics craze and a familiar fear that America’s “cultural identity” was at risk. This fear was associated with anti-Catholicism as well as racism and helped fuel a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. (The Catholic share of the U.S. population in 1920 was very close to the foreign-born share, slightly above 15 percent. Catholics now make up about 23 percent of the population.)

The reaction against immigrants culminated in the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigrants overall and imposed a bias in favor of nationalities that were already in the United States in significant numbers. (It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.) By 1970, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population had bottomed out at 4.7 percent, and the actual number of immigrants, 9.6 million, was the lowest since the beginning of the century.

A “second wave” greatly increased the foreign-born population in the United States from 1970 to 2010, but immigration has fallen sharply during the Trump administration.

The country’s population still grew during the downturn in immigration. After the Great Depression and World War II came the baby boom generation, which lasted until a sharp fall in birth rates during the 1960s. Not only did the population spike in the postwar period; it formed new geographic patterns. During the 1950s, suburbanization (helped by the new interstate highway system and federal loan programs designed to encourage homeownership) spurred employers and families to move out of central cities and to the South and West. Population growth rates from 1950 to 1960 were more than 70 percent in Alaska, Arizona, Florida and Nevada and 49 percent in California. International migration may have been down, but internal moves generated plenty of economic activity. California alone gained a net 3.1 million people as a result of domestic migration.

In 2018, the U.S. birth rate hit a 32-year low, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that total fertility rates have been below “replacement,” or “the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself,” since the early 1970s. This may be good for the environment, but it is not a good situation economically. Fewer people means fewer workers and fewer customers, and fewer young people to take care of an aging population. This summer, the Blackstone Group, an investment company, estimated that without immigration, the U.S. working-age population would drop by 17 million by 2035.

Immigration is far more visible to far more Americans than it was a century ago.

Fortunately for the economy, immigration to the United States surged during the past few decades, before dropping significantly in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration. A major reason is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which reversed the 1924 immigration law by ending preferences for European immigrants and making it easier for relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to enter the country. The result was 59 million immigrants entering the United States in the half-century since the passage of the 1965 law and a foreign-born share of the population that in 2017 was the highest since 1910. Unlike previous waves of immigrants, these newcomers were mostly from Latin America and Asia.

Florida and Texas have become immigration magnets relatively recently, but California and New York have always been gateways for new Americans.

But immigration never affects every part of a country equally. In 2013, half of all immigrants to the United States were concentrated in just four states: California, Florida, New York and Texas. The difference from previous immigration waves is that the one following the 1965 law has eventually reached almost everywhere, at least to some extent. In 1920, there were 11 states, all in the South, where less than 3 percent of the population was foreign-born. By 1970, there were 28 states with a foreign-born population of less than 3 percent. But in 2017, only three states fell into that category (Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia). Immigration is far more visible to far more Americans than it was a century ago.

This increased visibility has political implications. Although the estimated number of undocumented migrants in the United States peaked in 2007 and has been slowly declining since, Mr. Trump centered his 2016 presidential campaign on what he called the “crisis” of “illegal immigration.” But even before he ran, any immigration reform package that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants was radioactive among Republican Party voters opposed to “amnesty.” Support for such a package was blamed for the upset defeat of then-House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in a 2014 Republican primary in Virginia, one of the states that has only recently gained a large immigrant population.

In 2013, half of all immigrants to the United States were concentrated in just four states: California, Florida, New York and Texas. 

Public opinion is moving in the opposite direction from Mr. Trump. A poll in February 2019 released by Gallup found that 81 percent of U.S. adults favored allowing undocumented immigrants “the chance to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time.” In the same poll, Gallup reported, the share of Americans wanting to increase immigration levels grew from 21 percent in June 2016 to a record 30 percent, though recent polls have found Republican voters to be less supportive of the idea.

Those numbers suggest that the United States as a whole has not become more xenophobic in recent years, but they do not reflect differences in various parts of the country that depend on economic and social trends. In 2015, a P.R.R.I. poll found that 50 percent of all U.S. adults agreed with the statement “Immigrants strengthen American society,” compared with 34 percent who said “Immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values.” At the state level, however, the share agreeing with the first statement ranged from 35 percent in West Virginia, which has never had a large foreign-born population, to 60 percent in Hawaii and Massachusetts, both states that have a long history of attracting immigrants.

As noted above, there are three distinct regions affected by immigration in different ways.

The Frontier

Americans may be proud of their entire country, but most seem to want to reside in only a fraction of it. From 2010 through 2018, there was a net loss of U.S.-born residents in almost two-thirds of all counties—2,040 of them, compared with the 1,121 counties where more U.S.-born people moved in than out.

Those 1,121 counties roughly comprise the Frontier region, and they are mostly in the South and West, attracting U.S.-born citizens from the Northeast and Midwest. Many of these counties are new job centers, but a significant number are retirement communities. These counties have generally lower housing costs, and many are in states with low income taxes, relying more on sales taxes for government revenue. (Sales taxes can be more politically popular in states with a great deal of tourism and many newcomers buying new homes and furnishings.)

For many of the same reasons—job opportunities, affordable homes—the Frontier region is also attractive to international migrants. Indeed, several Western states, including Idaho and Montana, had large immigrant populations (in particular, Chinese and Irish) in their early years of statehood, attracted by jobs building railroads or mining copper and other metals. To this day, there are Irish Catholic strongholds in places like Butte, Mont.

From 2010 through 2018, there was a net loss of U.S.-born residents in almost two-thirds of all counties.

The Frontier region now principally attracts people from other states, but from 2010 to 2018, several of the states that registered the most gains from American citizens moving in—notably, Arizona, Florida, Texas and Washington—also had some of the biggest gains from international immigration.

The Frontier is also where the U.S. Catholic Church is facing its biggest infrastructure challenge, as it tries to keep up with major increases in the Catholic population in states like North Carolina, Georgia and Nevada. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, even as the church has closed hundreds of parishes in the other two regions over the past four decades, it has raced to keep up with demand in Frontier states, opening 293 parishes in Texas alone. Most of these new churches have more than 1,000 seats in their worship spaces.

The Gateway

Overall, 14 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born, but there are wide regional differences in this figure—from less than 2 percent in West Virginia to 27 percent in our biggest state, California. The places where the immigrant population is and has historically been large enough to become an indispensable source of workers as well as civic and religious leaders form a region that could be called the Gateway. These are places that have steadily lost U.S.-born residents to the Frontier region but still thrive, at least for now, because of immigrants.

New York City has been emblematic of the American immigrant experience for centuries. California, however, was part of the Frontier region until recently, when urbanization and high housing prices resulted in a continuous outflow of U.S.-born citizens.

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One illustration of the state’s transition is Christ Cathedral, in the Orange County city of Garden Grove, which this year became the first known instance of a non-Catholic church being converted to a Catholic cathedral. The massive, 34-acre property was once the Crystal Cathedral, home of the Protestant evangelist Robert Schuller. Its construction was completed in 1981, when the state was still booming as a result of U.S. citizens moving there from other states. By the time the Catholic Church renovated and rededicated the structure, moving vans were constantly leaving California for other Western or Sun Belt states, and immigrants were buying homes and opening businesses. When Christ Cathedral began offering Masses this year, only three were in English; four were in Vietnamese, three in Spanish and one in Mandarin. (According to a CARA study from 2011, nearly one in three U.S. parishes celebrated Mass at least once a month in a language other than English.)

From 2010 to 2018, there were 181 counties that would have lost population if not for international migration. That may not sound like much, but this group includes some of the country’s biggest population centers, including Los Angeles County, Miami-Dade County and the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City. (In Chicago’s Cook County, the influx of immigrants was not quite enough to prevent an overall population loss.)

Looking at a different measure, 39 of the nation’s 283 metropolitan areas would have lost population if not for immigrants, including New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Providence and Milwaukee. And nine states would have lost population if not for immigrants: Maine, Michigan, Mississippi (something of an anomaly because of the tiny numbers involved), New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

More than three dozen metropolitan areas would have lost population if not for immigrants, including New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Providence and Milwaukee.

Politically, the Gateway is heavily Democratic, while the other two regions leaned Republican in 2016. The CNN political analyst Ronald Brownstein noted that Mr. Trump “lost 16 of the 20 states where foreign-born residents constituted the largest share of the population.... Even in the relatively more diverse states he won, he lost the vast majority of the big urban centers where immigrants and other minorities generally concentrate.” In addition, Democratic candidates hold “nearly 9 in 10 of the House seats with more foreign-born residents than average.”

In August, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, implicitly criticized the leaders and even the voters of the Gateway region, complaining of “their cosmopolitan priorities” in a keynote speech to the National Conservatism Conference. “They identify as ‘citizens of the world,’” he said, and “their primary loyalty is to the global community.” Mr. Hawley decried an agenda of “more immigration, more movement of capital, more trade on whatever terms.”

Mr. Hawley thus pretty much described the ethos of New York City since its founding, and his contempt underscores the difference between the Gateway region and our last region, the Great Interior.

The Great Interior

The Great Interior could be characterized by self-sufficiency. After initial growth spurts, states in this region have generally had slow but steady “natural” population growth—the demographic term referring to births outnumbering deaths. The most rural of the three regions, the Great Interior has an electorate that has maintained a certain wariness of the federal government. (The Frontier has had many “anti-Washington” political leaders, but it also depends on federal assistance to cope with rapidly growing and urbanizing populations.)

But this region now faces population losses, thanks to declining birth rates and the long-term erosion of manufacturing, mining and farming jobs. In recent years, a handful of “superstar cities” in the Frontier and Gateway regions have been attracting high-paying jobs and pulling educated workers from the Great Interior. Incomes in the non-coastal South are falling further below the national average after almost catching up a few decades ago.

From 2010 to 2018, three states (Connecticut, Illinois and West Virginia) registered population losses, and 1,661 counties (over half the total in the United States) lost people. Some of the biggest counties to lose at least 10 percent of their population were in the Great Interior, including Jefferson County, Ark. (Pine Bluff); Pike County, Ky. (in the heart of “coal country”); and Logan County, W.Va. Except for those with mostly black populations, these counties generally gave lopsided margins to Mr. Trump in the 2016 election.

The Great Interior has complicated attitudes toward immigration, to say the least.

In September, the political commentator Francisco Toro compared “Trump country” to Japan, which has long been resistant to significant immigration. It was not a positive comparison: In Japan, “a chronic dearth of new workers has left economic growth lagging for a generation, turning ‘japanification’ into economic shorthand for decline.”

But though this region has historically attracted far fewer immigrants than the Frontier and Gateway have, it is where the foreign-born population (including undocumented migrants) has increased the fastest in recent years. The result is significant Latino and Asian populations scattered across states where “foreign-born” had long connoted German and Irish immigrants.

In Iowa, for example, immigration has resulted in a 130 percent increase in the still-small Latino population from 2000 to 2017, according to the State Data Center of Iowa. But that increase was hardly even across the state; it was 831 percent in Ringgold County and 624 percent in Lyon County. (Lyon County, a major pig-farming center, is in the congressional district of Steve King, a Republican notorious for his rhetoric against immigrants.)

The Great Interior has complicated attitudes toward immigration, to say the least. There is widespread anger at a perceived competition for jobs (as well as the outsourcing of jobs to other nations), and Senator Hawley’s comments about “cosmopolitanism” indicate discomfort with the idea that the heavily urban Gateway region offers a guide to the rest of the United States.

But among political leaders, especially in cities, there is a recognition that immigrants could help prevent the economic death spirals of out-migration. In upstate New York, officials in Buffalo, Syracuse and Utica credited refugees with revitalizing their cities. When the Trump administration drastically cut the number of refugees accepted by the United States, these cities started an advertising campaign to poach refugees from elsewhere in the country. Local leaders in Maine have also looked to refugees and other immigrants as a way to deal with an impending shortage of workers, especially in elder care.

One idea meant to help both immigrants and places facing population decline is “heartland” or “place based” visas, which would allow specific communities to issue temporary visas to skilled foreign-born workers. (Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is a current Democratic presidential candidate, has endorsed such a program.) Matthew Yglesias, of the website Vox, wrote optimistically, “The visas could also make immigration a less toxic issue in national politics, reframing migration as a source of national strength that should be strategically deployed rather than as a burden to be avoided.”

That view may be naïve, given emotions around the issue and the resurgence of nationalism in the United States. Even the most rational—critics might say bloodless—economic argument for immigration cannot settle the debate. In his speech to the National Conservatism Conference, Senator Hawley said, “Our elites distrust patriotism and dislike the common culture left to us by our forbearers [sic].” There will surely be many in the Great Interior who will agree that immigration is not worth the risk of losing this “common culture.”

Deciding for the Future

Place-based visas could be one way to address immigration policy by applying the knowledge that different parts of the United States have different histories and economic needs. But any program that too tightly restricts the movement of immigrants within the United States would be a bad fit for a free-market system and would probably be unconstitutional.Eventually, Congress and the president will need to hash out a national immigration policy that will benefit all three regions. Similarly, the federal government will need to decide whether to address population losses and looming workforce shortages in the Great Interior region (one proposal is to move government jobs there) or accept them as fair outcomes of our competitive economic system.

Three states have estimated population losses so far this decade, and nine more would have lost population if not for immigration.

As for the Catholic Church, it has the benefit of a universalist ethos, and the U.S. bishops have consistently been supportive of migrants’ rights and immigrant communities. Pope Francis, too, has pushed back against the idea that nationalism and restrictions on migration are the proper way to remedy the economic inequities caused by a globalized economy.

But there are still divisions among the faithful in the United States on how to view a future in which population growth comes from immigration—more than one in five U.S. Catholics are foreign-born—rather than from raising children. Indeed, a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of U.S. Catholics agreed that immigrants “strengthen” the country through “hard work and talents,” as opposed to 38 percent who said immigrants were a “burden” on society. That was a bit higher than the 51 percent of all Americans who said immigrants strengthen the country—but only because 87 percent of Latino Catholics took that view. Only 36 percent of non-Hispanic white Catholics felt the same way. Church teaching may be clear, but it may be that the views of U.S. Catholics also depend on where they live.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
3 weeks 4 days ago

The United States needs people but immigration is not in anyway a solution to problems in other parts of the world. Nor should decisions on who should be allowed in be made on emotions.

Robin Smith
3 weeks 3 days ago

So, J, what criteria would YOU use to determine who can come in & for how long. Like Melania's parents are white so they can become citizens, but not Kenyans because black? Is it age, only kids, like the ones that are locked up or old people who you don't want to receive medical care?
Is it by wealth? Until it runs out? By politics to what party is in the WH?
Fully physically functional or does diabetes disqualify them?
What shape are YOU in? Would Norway, #Fat45's favorite white place, take YOU in?
*Edited for grammar.

Terry Kane
3 weeks 3 days ago

Robin:
What criteria would you use?
Is it your belief that anyone who arrives at our shores is automatically eligible to enter?
Are you aware that in the immigration wave in the early 20th century, all the shipping companies carrying immigrants had to assure return passage if the would-be immigrants did not pass muster. There were physical and mental examinations that each person had to pass.
Just because some Mexican or Central or South American lives within walking distance does not mean entry to our country is guaranteed.
So, seriously, without snark and implied accusations of prejudice, what would you propose the immigration authorities do about illegal immigrants? What qualifications should an immigrant have to be allowed in?

JR Cosgrove
3 weeks 2 days ago

Suppose I said nobody has an automatic right. Those days are long past. I said the country needs immigrants. So maybe we should debate what are the criteria of who gets accepted? We currently have laws. If we want to change them, then on w hat basis? Is it the needs of our country. Then what are the needs? Are there circumstances beyond the country's needs? Then what are they? By the way no one is locked up. They can leave at any time they want.

Jim Smith
3 weeks 2 days ago

In almost all environments at almost all times in history, there were only a very small number of things which would be called needs.
Adequate and nourishing food and drinkable water all year round, shelter from the elements and appropriate clothing and a workable justice system supported by consensus of the experienced adults are foundational necessities without which life is in jeopardy. .

Need contains the concept of necessity, requirements,
All else are desires, aspirations, plans, dreams.

Maybe it is impossible, but it seems to me that this discussion might give rise to useful plans if it were more nuanced and considered the issues separately rather than just crude numbers per square mile per regions of the environment.

Jim Smith
3 weeks 2 days ago

I might add, from 2 Samuel 24, we hear the report of when King David ordered a census to be taken. David’s general Joab strongly cautioned the King against such a measure, but David insisted on it anyway. Upon completion of the census the prophet Gad informed David of God’s anger and intention to punish David and all Israel for this sin. God offered David the choice of a three year famine, three months of military fight from Israel’s enemies, or 3 day’s pestilence. David chose the three day’s pestilence, figuring it was better to fall by God’s hand than an enemy’s. 70,000 people died.

Are the powerful people of the first world making the same error as King David? What was sinful about the anointed King of the chosen people counting them?

In addition, the apostle Paul only stayed in one mission field for a short time, the longest being 2 years and then moved on leaving the locals to spread and consolidate the faith he had introduced.
No idea of his counting heads before leaving comes through in the Bible or the oral tradition.

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