The Irony of Anti-Immigration Racism

Closing our borders won’t stop the U.S. from becoming a majority-minority nation.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and @ Delphine Poggianti/Delpixart.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and @ Delphine Poggianti/Delpixart.

As you might have heard, Ann Coulter, the anti-immigration firebrand and devoted Donald Trump enthusiast, was not exactly delighted by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, tried to strike a balanced tone on immigration, acknowledging security-related concerns while praising hard-working migrants who enter the country lawfully. In a series of tweets, Coulter offered a tart critique of Haley’s remarks, starting off by writing that “[Donald] Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”

Coulter is a skilled provocateur, and her barbed tweet predictably prompted an avalanche of outraged replies. One obvious rejoinder is that Haley can’t be deported, as she was born on U.S. soil. That is, Haley is a native-born citizen, and so regardless of what you think about the wisdom of allowing her parents to settle in the United States some decades ago, the governor of South Carolina is staying put.

But Coulter’s thought experiment is interesting all the same, because it demonstrates that people who fear the browning of America have already lost. The demographic transformation of the United States into a more diverse society is at this point inevitable. The real long-term effect of immigration takes shape as immigrants have children and then as their native-born children have children of their own. If you can’t deport Nikki Haley, you’ll have to learn to live with the fact that her descendants will live alongside yours.

There is a widespread perception that advocates of reducing immigration, and of reducing less-skilled immigration in particular, are at least partly motivated by racism. And of course there are plenty of people who believe that racism is doing all of the work of driving anti-immigration sentiment. If you believe (as I do) that there are perfectly sensible reasons to be skeptical about mass immigration—perhaps you’re concerned about the ability of less-skilled immigrants to lead dignified lives without a great deal of taxpayer-funded public assistance—this assumption can be frustrating. In “The Hidden Immigration Consensus,” political scientists Jens Hainmueller and Daniel Hopkins surveyed Americans on their attitudes toward different kinds of immigrants, and they found a broad consensus. Whether respondents scored high or low on an index of ethnocentrism (i.e., racial prejudice), they had a strong preference for admitting educated, English-speaking immigrants in high-status occupations. Hainmueller and Hopkins found many respondents who were free of racial prejudice yet who nevertheless believed that it made sense for the U.S. to strongly favor immigrants who were capable of providing for themselves and their families. I’d put myself in this category.

Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that at least some anti-immigration sentiment is motivated by racism. So consider this a public service announcement to the racists of America: There’s a really good chance that halting immigration will not accomplish what you want it to accomplish. I know this might blow some racist minds, so allow me to explain.

Among Americans under the age of 18, non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority by 2020, according to a recent report from the U.S. Census. What this means is that as older, whiter generations climb the stairway to heaven, they will be replaced by younger, less-white generations that will become the crotchety old people of the future. By the time 2040 rolls around, there is a decent chance that the elderly gentleman demanding that you get off his lawn will be nonwhite. (Truthfully, there’s a pretty good chance that this elderly gentleman will be me and that by 2040, I mean next week.) This generational replacement will take place regardless of what happens to future immigration levels. As of 2012, the median age of non-Hispanic whites was 42 while that of Hispanics was just 27. The median ages for blacks and Asians were somewhere in between, at 32 and 35 respectively. What this means is that a higher proportion of Hispanics, and to a lesser extent blacks and Asians, are of childbearing age as compared to non-Hispanic whites. Halting all immigration would certainly delay the majority-minority crossover—the moment when non-Hispanic whites will no longer be in the majority of all Americans—but it won’t prevent it from taking place.

There are some subtleties that these Census projections miss, and this is where things get interesting. There has been a sharp increase in the number of U.S. children of mixed parentage. Indeed, Nikki Haley’s children are half-white, and they have plenty of company. Between 1970 and 2013, the share of multiracial babies went from 1 percent to 10 percent, the Pew Research Center estimates. How will these children self-identify as adults? The boundaries of whiteness have proven at least somewhat permeable over the course of U.S. history, and it’s become commonplace to assume that the descendants of at least some Hispanic and Asian immigrants will see themselves, and be seen by others, as white. Yet it is also possible that the descendants of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, not to mention black immigrants, will find themselves marginalized and “racialized.”

Brian Duncan, an economist at the University of Colorado, Denver, and Stephen Trejo, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin, have done a great deal of work over the years on “ethnic attrition,” a phenomenon in which U.S.-born individuals choose not to identify with an ethnic group despite having ancestors who belonged to that group. How does ethnic attrition work in practice? There are many third-generation Americans with at least one Mexican-born grandparent, but Duncan and Trejo find that only 17 percent of them had three or more grandparents born in Mexico. Virtually all third-generation Americans with three or more Mexican-born grandparents identify as Mexican. In contrast, only 58 percent of those with only one Mexican-born grandparent do the same. More striking still, Duncan and Trejo find that among third-generation American children with at least one Mexican-born grandparent, those who do not identify as Mexican American have far lower high-school dropout rates.

One of Duncan and Trejo’s more striking findings is that among people of Hispanic origin, those who choose not to identify as Hispanic tend to have higher levels of educational attainment than those who do. There are many reasons this might be true, but one possibility is that the Hispanics who marry non-Hispanic whites tend to be more educated than their counterparts. In “Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation,” sociologists Zhenchao Qian of Brown University and Daniel T. Lichter of Cornell University find that native-born Hispanic women with college educations were more than three times as likely to be married to whites as native-born Hispanics with less than high school educations. Assuming these college-educated, native-born Hispanic women are marrying college-educated, non-Hispanic whites, it’s quite likely both that their children will be college-educated themselves and that they might find themselves in social networks that are more Anglo than Hispanic. Over time, one can envision a world in which the more educated descendants of Hispanic immigrants increasingly identify as white while the less educated descendants identify as Hispanic. Under these circumstances, ethnicity would become even more closely associated with social class than is the case today. In this world, the ranks of white people would continue to grow as the children of whites and upwardly mobile Hispanics come to identify as white. But I’m not sure if a racist who is concerned about racial purity would be delighted by this outcome.

This leads us to the irony of racist opposition to immigration. Qian and Lichter also find that during the 1990s, the rate of intermarriage between both Hispanics and whites and Asians and whites declined quite significantly. Was this a reflection of rising anti-white prejudice among Asians and Hispanics or rising anti-Asian and anti-Hispanic prejudice among whites? According to Qian and Lichter, it was neither—the main driver of this decrease in the intermarriage rate was simply that the Asian and Hispanic populations increased significantly due to immigration. As the size of an ethnic group grows larger, its members have more interactions with co-ethnics. This makes it more likely that they will have a stronger sense of in-group ethnic solidarity and that they will wind up marrying co-ethnics. To put this a bit differently, if it’s slightly easier to connect with someone of your own ethnicity (and I’d say that’s generally true), the increase in potential marriage partners from your own ethnic group will make it far less likely that you’ll look for marriage partners outside of it.

What this also means is that restrictive immigration laws, like those passed in the 1920s, can have the opposite effect—that is, it seems likely that they increase intermarriage levels. Qian and Lichter observe that the immigration restrictions of that era “effectively cut off the influx of potential marital partners with similar ethnic backgrounds, a situation that undoubtedly hastened intermarriage with other white ethnics over successive generations.” This rise in intermarriage broke down what had once been rigid boundaries separating one white ethnic group from another. “The lessons for today’s high rates of immigration seem clear,” write Qian and Lichter. “The continuing influx of immigrants, unlike in the past, has replenished the supply of potential partners for native-born Hispanic and Asian American minorities.” And as a result, the researchers suggest that the level of Hispanic and Asian intermarriage with whites might decline.

The fact that large-scale immigration tends to reduce intermarriage isn’t an argument for or against it. What is clear, however, is that those who are in favor of reducing immigration on racist grounds are making a serious logical error. If immigration levels fell, the likely result would be a surge in intermarriage that would undermine white racial purity, and more diverse social networks might make it easier for nonwhites to climb to society’s uppermost echelons. My guess is that most Americans, white or nonwhite, would be just fine with such an outcome. But anti-immigration racists might not. Be careful what you wish for.