–Ernesto Castañeda is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of America and the Director of the Immigration Laboratory. Castañeda explains why immigration is a major force that counteracts population decline in the US and why it matters to the economy and America’s global power. Below are highlights from an interview with The Conversation. Answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
What are you studying?
I run the Immigration Lab where we do research on migration – in all its aspects. For example, emigration – people who leave their countries of origin; or internal migration – people moving within a country. There are millions of people living in a province or state other than where they were born, such as in China or the USA. We also study international migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, people crossing borders in search of economic opportunities or trying to reunite with family.
We studied refugees from Central America in Washington DC, as well as from Afghanistan. We also compared immigrants from Latin America in New York and those from North Africa in European cities. I have been studying migration since 2003, so almost 20 years.
Immigration is now a hot topic. How different are they from when you started studying them 20 years ago?
It’s funny because in the media we always highlight the new things, and there are indeed new twists, new characters. But the story, the dynamics, the human drama, the structural issues are basically the same. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is why it is easier to understand new crises, because immigration researchers have seen something similar happen in the past.
How politicized is immigration?
Immigration is something that has been with us for a long, long time. This is something that is going to keep happening. This is something that no state can completely stop forever. But unfortunately, for as long as I can remember, it’s something that has been politicized. There are many misunderstandings by people in the public. Especially since politicians have long and in different places used this topic for their short-term political advantage. So this is something that is repetitive. Nevertheless, when I meet immigrants every day, the realities of their lives and what they are going through are very different from what you hear from the mouths of politicians and from many media.
My research has tried to understand what happened in the past and what is going on in the streets now to try to improve our understanding of immigration. If you look at all kinds of data, there are far more opportunities born of migration than problems.
The latest census shows that if it were not for immigration, the American population would actually be declining. So there is a lot at stake in terms of available workers, yes?
Yes, although some people think that the decline in immigration is not a bad thing, especially if it means maintaining a white majority. Yet immigration is not about a “major replacement” conspiracy, but about maintaining a successful trajectory of economic growth, cultural viability, scientific and technical innovation. In the economic system in which we live, one of the most important ways in which the economy continues to grow is by introducing new labor. Cultural differences disappear over time and family generations. Furthermore, we are talking about changes around the edges. The vast majority, more than 80%, of the U.S. population is and will likely still be born in the United States.
Early in the pandemic, people were scared, and rightly so. It made sense to reduce air travel, border crossings and refugee resettlement. In the last few years, as a result of Title 42, which allows the government to ban the access of persons who may pose a health risk to ports of entry, even asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico and made to wait there.
Nevertheless, in the US alone, we have lost more than a million people due to COVID-19. People are also worried about inflation. But inflation has also been exacerbated by COVID deaths, people staying out of the workforce and by declining immigration, all leading to a shortage of workers.
So in the last few years we have seen a significant decrease in migration while American couples have on average two children, which barely makes the population grow. Thus, the current population will not grow without immigration. Declining population growth also means a decline in economic growth and the influence of the US abroad. If that happens, you’ll be ready to make less money and spend more on goods and services. I do not think we are ready to be the norm. If we stop taking in immigrants, innovations, population and economic growth will take place in another part of the world.
In your nearly 20 years of research, what is one thing that will surprise someone who is not in the field you are studying?
It is important for everyone to know that most people do not want to leave their hometown. Most people want to keep up because this is where their loved ones, relatives and friends are. This is the place they know, and they have an attachment to the place. It takes a lot – like an invasion, hunger, a wonderful educational or professional opportunity – to want to leave your home.
Another thing that is important to know is that only about 3.5% of the world population live in a country other than where they were born. There are as many people moving within China as through international borders. Thus, international migration is a very important phenomenon for immigrants themselves – we are talking about the future of many individuals and families. But as far as the world population is concerned, it is a very small part. And it’s not because of immigration deterrents and border fences.
So we are talking about an exception. Unfortunately, politicians and people make it sound like this is the main problem.
People may think that immigrants are more likely to commit crime, but it is the opposite. Immigrants are much less likely to commit any crimes than US-born. They are also less likely to use drugs.
The border wall is a monument to intolerance and racism that actively stigmatizes people in the area. Anti-immigrant policies and speech are driven by national politics, scapegoats, misinformation and dramatic images about caravans, border camps and border crossings without providing the full context and real-life descriptions of reality. There are many myths surrounding migration, but when you look at the data qualitatively, quantitatively, in different societies, in different time periods, it is almost the opposite of what people think. Therefore, academic research on immigration is very important to correct the story.