Throughout 2021, Republican politicians and conservative pundits hammered the Biden administration over what they claimed was a crisis of uncontrolled immigration.
Images of migrants seeking to cross the border from Mexico in the early months of the new administration, which played in a seemingly endless loop on cable news, led to growing acceptance on the right of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, claiming that President Joe Biden was throwing open the nation’s borders to nonwhite immigrants who would steal white Americans’ jobs — and vote for Democrats. The Anti-Defamation League called for Fox News to fire pundit Tucker Carlson last year because he espoused the “great replacement” theory so aggressively and so often, but the racist trope has now become normalized within the Republican Party.
But rarely has such a long-running and widely accepted political and media narrative been so at odds with reality. In fact, immigration into the United States in 2021 plunged as a result of both a decline in international travel brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictive U.S. immigration policies, according to new report from the Census Bureau. The nation’s political and media classes were seemingly so obsessed over the images of migrants at the border that they failed to grasp the truth, which was that immigration levels collapsed in 2021.
The startling Census Bureau report found that net international migration into the United States increased by just 247,000 people in 2021, the lowest annual level for any year since at least 2010. That’s about half the number of people who came into the country between 2019 and 2020, during the Trump administration, when net international migration totaled 477,000. The 2021 figure was also far below the 1,049,000 who came into the U.S. between 2015 and 2016, the highest level for any year in that decade.
In 2021, the global movement of people was drastically cut by travel restrictions put in place by governments around the world as a result of the pandemic. Land borders between the United States, Mexico, and Canada were closed to nonessential travel for part of the year, along with many U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, where foreigners get visas to come here.
“The Covid-19 pandemic significantly impacted international migration patterns both to and from the United States,” according to the report, which is one of the government’s first studies of 2021 immigration levels.
The Census Bureau’s findings are based on a comprehensive annual survey of more than 3 million households in the United States. To determine immigration levels, the bureau’s American Community Survey asks where each person surveyed was living one year ago. Those who are foreign-born were also asked what year they came to live in the United States.
A Census Bureau analyst said in an interview that the annual survey is designed to detect changes in the levels of both documented and undocumented immigration. In order to get more responses to the survey among undocumented immigrants, the bureau does not ask whether each person is in the country legally. “We make the assumption that the American Community Survey is picking up the undocumented,” said the Census Bureau analyst, who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely.
To improve the survey’s accuracy, the bureau supplemented its results with data from other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Justice Department, and the Department of Transportation. (The pandemic also impacted the Census Bureau’s ability to collect data, especially in 2020, so it relied heavily on adjusted 2019 data to compare against 2021.)
The Census Bureau’s report on immigration levels in 2021 was issued in late December, but it has received little media attention. That may be because the dramatic reduction in immigration in 2021 that it found is in sharp contrast to the narrative created early last year by conservative politicians and the press that immigration was out of control.
The media fixation on an immigration “crisis” began right after Biden took office, just at the moment when journalists were eager to prove that they could be tough on the new Democratic president after four years of Donald Trump. Questions about the immigration dominated Biden’s first formal press conference in March.
“The situation at our southern border provides a perfect platform for [journalists] to show their even-handedness,” Heather Digby Parton wrote in Salon last March. “Unfortunately, as with most such media moments, it’s not even-handed in the least.”
In fact, a Pew Research Center study found that a supposed immigration “crisis” was one of the most heavily covered issues by the press in the early days of the Biden administration. The Pew study, released last May, found that immigration was one of the five topics most covered by 25 major news outlets in the first 60 days of the Biden administration, accounting for 11 percent of all stories. It was also the issue that generated the most negative coverage of the administration of any of the top five issues covered, Pew found. About half the stories about the Biden administration’s handling of immigration were negative, compared with just 15 percent that were positive. Pew also conducted a related survey to see how Americans’ media intake influenced how much they heard about the Biden administration’s immigration policy. The survey found that 30 percent of all U.S. adults said they had heard a lot about the administration’s immigration policies, while 45 percent of those who only got their political news from right-wing media said they had heard a lot about it.
About half the stories about the Biden administration’s handling of immigration were negative, compared with just 15 percent that were positive.
In addition to the images of migrants on cable news, the skewed and ill-informed public debate on immigration in 2021 was stoked by a focus on misleading data. The key figure consistently cited by politicians and the media last year was the number of apprehensions along the southwestern border. That figure hit 1.7 million in fiscal year 2021, the highest level in 60 years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. That surge in border apprehensions became the key talking point for critics who argued that the Biden administration had lost control over immigration.
But the data on border apprehensions only showed how many times migrants were stopped when they tried to get into the United States. A Homeland Security official said in an interview that the numbers are misleading because one migrant may try to cross the border several times and thus would show up repeatedly in the total figures, inflating the numbers.
Ironically, one factor making it possible for migrants to keep trying to cross so many times is the government’s use of a pandemic-related border restriction that was first put in place by the Trump administration and has continued under Biden. Citing Covid-19, the government has used a public health statute, known as Title 42, to carry out expulsions of migrants at the border without offering them the chance to request asylum. Title 42 expulsions happen so fast that migrants can try to cross again almost immediately.
The data on apprehensions also doesn’t show how many migrants actually got into the United States and were allowed to stay.
There is no current data on how many migrants who were apprehended trying to cross the border in 2021 have been allowed to permanently stay in the United States, the Homeland Security official said. But the official pointed to the department’s “enforcement lifecycle reports” from earlier years, which show that most migrants crossing the border are eventually sent home. A 2020 Homeland Security report found that of 3.5 million “encounters” on the southwestern border between 2014 and 2019, 51 percent of the migrants had already been repatriated, while only 8.1 percent, or 284,000, from that five-year period had been granted relief or other protection from removal.
The obsession over the border apprehension data led politicians and journalists to completely miss the fact that overall immigration cratered during Biden’s first year in office.
Last year’s plunging immigration levels came at the same time as declining birth rates and rising mortality rates in the U.S.
The combination of low levels of immigration, a low birth rate, and a higher mortality rate — trends worsened by the pandemic — resulted in the slowest population growth for the United States in any year since the founding of the nation, the Census Bureau found in another new study. The U.S. population grew by only 0.1 percent in 2021, the lowest rate the Census Bureau has ever recorded. It was the first time since 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, that America’s population grew by less than 1 million, the Census Bureau found.
Sharply reduced immigration and low overall population growth come at the same time as a major labor shortage in the United States. The onset of the pandemic initially led to enormous job losses in 2020 as many businesses went into lockdown. A devastating recession was avoided, however, thanks to the government’s stimulus packages and the Federal Reserve’s easy monetary policy. The government’s aggressive fiscal and monetary pump-priming helped bring about a quick economic recovery and soaring demand for labor in 2021.
The combination of more job openings and fewer workers has forced companies to offer higher wages. Yet the labor shortage has persisted.
But in what has been nicknamed the “Great Resignation,” many people have not returned to the workforce. In an analysis of economic data, the Washington Post reported last month that 3.5 million fewer people are now employed than two years ago, but only about half of them are currently looking for a job. Many are older workers who decided during the pandemic to take early retirement.
The combination of more job openings and fewer workers has forced companies to offer higher wages. Yet the labor shortage has persisted, leading to worsening supply chain problems and higher prices.
Low immigration is making the labor shortage worse. There are now about 2 million fewer immigrants of working age than would have been expected before 2020, according to Giovanni Peri and Reem Zaiour, economists at the University of California, Davis. In an article published this month, they estimated that nearly 1 million of those “lost” immigrants would have been college-educated.
The steep drop in “immigrant and nonimmigrant visa arrivals resulted in zero growth in working-age foreign-born people in the United States,” they wrote.
2022 may finally bring stability. In late 2021, there were some signs, particularly in government data about visa applications and international flights, that immigration levels were bouncing back from the stark lows earlier in the year. “In the publicly available visa data that we have been monitoring in recent months, we’ve seen immigration levels higher,” the Census Bureau analyst said. “We’ve seen visa data start to return to pre-pandemic levels, and airline international passenger counts are returning to pre-pandemic levels.” Whether the ongoing omicron variant wave of the Covid-19 pandemic will once again lead to a plunge in immigration is yet to be determined.
But the toxic, anti-immigrant political climate in the United States — underscored by right-wing conspiracy theories like the “great replacement” — will make it exceedingly difficult to significantly increase immigration levels in order to ease labor shortages. Today conservatives loudly complain about inflation and supply chain woes, but their xenophobic fears seem to blind them to the economic and social dangers that can arise from chronically low levels of immigration.
In fact, the nationalist, anti-immigrant policies of the Republican Party are now dividing it from many of its traditional corporate supporters. To address the labor shortage, supply chain problems, and rising prices, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — long a GOP stalwart — called earlier this month for a doubling of legal immigration. The fight over immigration could soon become a proxy for a broader war between the new, nationalist base of the Republican Party and its more traditional supporters in the business community.