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The Ugly Bipartisan Obsession with the “Right” Number of Immigrants

The U.S. has a long and racist history of worrying over how many people is too many to let in.

Afghan refugees at a U.S. Army base
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Refugees from Afghanistan at a U.S. Army base in Germany

In the United States, immigration is first and foremost a matter of caps and limits. The maximum number of refugees the Biden administration has agreed to accept in fiscal year 2022: 125,000. The number of refugees it has so far funded for that year: 65,000. The number of refugees actually accepted in 2021 (despite a refugee ceiling of 62,500): only 7,600

The number of Afghans that the U.S. plans to allow in after a 20-year occupation of their country: around 50,000. The number of people who would benefit if a pathway to citizenship survives budget negotiations: at least eight million. The number of immigrants currently stuck in a green card backlog: nine million 

Beneath all of these statistics lies the question: “How many is too many?” The various answers to this question fit together like Lego pieces, forming the backbone of the current immigration system in the U.S. Views on immigration may appear poles apart, but in truth, Democrats and Republicans alike set artificial limits on immigration based on a sliding scale of restrictionism. Their politics, on this front, are arguably more similar than different

This bipartisan focus on numbers may seem like a reasonable, technocratic consideration, given the logistical challenges migration can pose. But at its core lies something far more insidious: a belief that if an immigration system genuinely informed by humanitarian concerns was put into place, the country would be overwhelmed by a tsunami wave (or flood, or flow, or pick your inundation metaphor) of immigrants. The subtext is that it’s not just any immigrant we need to worry about but the poorer, darker-skinned masses, who are considered a drain on scarce resources and threats to American (or, more specifically, white) identity. 

The proponents of this argument range from Donald Trump, whose name-calling of Black and brown immigrants and explicit favoring of white ones is well documented, to “Never Trump” conservative David Frum, who argued it in a 2019 cover story for The Atlantic, albeit in more civil terms. The argument is marred with holes and hardly original: It relies on discredited Malthusian ideas about the threats of overpopulation and the potent brand of eugenics popularized by the white supremacist lawyer Madison Grant in the early twentieth century. 

Today’s nativists distance themselves from this legacy using as cover the reasonable-sounding idea that an immigration system must have rigid numerical limits and that the setting and enforcement of these limits is apolitical—just a matter of law or logistics, devoid of context. In the last few decades, it has become amply evident that immigration restrictionists have succeeded in this sleight of hand, garnering support for their central premise across the political spectrum. They have distorted mainstream discussions of what an alternative system might look like because they have convinced the public there is no alternative at all. 

Race science–backed restrictionism really took off in the early 1900s, bolstered by government officials who were proficient in the language of numbers. The Census Bureau, in fact, led the charge, as the historian Mae Ngai notes in a 1999 article in the Journal of American History. “In a sense, demographic data were to twentieth-century racists what craniometric data had been to race scientists during the nineteenth,” she writes. Francis A. Walker, a statistician who had overseen the 1870 and 1880 censuses and presided over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a key player, according to Ngai. Citing Census analyses, Walker argued in favor of restricting immigration in 1896, writing in The Atlantic that immigration depressed the fertility of the native population and resulted in the “replacement of native by foreign elements.”

In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed laws imposing the first numerical limits on immigration in the form of per-country numerical quotas. These pieces of legislation did not mention race or ethnicity but favored immigration from Western Europe and reinforced the exclusion of Asian immigrants. While Mexicans were not initially subject to these quotas, the 1920s also saw the criminalization of border crossings, the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol, a revving up of deportation policies, and increased administrative barriers to immigration. Numerical limits on immigration created the bureaucratic foundation for the hulked-out enforcement apparatus that developed in the decades afterward—and at the heart of it all was the simple, seemingly apolitical act of counting and labeling people from different places. 

In 1965, on the heels of landmark civil rights legislation, Congress overhauled the U.S. immigration system with the goal of eliminating these discriminatory quotas. The system still relied on country-based numerical limits, but they were color-blind, set similarly across the board. (Which introduced its own inequities: The new system disadvantaged Mexicans, for instance, because it did not account for existing patterns of migration across the border.) America’s first comprehensive refugee law was passed in 1980, born out of the post–World War II era in which the U.S. projected itself as a haven for the persecuted (from its Cold War enemies, at least); the goal was to strike a balance between moral responsibilities and processing limitations. These laws opened the door to immigrants from around the world, who diversified the U.S. population in the decades that followed. 

As the number and variety of immigrants grew, so did the modern restrictionist movement. John Tanton, an ophthalmologist from Michigan, pioneered this rise, using environmental concerns about population growth, trendy in the 1970s, to argue for stopping immigration. Tanton, who was interested in eugenics, left a legacy in Washington, D.C.: He founded a number of organizations to lobby elected officials that are still operational today, as the historian Carly Goodman notes in the forthcoming collection A Field Guide to White Supremacy. These organizations were successful at shaping policy, especially under Trump. But even during less sympathetic administrations, they have been hugely influential, routinely testifying on immigration legislation in Congress. It’s not a surprise that no major immigration bill has passed since the 1990s. 

The restrictionists’ success stems from their messaging strategy, which, as Goodman explains, is focused on deriving legitimacy from data. Roger Connor, the first executive director of the anti-immigrant organization Federation of American Immigration Reform, put it this way: “The issue for the modern immigration debate is not race or ethnicity, it’s numbers.”  

Thanks to FAIR and others, Americans today do think about immigration in numbers, but they are often wrong: Polls find Americans tend to overestimate the share of immigrants in the population and grossly overestimate the proportion of undocumented among the U.S. Latino population. American views on whether immigration is good for the country remain deeply split by party affiliation and yet also show some contradictions. A majority of voters, for example, support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people as well as an increase in border security, apparently not realizing that the two measures are related: that, as some researchers have argued, tougher border enforcement may have actually contributed to the rise in the U.S. undocumented population.   

In April, the Migration Policy Institute reviewed Biden administration’s progress on immigration in his first 100 days in office and found, among other things, that “the government has been slow to scale up its capacity to address the increasing [border] numbers, while also giving mixed messages about who will be allowed into the country.”

The mixed messaging goes like this: On one hand, the administration touts its approach as fundamentally different from Trump’s, pointing to certain low-hanging policy changes as evidence. On the other hand, officials have refused to lift some of Trump’s most harmful policies and blame their failures on capacity challenges created by the previous administration. Above all, they continue to echo in somber, ineffectual refrain their message to migrants: “Do not come.” 

While the logistics of immigration are indeed complicated and require careful planning, there is no evidence that delivering on a more humane system is more economically burdensome than maintaining today’s sweeping restrictions on asylum and legal immigration. The behemoth border enforcement and detention apparatuses are incredibly costly ventures and have become only more so over time. The human cost of the ongoing approach is more difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. 

What would an alternative system look like? That’s a question to which even critics of the current approach have a variety of answers—ranging from a full, top-down overhaul of the current immigration bureaucracy to abolishing borders. But even the more conservative among them would agree that the current pathways to legal immigration need to be repaired and expanded. That means updating asylum laws and eliminating barriers to asylum, lifting refugee ceilings, and increasing the number of other legal routes for those who want to come here and those who are already here and want to stay. Others might also stress the importance of disbanding the militarized agencies that currently enforce these laws and doing away with detention altogether. Such efforts might increase immigration, but the focus is better treatment of immigrants.

Business leaders and well-meaning liberals have often responded to restrictionist scaremongering by arguing that more immigration is ultimately good for the economy. That may be the case, but it, too, evaluates immigrants by how they reflect on a bottom line. Instead, we need to acknowledge the not-so-radical idea that immigrants are people, not line items, and that limits we impose on them, too, are people-made.