Last year the federal government began to release preliminary findings from the 2020 Census, and news outlets reported on America’s declining birth rate. Of course, given the pandemic, it’s easy to understand how young couples have been in no hurry to have children. Yet, Census 2020 tells us that the drop in births is part of a longer trend. During the past decade, America’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest level on record. Does this have anything to do with immigration?
Demographers point out that immigrants have more children than do native-born Americans. In fact, if not for immigrant fecundity, the American birth rate would years ago have fallen below 2.1 children, what is called the "replacement level," that is, the number of children per woman needed to maintain the size of the current population without in-migration. Yet, notwithstanding a sizeable foreign-born population, we are now at 1.6 children per woman. Even immigrants are having fewer kids. The boost that their large families gave to the population between 1990 and 2000 has become a nudge. Immigrant women still have more children than native-born women, but not enough for growth. Of course, this disturbs policymakers who want to maintain the demographic fuel for an ever-expanding economy.
This wouldn’t be the first time that the Census has prompted concerns about immigrants and births. An early instance of immigration-related census shock came more than a century ago when returns from the 1880 Census indicated that native-born Americans were having fewer children. That alone wasn’t surprising news. Other industrialized nations, notably European powers like England, Germany, and France, also experienced fertility declines. The shock came with how the decline was interpreted by the experts. Chief among the American experts was Francis Amasa Walker, the country’s foremost economist.
Walker was superintendent of the 1870 and 1880 censuses. Early in his tenure, he approved of immigration from Europe, particularly immigration to areas where agriculture and industry needed labor—the South and Midwest. However, Walker changed his mind in the 1880s, turning against immigration as the flow of arrivals shifted from northern and western Europe to southern and central Europe. He believed the change in source countries accounted for a serious decline in immigrant quality. Walker argued that America’s founders had been a select population who had overcome almost insurmountable hardships in pioneering the country and founding its institutions. By contrast, he saw the new immigrants as “beaten men from beaten races” who were politically unprepared for Democracy and fit only for the meanest of jobs.
Walker believed that mass immigration literally inhibited the growth of the native-born population. So alien were the “hordes” of newcomers that native Americans of child-bearing age were, he asserted, unwilling to bring sons and daughters into the world. Rather than see their progeny forced to compete economically and to mix socially with the interlopers, younger Americans were deciding not to have children! Thus, although America’s population continued to grow, it grew more slowly than before, and that growth was fueled by foreigners. The newcomers would replace the descendants of “colonial stock,” changing the character of the entire country.
Of course, we now know how the story turned out. Population growth may indeed have slowed, as it did throughout the industrializing world, but the “new immigrants” blended into the mainstream, eventually intermarrying with old stock Americans, as well as with immigrants from other countries. At the time, though, Walker’s prominence lent legitimacy to the idea that real Americans were being “replaced” by interlopers of an inferior grade. By the time of Walker’s death in 1897, annual arrival numbers were higher than ever before, and the ethnic mix was even more varied than in prior decades.
Prescott Hall, co-founder of the influential Immigration Restriction League (IRL), would take this idea of replacement to an extreme. Hall was an intelligent guy, a Harvard man. Yet when it came to immigration, his feelings clouded his judgment, as when he argued that "native children are being murdered by never being allowed to come into existence, as surely as if put to death in some older invasion of the Huns and Vandals.” (Selection of Immigration, 1904) It wasn’t much of a logical leap to the conviction that America was destroying itself by admitting large numbers of immigrants. Walker’s notion of replacement had evolved into the claim that White Anglo-Saxon Americans, as a group, were committing “race suicide,” a term that would take hold among enemies of immigration. They would soon use it to great effect in pushing the National Origins Quotas legislation that would shut America's doors from the 1920s into the 1960s.
America has had generous admissions quotas since the 1970s. Anti-immigration activists continue to sound the alarm about our national suicide and the demographic death of the West. Pat Buchanan has claimed for decades that "Third World Immigrants" will overwhelm the native-born population of America in much the same way as restrictionists predicted that the Jews, Italians, Poles, and other "new immigrants" would do a hundred years ago. Francis Walker was wrong then. Unless America somehow ceases to provide today's immigrants with freedom and opportunity, Buchanan's predictions will prove wrong tomorrow.