The first “great wave” of U.S. immigration took place from roughly 1880 to 1930. During this time, according to the Census Bureau, the foreign-born population doubled from about 6.7 million to 14.2 million people. Changes were then made to immigration law to reduce admissions, decreasing the foreign-born population until it fell to about 9.6 million by 1970. Meanwhile, during this low-immigration period, real median compensation for U.S. workers surged, increasing more than 90 percent from 1948 to 1973, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In the 1960s, Congress lifted immigration caps and ushered in a “second great wave.” The foreign-born population more than quadrupled, to more than 40 million today.
This ongoing wave coincides with a period of middle-class contraction. The Pew Research Center reports: “The share of adults who live in middle-income households has eroded over time, from 61% in 1970 to 51% in 2013.” Harvard economist George Borjas has estimated that high immigration from 1980 to 2000 reduced the wages of lower-skilled U.S. workers by 7.4 percent — a stunning drop — with particularly painful reductions for African American workers. Weekly earnings today are lower than they were in 1973.
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