During my panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference, conservative columnist Ralph Hallow said that the United States is “bringing in people with no experience with our idea that the individual has ultimate worth and that the government exists only because we say it can.” For the past couple of months, I gathered data to test this claim. Here’s what I found: while immigrants do have less experience with liberal democracy than Americans do, the recent wave of immigrants actually comes from much more democratic countries than earlier waves.
I calculated the level of democracy using the Polity dataset from the Center for Systemic Peace, which is the only data series on democracy that goes back to the mid‐19th century. Polity scores are measured on a 21‐point scale from ‑10 (absolute autocracy) to +10 (consolidated democracy). They cover all independent states with a population greater than 500,000. Their variables measure how open and competitive the electoral system is and how controlled the executive is in its use of power — not the perfect measure of Hallow’s idea, but the best that we have.
These regimes can be grouped into democracies (+5 and up), autocracies (-5 and less), and anocracies (between ‑5 and +5). An example of a democracy with a polity score of +10 is Sweden, which elects its parliament in free and open elections. An example of an autocracy with a polity score of ‑10 is Saudi Arabia, which has a hereditary system of government and few civil liberties, and an example of an anocracy with a score of 1 is Bangladesh, which has struggled with military control of its elections and civil liberties.
Figure 1 groups immigrants into these three political system classifications since 1857, when the United States began recording country of origin of legal immigrant arrivals. As it shows, the 19th and early 20th century saw large numbers of immigrants from anocracies, some from democracies, and few from autocracies. Only in the 1920s, after World War II and the closing of immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe, were democracies temporarily in the majority. During the Cold War period, autocracies played a larger role in driving immigrants to come to the United States, but following the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, immigrants from democracies have dominated the flow.
Figure 2 groups immigrants into three periods: the “Great Wave” of immigrants who came before 1930 (32 million), the “Small Wave” who entered during the period of limited immigration from 1930 to 1975 (9 million), and the “New Wave” who entered after 1975 (34 million). It also shows the most recent group of new immigrants from 2012 to 2016. The exact start of the New Wave is debatable. Many people point to 1965, but I prefer to count from 1976 because it is the first year that topped 500,000 immigrants since the 1920s, coinciding with the decision to admit Vietnamese refugees, and 90 percent of all immigrants still in the United States in 2016 entered after 1975.
As Figure 2 shows, a majority of New Wave immigrants came from democracies, a share that was more than double the share during the Great Wave. From 2012 to 2016, the share from democracies reached two thirds of all arrivals. The share from autocracies was a little larger during the New Wave, but from 2012 to 2016, it had dropped back to 18 percent.
Figure 3 provides the weighted average polity score for all immigrants for the three periods of immigration, showing that the average immigrant has increasingly come from countries that are more democratic. The weighted average polity score increased from ‑0.2 during the Great Wave to +2.8 during the New Wave. During the most recent five years, it has risen to +4.1.
The bottom line is that although immigrants to the United States today are less likely to have experience with liberal democracies than Americans, they are much more likely to have lived in liberal democracies than the ancestors of most Americans when they first arrived here.