October 12, 2019 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Opposition to immigration takes many forms. Most of these forms are easily tackled empirically and are found to be wanting. 

For example, proponents of immigration restrictions argue that immigrants impose a large net fiscal cost to host countries. This is untrue for the United States as well as other countries like Canada. More sophisticated opponents will argue that a non-significant share of workers — those who are unskilled and/or are high school dropouts — suffer wage penalties from immigration. The evidence on this is mixed and subject to heavy debate (and there are good reasons to believe that these workers actually gain). However, scholars point out that this portion of the labor market is a small one and the gains to workers could serve to compensate those who are affected. 

However, some arguments against immigration are harder to tackle empirically. Those generally deal with cultural topics. The gist of the idea is that immigrants are changing the country culturally. Probably the best indicator of this concern is the focus on language use by immigrants. 

For example, the Center for Immigration Studies (which advocates reductions in the number of legally admitted immigrants) claims that immigration is changing the linguistic makeup of the United States. English is losing ground, and it is argued that its status as the lingua franca of the country is being eroded. This has been accompanied by calls to make English the official language of the United States or simply to reduce the number of immigrants to the United States. 

However, there is a good empirical case to dismiss this concern for the United States. There is an example of a more linguistically fragile group that accepts large numbers of immigrants (relative to its population) and is able to maintain its linguistic vitality: the French-speaking minorities of Canada, which are largely concentrated in the province of Quebec. 

French-Canadians represent less than a quarter of Canada’s population and close to one-fiftieth of North America’s population. By that measure, it is easy to see how they are linguistically fragile. They constitute a small French-speaking island in an English-speaking sea. It is also an island that has accepted an increasingly large cohort of immigrants. 

In 2001, the annual number of immigrants admitted represented 0.5 percent of Quebec’s population. By 2017, it had increased to 0.6 percent of its population. Historically, the foreign-born population of Quebec has rarely exceeded 10 percent of the total population. Since 2001, this proportion has inched upward and now is 15 percent. To put things in context, America’s foreign-born population stands at less than 14 percent. 

Given the relative standing of French-Canadians in North America, how has the linguistic make-up of Quebec changed as a result of rising immigration levels? In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development (co-authored with Alex Arsenault Morin), I point out that census data suggest that the use of only French at home has been declining since 2001. 

While proponents of restricting immigration would laud that finding, I also point out that linguistic combinations that include French have been increasing. This is to be expected as native French speakers have found partners in immigrants who do not speak French as their first language. Thus, when we account for multilingual households where French is the first language (or equal with another), we find a moderate decline in the use of French at home (less than half a percentage point). 

More importantly, I also find that the use of French at work has been gradually increasing. This is important because it points to the possibility that those who use French at work or in their public lives are not necessarily those who use French at home. Indeed, a native French speaker may wed a person that does not speak French as his first language. That native French speaker may end up using another language at home. However, he still uses French at work and his partner may also use French at work. Simultaneously, French speakers may use English (or another language) at work but speak French at home. 

In the forthcoming article, I point out that there is a way to account for this. We used census categories that tracked the “language most spoken” at work and at home. We measured the proportion of individuals that stated they use French “most often” either at work or at home. We found that even though 79 percent of Quebec’s population have French as their “mother tongue” (the language they learned first), more than 90 percent of them reported using French the most either at work or at home. Moreover, that proportion increased slightly from 90.2 percent in 2001 to 90.9 percent in 2016. 

These findings suggest something important for debates in America. If a fragile linguistic group like the French-Canadians of Quebec can sustain its linguistic vitality (which is a key element of their cultural identity), the United States can hardly be in a worse situation. 

In fact, the case of Quebec also suggests that there is no need to restrict immigration to address cultural concerns. For example, the federal government of Canada has an agreement with the provincial government of Quebec that gives the latter a certain liberty in selecting its immigrants. 

As a result, the provincial government does tend to favor French-speaking immigrants, but a sizable share of immigrants (generally between 30 and 40 percent) do not know French when they arrive. To improve French proficiency, the provincial government spends modest sums annually to teach French to immigrants. These sums, in spite of some flaws, have been able to generate increases in French usage among immigrants. Thus, it appears that modest “keyhole” solutions are able to fix the frictions caused by high (and rising) levels of immigration. There is no need to resort to heavy-handed policies or reductions in the number of admitted immigrants. 

If Quebec, with its unique situation in North America, can effectively deal with high levels of immigration, why would the United States be unable to do so?

Vincent Geloso

Vincent Geloso

Vincent Geloso, senior fellow at AIER, is an assistant professor of economics at George Mason University. He obtained a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics.

Follow him on Twitter @VincentGeloso

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