The coming debate would be far more honest and politically transparent if we demanded a simple answer from those who disagree with “America First” proposals: Who are you rooting for? -GEORGE J. BORGAS
George Borgas is a Harvard Economist who’s been warning us of the huge cost of immigration for some time now. He’s crunched the numbers and came out with a nonpartisan view of the damage immigration does to the economy and to American workers. He just published his latest book on immigration in the US:
IT’S A MUST READ!
Borgas has an op-ed in the New York Times that’s a REALITY CHECK for anyone who’s a believer in mass immigration to the US.
The first month of the Trump administration has already changed the direction of the immigration debate, with many more changes coming soon. So far, executive orders and deportations dominate the discussion. But the fight over how many refugees to admit or how best to vet those refugees obscures what the debate is really about.
Changes in social policy do not make everyone better off, and immigration policy is no exception. I am a refugee, having fled Cuba as a child in 1962. Not only do I have great sympathy for the immigrant’s desire to build a better life, I am also living proof that immigration policy can benefit some people enormously.
But I am also an economist and am very much aware of the many trade-offs involved. Inevitably, immigration does not improve everyone’s well-being. There are winners and losers, and we will need to choose among difficult options. The improved lives of the immigrants come at a price. How much of a price are the American people willing to pay, and exactly who will pay it?
This tension permeates the debate over immigration’s effect on the labor market. Those who want more immigration claim that immigrants do jobs that native-born Americans do not want to do. But we all know that the price of gas goes down when the supply of oil goes up. The laws of supply and demand do not evaporate when we talk about the price of labor rather than the price of gas. By now, the well-documented abuses of the H-1B program, such as the Disney workers who had to train their foreign-born replacements, should have obliterated the notion that immigration does not harm competing native workers.
Over the past 30 years, a large fraction of immigrants, nearly a third, were high school dropouts, so the incumbent low-skill workforce formed the core group of Americans who paid the price for the influx of millions of workers. Their wages fell as much as 6 percent. Those low-skill Americans included many native-born blacks and Hispanics, as well as earlier waves of immigrants.
But somebody’s lower wage is somebody else’s higher profit. The increase in the profitability of many employers enlarged the economic pie accruing to the entire native population by about $50 billion. So, as proponents of more immigration point out, immigration can increase the aggregate wealth of Americans. But they don’t point out the trade-off involved: Workers in jobs sought by immigrants lose out.
First and foremost, we must reduce illegal immigration. It has had a corrosive impact, paralyzing discussion on all aspects of immigration reform. A wall along the Mexican border may signal that we are getting serious, but many undocumented immigrants enter the country legally and then overstay their visas. A national electronic system (such as E-Verify) mandating that employers certify new hires, along with fines and criminal penalties for lawbreaking businesses, might go a long way toward stemming the flow.
But what about the 11-million-plus undocumented immigrants already here? A vast majority have led peaceful lives and established deep roots in our communities. Their sudden deportation would not represent the compassionate America that many of us envision.
Perhaps it’s time for some benign neglect. Many will eventually qualify for visas because they have married American citizens or have native-born children. Rather than fight over a politically impossible amnesty, we could accelerate the granting of family-preference visas to that population.
We will also need to decide how many immigrants to admit. Economists seldom confess their ignorance, but we truly have no clue about what that number should be. About one million legal immigrants a year entered the country in the past two decades. The political climate suggests that many Americans view that number as too high. History shows that when voters get fed up with immigration, there is no reluctance to cut off the flow altogether. Back in the 1990s, Barbara Jordan’s immigration commission recommended an annual target of about 550,000 immigrants. Such a cut would be significant, but it may be preferable to the alternative, which, in this political climate, could mean shutting off the flow.
Finally, we need to choose between highly skilled and less-skilled applicants. High-skill immigrants, who pay higher taxes and receive fewer services and can potentially expand the frontier of knowledge, are more profitable for us. But giving an opportunity to the huddled masses is part of what makes our country exceptional.
Regardless of the allocation, employers should not walk away with all the gains, and workers should not suffer all the losses. We need to ensure a more equitable sharing of the gains and losses among the American people.
No matter where one stands in the ideological divide, President Trump has already answered the fundamental question guiding the design of a more rational policy. In his speech at the Republican National Convention, he described how he would pick among the available choices: “We are going to be considerate and compassionate to everyone,” he said. “But my greatest compassion will be for our own struggling citizens.”
He added, “We are going to have an immigration system that works, but one that works for the American people.”
Many of my colleagues in the academic community — and many of the elite opinion-makers in the news media — recoil when they hear that immigration should serve the interests of Americans. Their reaction is to label such thinking as racist and xenophobic and to marginalize anyone who agrees.
But those accusations of racism reflect their effort to avoid a serious discussion of the trade-offs. The coming debate would be far more honest and politically transparent if we demanded a simple answer from those who disagree with “America First” proposals: Who are you rooting for?