Of Human Triage: Immigrant Categories and Economic Rationales

Immigration reform is all the rage in Washington these days, but if broad consensus exists for generally overhauling the system, it unfortunately falls apart in the details. The President and the Senate may have fairly similar plans, but the early House discussions have reflected an entirely different perception of the problem. So much of the debate across the country focuses on estimates of costs and benefits of different kinds of migrants and different aspects of our current migration reality. As always these estimates rest on assumptions that are difficult to evaluate empirically. At this point, everything is on the table as being potentially expanded, reduced, eliminated, or replaced. In light of this, I thought it would be worth examining some of the different categories of immigrants who may see their lives get easier or harder in the near future, and the economic rationale for treating them as distinct entities.

First, there are the coveted STEM Immigrants, who are foreign-born students graduating from American Universities with advanced degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. There is no-one now who disputes the senselessness of attracting the world’s best and brightest to our universities and then making it difficult for them to find work in the U.S. afterwards. The President has gone so far as to suggest that a green card be “stapled” to their diplomas upon graduation. The suddenly outspoken Senator Marco Rubio claims that every 100 STEM immigrants create roughly 260 American jobs, which is plausible, though I haven’t been able to locate the source of this figure. It is worth remembering, however, that these graduates have paid for that education, often at a substantially higher rate than domestic students, and so America is a net winner even if they only stay for a few short years.

The opposite is true for the DREAMers, undocumented migrants who were brought here as young children and who by law are entitled to receive a full public education at the state’s expense.  However, at the moment when they could begin realizing their full productive potential and repaying society through taxes they are often held back by their unchangeable legal status. Therefore the country is losing money and ruining lives at the same time, which is something both the Senate and the President propose to rectify rapidly.

On the other end of the spectrum are agricultural workers, for whom there also seems to be a general consensus that we ought to be more accepting of. But this is a category that I find curious, because its special treatment rests on very specific assumptions. The first is that opening the doors to greater low-skilled immigration, or legalizing more of the low-skilled immigration we already have, would not automatically result in a greater labor supply for the agricultural sector. While it’s certainly true that immigrant farm workers earn appalling wages for labor that most of us wouldn’t find very appealing, it’s also certainly true that these wages are generally higher than what they would have been making in their countries of origin. (There are, of course, many farmworkers who are trapped in exploitative situations where they may be making less than in their countries of origin, but it’s difficult to imagine that this is the case for two million people all across the country.)

If it is the case that the only way to get migrants to do farmwork is to create or maintain a special status for them,[1] then you have to either find a way to keep them in those jobs (as opposed to letting them move up the economic latter to more remunerative work), or constantly replenish the supply of new immigrant farmworkers. Laudably, the Senate’s Bipartisan Framework talks of giving “individuals who have been working without legal status in the United States agricultural industry… a path to citizenship through a different process under our new agricultural worker program.” But this raises the question of who will replace them when their improved status eventually allows them to shift industries. Will we try to pull other previously undocumented immigrants into agriculture, or will we give new temporary visas to foreigners?

For the willing foreign-born worker who is neither highly skilled nor able to prove his aptitude or affinity for farm work, the Senate framework calls for a “humane and effective system … for these workers to enter the country and find employment without seeking the aid of human traffickers or cartels.” Which is something I wholeheartedly endorse. On the other hand, the provision that businesses will be able to hire low-skilled immigrants only after demonstrating that Americans were unwilling to take those jobs is essentially at the heart of the current agricultural guestworker program. This provision makes it much more preferable for farmers to hire undocumented workers than to go through the steps of proving a shortage of domestic labor. A sensible subsequent bullet point in the Bipartisan Framework suggests “…more lower-skilled immigrants be allowed to come when the economy is creating jobs and fewer when it is not” (p. 4). However, this assumes that politicians can accurately assess the state of the economy and that they will not be tempted to reduce this number to meaninglessness under pressure from immigrant-skeptic constituents, even when the economy is humming along.

Interestingly, the Senate Framework says nothing about family-based immigration, which currently accounts for the majority of legal permanent migration to the United States, in contrast to Britain, Canada and Australia. Discussions in the House Judiciary Committee have proposed reducing this stream by eliminating the ability of immigrants to sponsor their adult children and siblings for green cards. To the extent that we are concerned about reallocating “capacity” to suit our economic needs, this is probably a logical step. Adults who can easily come to the U.S. through family reunification presumably lack some of the selection-bias benefits of immigrants in general who have to really want and fight to stay in America. On the other hand, the ability to eventually bring over one’s entire family is likely a positive factor in inspiring a highly skilled immigrant to stay in the United States. It is also worth debating how much the desire to reunite with family members is a driving factor in the persistence of the undocumented population.

The over 11 million[2] undocumented immigrants are of course the biggest and most controversial class of immigrants being discussed. The success or failure of comprehensive reform will ultimately depend upon what happens to them. Numerous studies show a boost to an immigrant’s earnings and output upon naturalization, but that is usually in contrast to an identical immigrant who didn’t naturalize.  However, this doesn’t necessarily help up anticipated the net effect of the entire undocumented population becoming eligible for naturalization at more or less the same time. And what seems most likely to be offered in the reform is a work permit and a long path to citizenship. How far immigrants may choose to go down that path is difficult to anticipate.

But assuming that everyone did at least get a work permit then we might expect labor costs would rise somewhat when immigrants were less likely to be exploited for their precarious status and lack of information. But they couldn’t rise very much because 11 million people getting legal status at the same time means a lot of low-skill competition for the same jobs. At the same time, there should be a dramatic improvement in the efficiency of our low-skill labor markets, as immigrants and their employers can find each other much more easily through above ground channels, and disruptions from INS raids or high turnover should be lower.

A remarkable aspect of this categorization into economic classes is that it has nothing to do with country of origin of the immigrants. When America first imposed large-scale immigration controls in 1924, its guiding principle was not economics or even popular beliefs about economics, but rather limiting future streams to a small percentage of the historical streams that the U.S. had been receiving from any given country (which had the intended consequence of preventing almost all non-European immigration). This persisted until The Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which came on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and abolished national-origins discrimination in favor of limiting the amount of immigrants by Hemisphere and country within hemisphere.[3]

This last provision has remained in force until this day, with the consequence that every year the maximum number of permanent residency visas for people from China or Bulgaria is the same, despite the 100-fold difference in the population of those countries. The original idea may have been a noble one – making sure that Europeans from traditional migrant-sending countries didn’t claim all of the slots for the Eastern Hemisphere – but it is a needless barrier to logical inflows today. President Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant who could have never come to America before the Hart-Celler Act, has rightly approved suspending the cap, at least while we clear the long backlog of pending family reunification cases. Clearly we no longer need to worry about getting a diverse stream of migrants. It’s encouraging to think that even the infrastructure of America’s previous immigration reforms in out-dated, they clearly did have some benefits.

[1] As is currently the case, though the H-2A visa covers only a small portion of migrant agricultural workers.

[2] Jeanne Batalova and Alicia Lee, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States”, Migration Information Source, March 2012.

[3] From the Eastern Hemisphere: a limit of 170,000 legal permanent immigrants from any given country in a given year with a maximum of 20,000 coming from any one country.


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