America Needs Much Bigger, Bolder Immigration Reform—for Low-Skilled Workers, Not Just Supergeniuses—To Boost the Economy

Commentary about business and finance.
June 20 2012 11:48 AM

DREAM On

America needs much bigger, bolder immigration reform—for low-skilled workers, not just supergeniuses—to boost the economy.

Hispanic farmworkers harvest Strawberries in Carlsbad, California.
Latino farmhands harvest strawberries in Carlsbad, Calif.

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.

Last week, the Obama administration reignited the immigration debate with a modest effort to accomplish some of the goals of the DREAM legislation that’s languished in Congress for over a year. But while the administration’s decision to suspend deportations of certain young illegal immigrants is a huge deal for the people directly impacted, his order affects a very small number of people. It is more a political gesture than a game-changing economic policy, which is too bad, because broader immigration reform—aimed explicitly at allowing more people to come here voluntarily and work, rather than at “securing the border”—remains one of the best things we can do to bolster economic growth in both the short and long terms.

Among those who recognize this, it’s become fashionable to focus on the narrow case for immigration of high-skilled workers. Adam Ozimek and Noah Smith recently wrote a wonky piece on this theme for the Atlantic, and Tim Fernholz delivered a more whimsical take for Reuters. But while the case for high-skilled immigrants is strong, and the desire to take the focus off the culturally freighted topic of migration from Latin America politically understandable, an excessive focus on the idea of importing supergeniuses and talented engineers tends to obscure the fact that essentially any able-bodied, hard-working migrant is good for the American economy.

It’s not just the doctors and the Google co-founders. Those who mop floors and cook tacos also serve.

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That’s because different “factors of production”—including unskilled labor—are largely complementary. This can be most clearly seen in agriculture. Some land in America is farmed, most is not. Much of the land is only profitable to cultivate at a wage level that few American workers find appealing. When we cut off the flow of migrant farm workers, that doesn’t magically create high-paying jobs for Americans; it leads in the short term to crops rotting in the fields and in the long term to less land being cultivated.

The land and the unskilled labor, in other words, are complements. More unskilled labor would mean more cultivated land. That would mean more agricultural output and more jobs for people who manufacture farm equipment, build food-processing facilities, or provide accounting or legal services to agricultural firms. 

America has historically benefitted from the immigration of the occasional genius scientist, but our history is completely impossible to imagine without the droves of ordinary folks who came here to till the land. Attempting to hoard those natural resources for a small group of native-born citizens would have made the country poorer, not richer, by making it impossible to actually use them effectively.

The same dynamic applies outside of farming. For people to reach their full potential, they often need plenty of other people around. An increase in the supply of busboys and dishwashers, for example, creates more opportunities for aspiring chefs and sommeliers as well as for the manufacture and installation of kitchen equipment. Things that don’t even count as skills in a community with no immigrants—the ability to speak English fluently, for example—become at least a little valuable when migrants arrive, creating positions for bartenders and hostesses who need skills immigrants lack.  

Meanwhile, in an economy where most people are employed providing services to other people, the availability of extra workers makes it easier for people to specialize and work productively.

Immigration skeptics often act as if there’s some fixed pool of jobs that we compete for. But it’s obvious that in a world without immigrant housecleaners, we wouldn’t have an equal number of much-higher-paid native-born maids. What we’d have is less housecleaning being done on a market basis and more being done as unpaid work at home. For many middle-class families that would be pure waste. Time spent cleaning the toilet that could be spent on higher-value labor, on leisure, or on quality time with friends and family.   

Talking about the broad social benefits of low-paid domestic labor makes people uncomfortable, but it’s crucial to recognize that by far the largest benefits of immigration accrue to the immigrants themselves, who earn vastly higher wages by relocating. These benefits are far larger than any foreign aid program, but they’re not just charity. In an interconnected world, when foreign-born people increase their earnings, they increase their demand for American-made products. If Haiti’s population experienced a five-fold increase in incomes, we’d sell more cars and airplanes to Haitians and more Haitian tourists would visit our shores. When Haitians experience a five-fold increase in income by physically relocating to the United States, the exact same dynamic takes hold, except with an even wider range of services that native-born Americans can now sell to the newly enriched migrants. 

Much the same applies to the large number of otherwise law-abiding migrants who already came here without permission. Granting temporary work permits to a young sub-set of this population is a good start. But kicking out the many people who are ineligible for Obama’s program either because they were over the age of 17 when they came or because they’re over the age of 30 now does the overall economy no good. By contrast, creating a path to legal status and legitimate work bolsters immigrants’ earning power and contributes more in terms of tax dollars, production, and consumption. Meanwhile border-control and immigration-enforcement resources could be better spent on targeting actual criminals rather than job-seekers. The politics are fraught, but bigger, bolder immigration reform aimed at leveraging America’s continued desirability as a destination ought to be a major part of our strategy for economic growth.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.