Are We Importing Poverty with Immigrants?

Are We Importing Poverty with Immigrants?

Are We Importing Poverty with Immigrants?


George Borjas
8:01 a.m.  Thursday  8/22/96

What to do about illegal aliens? It seems to me that the current focus of the debate on cutting off social services to illegal aliens is indicative of the fact that we are still not serious about stopping the illegal alien flow. Consider, for example, the debate over whether the foreign-born children of illegal aliens should receive public schooling. First of all, this proposal would do nothing to stop the provision of services to the U.S.-born children of illegal aliens. Second, the proposal would not deter the migration of single adults. In the end, it would affect the incentives to migrate of a relatively small number of people in the illegal population. A much more serious proposal would look anew at the implications of setting up a system of substantial employer sanctions. Employers are the ones who gain the most from the entry of illegal aliens; they should also pay the costs.

The moderator also brings into consideration the issue of non-economic factors in the setting up of immigration policy. I couldn't agree more. Economic factors should play a role--but they should not play the only role. And, despite my economics background, it is not clear to me that they should play the main role. Nevertheless, I think we, as a nation, would be much better off if we knew what the economic costs of pursuing particular immigration policies are. By knowing these costs, we could then set up policies that would compensate those who lose the most. For example, for purely humanitarian reasons we might want to let in a large number of the "huddled masses." These masses, however, will have adverse economic impacts on the huddled masses already here. It is irresponsible, I think, to pursue an immigration policy that would not help alleviate the pain of those who would be most hurt by pursuing this particular policy.

Mark Krikorian
8:12 a.m.  Thursday  8/22/96

The moderator's "sentimental" arguments for immigration are not trivial. On the one hand, examples of individual immigrants who would not have been admitted under a more rational system, such as Irving Berlin or Andrew Carnegie or many of our own parents and grandparents, logically suggest a policy of open borders, because anyone turned down for admission might prove to be another Einstein. That is obviously untenable, as the moderator points out.

But on the other hand, it's sensible always to keep a window open to chance, as the Chinese say--i.e., some continued immigration ensures that we are at least open to admitting some future Einstein. An annual level of immigration of 300,000 or 400,000, half or less than today's level, with less emphasis on family relationships, would still be higher than any other country and would still leave the window open to chance.


For reasons Peter Skerry might want to discuss, the traditional black leadership has taken a vigorously pro-immigration stand, despite the impact of large-scale, low-skilled immigration on poor black Americans. This is an interesting contrast with prominent blacks of yesteryear, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others who, despite sharp differences on other matters, were almost unanimous in their opposition to mass immigration. The Center recently published a collection of these writings and speeches called Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are: Black Americans on Immigration.

The votes of the congressional black caucus during this recent round of immigration legislation are also telling. The two Republicans, Gary Franks and J.C. Watts, were the only black members of the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the legal immigration reductions--which were stricken from the legislation with the support of all the black Democrats voting in the House (three were absent).

Likewise, the final vote approving the House illegal immigration bill was 333 to 87. Twenty-six of the 87 no votes came from the black caucus, accounting for 30 percent of those in opposition.

Peter Skerry
10:13 a.m.  Thursday  8/22/96

I am impressed with the tenor of the moderator's comments yesterday. As is his wont, Herb Stein combines reasoned analysis with humor, common sense, and even sentiment. But though he writes of "sentiments," I don't believe he is guilty of being "sentimental." To be sure, most commentators and analysts who share the moderator's sentiments cling to them as an antidote to further thought. This pattern has dominated the immigration debate, particularly among policy elites in Washington. For this reason, while I would agree with the moderator that sentiments like his do deserve some weight in the policy discussion, it is not as though they have been overlooked. They have been afforded too much weight--much like the views of the Zoe Baird Party. Indeed, it is not too cynical to say that such sentiments have often served as the ideological smokescreen for the class interests of the Zoe Baird Party.

The moderator's invocation of sentiments also reminds me of the passage from Edmund Burke in which he asserts that "society is indeed a contract" and then goes on to describe social relations as decidedly non-contractual: "a partnership of all science; a partnership of all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection," whose "ends cannot be obtained in many generations." Sentiments ought to be part of a discussion of immigration policy. Contrary to the dry rationalism of social contract theory, sentiments play an important role in binding us together as a nation.

I would not want to push this view as far (and as irresponsibly) as Peter Brimelow does in his tract, Alien Nation. But he and others have a point when they argue that America is not simply bound together by a commitment to abstract principles or ideas. And because sentiments of fellow-feeling play some unspecified but, I believe, important role in holding us together, the increasing number and diversity of immigrants do put strains on the social fabric.

This is a difficult proposition to test rigorously. And it may be that I exaggerate the point. But again, it is a perspective that is largely overlooked in the current environment. This is particularly the case when "diversity" is almost universally considered an unqualified good. Is there no optimal level of diversity? Does not diversity impose costs on American society? As I like to point out to my liberal friends, there is obviously a connection between the relative homogeneity of Western European democracies and their strong commitments to the welfare state. Even if liberals grant the point about Europe, they fail to acknowledge any relationship between our heterogeneity (and accompanying ethnic and racial tensions) and our lesser commitments to social democracy.

To the extent that the "cult of diversity" stifles full-throated debate over immigration, it needs to be scrutinized.

A final aside. In response to the moderator's query about the stance of black organizations and leaders toward immigration, I would reply that they have, with a few notable exceptions, remained part of a civil rights coalition self-consciously (and in my view, misguidedly) pro-immigration. This, despite the well-documented and episodically visible anti-immigrant "sentiments" of ordinary black folks. How and why black leaders are so out of touch with their rank-and-file on this issue could be the subject of another panel discussion.

Sanford Ungar
11:49 a.m.  Thursday  8/22/96

With apologies for my absence yesterday due to computer problems, I want to address the question of the situation at the southern border. It is pointless to discuss elaborate changes in immigration policy, or to express high hopes for better border enforcement, if one has never been there and observed the situation.

With all due respect to other opinions expressed here earlier, the fence is really a joke. Making it higher, wider, thicker, longer, etc. will have only marginal impact. Even the statistics we now get about apprehensions at the border are highly suspect. I have had border patrol agents tell me personally that they feel lucky if they catch 30 percent of the people trying to cross on any given night. Furthermore, I believe it is still the case that what is reported to us are total apprehensions, not total number of individuals apprehended. In other words, buried in the INS numbers is the fact that the same person may be counted two, three, four, or however many times he has tried unsuccessfully to cross the border. Even so, high ranking officials in the INS have recently been exposed for inflating their apprehension statistics in an attempt to impress visiting congressmen. The least we can say is that we really have little idea exactly how many people are crossing the border illegally.

I applaud Barry Chiswick's point about the questionable value of unlimited efforts at apprehending illegals. Indeed, new resources--including a substantial number of additional border patrol agents--have recently been forced upon the INS, which hardly knows what to do with them. It is impressive to read about new night-vision scopes and the like, but the circumstances are relatively little-changed, given the vast investment that has been made. Why? Because a fence is not going to keep Third World people from wanting to cross the line to the First World; the juxtaposition of San Diego and Tijuana is a very dramatic enticement for informal and illegal immigration. So no meaningful change can be effected without the help of Mexico, for which, frankly, the exportation of poor people is a safety valve. The maquila industries along the border, NAFTA, and other developments in recent years have barely made a dent in the flow. And for all the hand-wringing of "experts" about the effect on low wage-earners in this country, there is also a significant pull factor--jobs to be had at what we regard as very low wages, but Mexicans, Central Americans, and some others regard as a fortune. We may deplore this, but we must recognize it as a fact. (Note: I wonder why the border patrol is forbidden from chasing illegal immigrants on private property in San Diego County?)

It is fascinating to compare the reaction to the cross-border traffic in California (with a relatively generous program of social services) and Texas (where benefits are less generous). Texans, especially in the lower Rio Grande Valley, are far more accepting of the phenomenon and have lived with it all their lives; it is seen as a part of the local economic framework. I met people in the Harlingen and Brownsville area who had no idea on which side of the border they were born (although they obviously claimed to be born in the United States); their families had been crossing back-and-forth for generations. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that until relatively recently in our history, people who crossed the southern (or northern) border by foot were not officially counted or classified as immigrants; the traffic was assumed. Now I recognize that the numbers and circumstances have changed greatly over the years; but it is simply not possible to erect a big fence and change well-established historical patterns of behavior. Immigration, after all, is about PEOPLE and their aspirations, not economic statistics.

I am very troubled by the notion that the unification of families (unattractively labeled "chain migration" by many restrictionists) is now seen to be a great problem for immigration policy. I agree that factors other than family should also be taken into account (including the possession of skills that Microsoft and other high-tech companies find so severely lacking among young native-born and educated Americans). But if our politicians talk so freely and loosely about the centrality of "family values," what represents this concept more purely than an immigrant family that establishes itself here and then brings (SPONSORS) other family members. The overwhelmingly consistent record is one of families caring for their own, taking them in and helping them get on their feet. Indeed, if some of the proposed cutbacks are made in legal immigration, and if family preferences take a big hit in the process, I think we can confidently predict that illegal immigration will increase in direct proportion to the amount that legal immigration is cut. Why should people who have been patiently waiting their turn for five or 10 or more years to come legally on family-preference visas suddenly be dissuaded from doing so? Many will simply get a legitimate tourist or student visa, get on an airplane, and then overstay. (That, by the way, is, by the INS's own admission, the source of most illegal immigration--visa overstays by middle-class people who can easily fit into the fabric of American life. More than half the illegal immigrants in this country at any given time arrived that way, rather than by foot, and we have no idea how to find and catch them.) If some family members and others abuse Supplementary Security Income and other welfare programs, they are certainly not alone; we should revise, rewrite, or tighten those programs that they can be more effectively administered.

Our moderator should not apologize for citing the case of Irving Berlin. That's just the point. Thousands of other people could be cited who have come here and made extraordinary contributions. In every possible field, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Albert Einstein. Martina Navratilova. Ann-Margret. Zbigniew Brzezinski. Madeleine Albright. Manute Bol. (A fuller and wonderful list is available from the National Immigration Forum.) There are plenty from Mexico and Central America, too. If our co-discussants have a foolproof method of picking them out and eliminating the others, then I guess we don't have to worry about getting sentimental. But yes, our immigration policy has always been different from all others. But this is a country different from all others, including ever-so-efficient Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Everyone knows exactly what it is to be French or Japanese, so much so that it is virtually impossible to BECOME French or Japanese if you weren't born with the nationality (and sometimes even if you were). But the definition of an American is always changing, being improved by newcomers.

I'm sorry if this gets a bit emotional, but immigration is about a whole lot more than economics. Just for the record, I wonder how many of our panelists are the children of immigrants. (I'll start: I am. Both of my parents immigrated as young people from Central Europe. I feel they contributed a lot, but I'm certainly in no position to say that it was more than someone who will arrive tonight.)

Barry Chiswick
1:16 p.m.  Thursday  8/22/96

I agree with the moderator that it is "sad" that we cannot offer the opportunity of living in the United States to each and every person who would like to do so. It is sad that so many countries around the world can offer their populations poverty, anarchy or tyranny, and often all three at the same time. It is sad that we live in a world of "scarcity," that we must allocate our scarce resources among alternative objectives. It is sad that the U.S. cannot solve the world's problems by waving a magical wand. I share his feeling on this matter. But yet, we must make hard choices.

We tend to have very romantic notions about immigration, especially unskilled immigrants. I am surprised no one has yet quoted Emma Lazarus' poem excerpted on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Her sentiments well expressed the economic realities of her time regarding immigration. Perhaps we need a new poet to express as beautifully the economic realities of today.

Implicit in the moderator's comments was that future geniuses could come primarily from the unskilled. Suppose we kept the same number of total immigrants but sharply increased the skill level. We are likely to get even more geniuses than we currently receive.

The moderator requested additional thoughts on the control of illegal immigration. Our policy now is to grant de facto amnesty to illegal aliens who penetrate the border and are not arrested or convicted of serious crimes. This is well-known to illegal aliens.

A greater effort is needed for interior enforcement. As of now it is minimal. Even other government agencies that come into contact with the public do not cooperate with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) authorities for the identification and deportation of illegal aliens.

The main interior enforcement is now done by employers fearful of "employer sanctions," the provision of 1986 legislation which authorizes penalties against employers who "knowingly" hire illegal aliens. There are few resources devoted to the enforcement of employer sanctions and employers must walk a fine but ill-defined line between discriminating against those who "look foreign" and hiring illegal aliens. Yet, government agencies, schools, hospitals and other institutions that come into contact with illegal aliens are not subject to the same requirements. I am not arguing that they should since I have doubts about the wisdom of turning even employers into quasi-INS agents. But it is curious that only employers are singled out for this purpose.

The cost of being apprehended, especially at the Mexican border, is minimal. Most apprehensions at the border are at night and the individuals are returned to the other side the next day. Fines and brief incarceration for those apprehended at the border and in the interior might have a substantial deterrent effect. We should try them.

My reading of the situation is that for political and sentimental reasons, as well as for the economic self-interest of certain groups, there is a lack of will to enforce immigration law. Illegal immigration could be curtailed and civil liberties for legal residents retained if there were the will to do so.

The participants in this panel, and those reading our comments, are all relatively high education and high income individuals. We are the beneficiaries of policies that attract large numbers of low-skilled immigrants, whether as legal or illegal immigrants. The price is paid by those with lesser skills and incomes, and the economy as a whole. It can be shown that by appropriate tax-transfer policies some of the gains to the gainers can be transferred to the losers so that the entire native population is better off. In principle, Pareto optimality can be achieved!

There are, however, two requirements for this to occur. One is that the low-skilled immigrants are not given access to these transfers. If they are, all natives can lose. The other is that these transfers to the native-born poor actually take place. This is unlikely to occur. In the absence of our satisfying these two conditions current immigration policy is regressive.

If I were the head of a group representing disadvantaged native-born Americans I would be a strong and vocal advocate of a skills-based immigration policy as one of an array of policy instruments to help my group. Inter-group solidarity among the disadvantaged groups has an important role, but I would argue it should not dominate a disadvantaged group's views on an issue as important as immigration. Perhaps the divergence of economic self-interests between the leadership and the membership of disadvantaged groups drives the wedge between optimal policy and policies that are supported by the leadership.

Herb Stein
1:20 p.m.  Thursday  8/22/96

Barry Chiswick stopped me just in time. I was just about to quote Emma Lazarus' poem about giving us your tired and your poor. I was going to quote it from the cover of a book edited by Barry Chiswick.

We have strayed a long way from the initial question about whether we are importing poverty with immigrants. That straying was essential in order to put the question of immigration in context. Explicitly or implicitly the panelists and this moderator have suggested a number of objectives or values that have some claim to be considered in deciding on immigration policy. These include maximizing the U.S. national income, maximizing the national income of Native Americans, maximizing the income of the poorest Native Americans, protecting the culture, protecting the social fabric, honoring family ties, enriching the culture and serving America's tradition as light to the world. The weights people give to these values will affect their preferences for immigration policy. Indeed, we have no way to see what these weights are except by seeing what specific policies people prefer.

We have only a few hours left on this stage and I would like to invite the panelists now to skip to the last act and tell us, as specifically as they can, what they would propose to do. How many legals, what degree of consanguinity, what degree of productivity as estimated by whom, and so on? And similarly for the illegals.

I would like to add a comment about the role of my sentimental considerations in the decision. Suppose I were to invite five econometricians to sit in separate rooms and estimate the number of immigrants that would maximize the income of Native Americans (meaning not Indians only). I am sure there would be a considerable range of estimates. At this point my sentimental considerations might enter into the decision