Are We Importing Poverty with Immigrants?

Are We Importing Poverty with Immigrants?

Are We Importing Poverty with Immigrants?

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George Borjas
8:08 a.m.  Friday  8/23/96

The moderator asks us to conclude by stating what it is we would do. As the moderator knows, however, we can only give policy recommendations if we have already decided what it is that we want immigration policy to accomplish. There are economic, political, and humanitarian goals that we can accomplish by pursuing particular types of policies. Most of the discussion in this panel has focused on the economic goals--less poverty, less welfare, less adverse impact on unskilled natives.

It is unclear to me that these economic goals are by far the most important. The costs of unskilled immigration from Mexico, for example, are but a tiny fraction of the costs of having an unstable political regime south of the border. I think that policy recommendations should state very clearly, at the outset, what it is that the recommendator wants to accomplish.

With that out of the way, let me just suppose that we want to increase the size of the economic pie that accrues to natives in the United States. I think that the research evidence suggests that we would be much better off if we were to admit skilled immigrants. This fact also has an implication for illegal aliens: we should not have any since they would have to be screened for their economic potential.

Having said all this, let me return to my earlier point. Is this really the kind of immigration policy we want? Should we not be concerned with our "sentiments" and values and beliefs? Excuse me for being sentimental, but I believe all these things should matter, and immigration policy should reflect the consensus that takes all these things into consideration.

Peter Skerry
11:46 a.m.  Friday  8/23/96

The moderator wants to know what we should do about immigration.

With regard to legal immigration, I would again argue that I don't believe the appropriate question is necessarily how many. Just as important is likely to be who they are (in terms of education and skill levels and, for better or worse, their national origins) and how we treat them once they get here. The former set of considerations points not to a national origins policy (though I do think national origins speak to how compatible immigrants are likely to be with American culture and how compatible they are perceived to be by Americans), but definitely toward a de-emphasis on family unification and re-emphasis on skills and education. But this is likely to be much more easily said than done, particularly in an immigration regime such as ours which, unlike Canada's for example, has not afforded immigration policy makers much administrative autonomy, or even discretion.

The second set of considerations (how we treat immigrants once they're here) raises a set of questions about race that have not thus far been addressed here. I have in mind our by now ingrained, and indeed institutionalized, tendency of reducing all disadvantages to matters of race. This is clearly the case with approximately one-half of the immigrants who are Latinos, and it is also evident among the 40 percent or so who are Asians. This of course means that we afford them affirmative action, voting rights (through the Voting Rights Act), and language rights that not only insult black Americans, who have much stronger claims on the rest of us for such extraordinary benefits; but that also arouse the anger and animosity of Americans generally. I believe that much of the animus against immigrants that we now see is not simply a reflection of economic and fiscal strains, but also a reaction to the extraordinary, racially based demands of immigrant leaders. These leaders have in effect argued to the American public that immigrants, especially Latinos, are another racial minority group who like blacks have not been treated fairly, who are therefore not convinced they will be allowed to become part of the American mainstream, and who are now consequently not convinced they want to be part of the mainstream. The proof of my point is the rhetoric surrounding Prop 187: The rhetoric of its proponents was essentially the obverse of what Latino activists and political leaders had been saying for a generation--we cannot and we do not want to become part of the American mainstream.

A related problem goes back to our discussion of immigrant poverty. Quite aside from its extent or degree looms the question of how we as a society interpret immigrant poverty. I would submit that today our political institutions are oriented toward interpreting immigrant poverty as the consequence of racial discrimination. Not only do I believe this perspective to be factually incorrect, it is socially and politically divisive. And to me this is one more example of how our immigration problems are shaped in large part by how contemporary institutions shape and define the inevitable problems generated by mass immigration. We cannot of course change these institutions by fiat, but we need to be aware of this aspect of the problem. And at a minimum we should end affirmative action for immigrants.

As for illegal immigration, again I have no magic number, and I don't know that anyone knows what an acceptable level of illegal immigration would be--other, presumably, than something lower than what we have now. I find myself in agreement with much that George Borjas and Barry Chiswick have suggested: greater emphasis on employer sanctions (Borjas) and greater emphasis on interior enforcement other than on employers (Chiswick). While these goals may at some point be in competition, right now there is room for improvement on both fronts.

But there is larger issue overarching the enforcement of laws targeting illegal immigrants. And that concerns the nature of the crime of illegal entry into the United States. When border patrol agents typically volunteer to me that if they were in the shoes of the average Mexican villager, they too would attempt illegal entry into the United States, then that tells me we're not dealing with any simple or straightforward type of crime. Certainly, you wouldn't find too many police officers saying that if they were in the shoes of the typical ghetto resident, then they too would take up drug-dealing. My point is that not only border patrol agents but many Americans, even in this post-Prop 187 environment, do not regard illegal entry into the United States as a serious criminal offense. Until this attitude changes (if that is possible), we are going to have great difficulties dealing with illegal immigration. I believe we need to get tough on illegal immigration, but a necessary starting point is to recognize how difficult the job ahead is.

A final note on the border and the fence. Since I believe I'm the only one who has referred to the fence, I'll take up Sanford Ungar's challenge about it being a joke. First of all, I did not bring up the fence as if it were the summum bonum of effective border control. I brought it up because the ambiguity surrounding its presumed functions highlights what a difficult and problematic task border control is. But control of our borders is an important, and seemingly fundamental, function of the federal government. Nevertheless, the fence as currently configured is, particularly by itself, not very effective at stopping illegal immigration. If I were to grant, for the sake of argument, that the fence is "a joke," to use Ungar's phrase, I would have to point out that no fence at all is an even bigger joke. The visible symbol of this reality is to see the six-stranded barbed wire fence that was once the only barrier we had along our southern border (and that in places still stands a few feet behind the new corrugated steel barrier). My point is how can we even talk of dealing with illegal immigration and controlling our borders if we don't put some physical barrier there? Now some critics might come back and insist that we should have an even more heavily fortified barrier. I suspect this would not be to Mr. Ungar's liking. But does he seriously believe that we should exercise no control over our borders?

Mark Krikorian
11:53 a.m.  Friday  8/23/96

I conclude by returning to the original topic: There appears to be little serious doubt that our nation's current immigration policy increases poverty. It does so in two ways--it brings in additional poor people from outside to settle here and, at the same time, makes poor natives poorer, by increasing competition for low-skilled jobs, thus lowering wages and displacing natives (and even prior immigrants) from jobs. And the influx of poor immigrants not only creates additional job competition, but also represents competition for scarce government resources, especially education, which is unaffected by the new welfare restrictions for non-citizens.

I outlined a possible avenue for reforming legal immigration in my Wednesday posting: unlimited immigration for the spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of American citizens; 50,000 truly high-skilled workers (perhaps just the current first and second employment preferences); and 50,000 authentic refugees and asylees. By thus eliminating the inherently unmanageable waiting lists for the other family categories, eliminating the visa lottery, eliminating the unskilled worker category, and reintroducing discipline into the remaining categories, we can use immigration to serve our national interests while minimizing the importation of poverty and the other ills associated with mass immigration.

Illegal immigration is not as easy to deal with, but there is one major tool, referred to earlier by Prof. Chiswick, which we have essentially failed to use--work site enforcement of employer sanctions (the prohibition on employing illegal aliens). Congress finally passed employer sanctions in 1986, but was unwilling to make it work, and thus did not mandate the development of an electronic means for employers to verify work eligibility. The INS is currently carrying out pilot programs to allow legitimate businesses to verify the status of non-citizen employees, and the legislation in Congress, whatever its final form, will almost certainly contain some more extensive pilots. Without thus turning off the magnet of jobs that attract illegals, no amount of border enforcement can ever prove successful.

Other measures can also help in combating illegal immigration:

** Computerizing the mickey-mouse, paper-based system we currently use to keep track of non-immigrants (tourists, students, businessmen and others on temporary visas)--which would be a major advance, since half of all illegal immigrants arrive legally but overstay their visas;

** A one-strike-you're-out provision, wherein any violation of the immigration law (sneaking across the border, overstaying a visa, lying in an asylum or other application, etc.) would bar the lawbreaker for life from any immigration benefit, such as a green card, temporary visitor visa or border-crossing card; and

** The prohibition of asylum applications from any person who traveled through a safe country, where he could have applied for asylum first, before coming to the United States.

Interrupting the legal and illegal immigration flows that have developed over the past generation will not happen with a single stroke of the pen. But migration patterns can be changed--after all, the restrictionist measures of the 1920s, however vulgar in complexion, worked quite well in winding down the greatest immigration flow up to that time--thus promoting the growth of the middle class, drawing black Americans toward the mainstream of the economy, increasing manufacturing productivity, and generally promoting the formation of a more perfect Union. It's past time our current discordant immigration policy be made to harmonize with today's national interest.

Sanford Ungar
1:48 p.m.  Friday  8/23/96

The implication is out there, without challenge, that somehow the black leadership, in being generally supportive of immigration, is out of step with the rank-and-file of African Americans. I believe this is another convenient canard of the immigration debate. According to some polls, African Americans actually hold a somewhat more permissive view toward immigration than the general public. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents in a 1993 survey of African Americans cited by the National Immigration Forum, for example, agreed with the statement that immigrants often take jobs that Americans don't want. They had especially favorable attitudes toward the immigration of foreign doctors and other health care professionals. Why? Because in many black neighborhoods of this country, it is immigrants who provide the only decent medical care. In many places they also run the only nearby food stores (although I am fully aware of the tensions between Korean store owners and their black customers in Los Angeles and elsewhere). I believe most black congressmen vote the way they do on immigration as a reflection of their constituents' views.

I want to reassure Mr. Skerry that I do not advocate giving up all control over our borders. I believe very strongly that we should enforce our drug laws at the border (as elsewhere) and that we should institute very stringent health checks, offering immunizations, where necessary, against diseases we do not want imported into the country. Nor do I advocate completely open immigration; but as I said earlier in the week, I advocate adjusting our legal numbers to be much more realistic--basing them on some scientific determination of how many people actually do come into the United States each year and find work. But I cannot, for now, give the moderator a specific number that would be ideal.

How many illegals should we allow in? Well, it should not be necessary to have any illegal immigrants in the long run if we redefine legal immigration (and, in many cases, decriminalize what is now considered illegal). The 40,000 or so illegal Irish immigrants who are here at any given time and work in the underground economy (my source: the Irish Consulate General in Boston, which has no reason to exaggerate the number) could be working legally and contributing more taxes.

My main concern is that we not continue passing laws and writing regulations in this area that we cannot really enforce--or, indeed, erect fences that do not keep people out. We should not fool ourselves that we are "controlling" or "limiting" immigration when we are not. This will only lead to greater public cynicism. Perhaps employer sanctions would work, but then yes, we would have to get much more serious and credible about them.

Peter Brimelow's arguments about cultural affinity are not at all persuasive to me. A rather small percentage of Americans tell the census that they regard themselves as "English" in origin. From the very first years of European settlement, we have had practice bringing together and melding very diverse cultures in this country. The same arguments that one hears today about the difficulty integrating Hispanics or Asians were made at the beginning of this century about Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Russians and others who were going to dilute the Northern European character of the American "race." The only difference today, I'm sorry to say, really is race: many of the immigrants that people want to exclude for their various reasons are more easily identifiable (by skin color, for a start) than those of earlier eras. Once they have succeeded in conventional terms (their children winning prizes in science competitions, for example), they begin to be more accepted.

With all deference to Mr. Krikorian, the restrictionist measures of the 1920s are nothing to be proud of. One of the things they did very well was to keep out the victims of persecution in Europe who were so eager to come here and who, if their lives had been saved by permitting them to enter, would have gloriously enriched our culture, our universities, and many other aspects of the country.

A little more sentiment, along with common-sense realism about the role of immigrants, is exactly what we need in order to arrive at a more sensible immigration policy. Let's encourage immigrants to continue reviving and improving our decayed inner-city neighborhoods. Let's salute them for reviving the hotel and motel industry in America. Let's continue to count on them to remind us of our own values and traditions.

Barry Chiswick
2:01 p.m.  Friday  8/23/96

I wish to thank MICROSOFT, the moderator, Herbert Stein, and the other panelists, for an interesting week. This was a well done project and I hope many were reading what we wrote.

The moderator's call for our policy recommendations is a fitting way to end this week. In my last communication I outlined my policy recommendations regarding illegal aliens. I would like to add one more thought.

The amnesty provided by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) resulted in legalizing the status of some 3 million individuals. This may not have been a plus. The workers among those legalized are nearly all low-skilled. Their new legal status will discourage their returning to their home country and has already encouraged their serving as sponsors for additional dependents and low-skilled relatives. It is recognized that there was massive fraud in the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program that legalized about 1.3 million aliens. Persons not in the United States crossed the border illegally to obtain legal status! The expectation has been created that additional amnesties will follow. This expectation has been fulfilled by the "mini-amnesties" in subsequent legislation. Rather than "wiping the slate clean" of illegal aliens, the 1986 IRCA amnesty has added to the supply of low-skilled labor and increased the incentives for fraud and illegal migration. It may have created more problems than it solved.

Let me set out the following for discussion as a revised immigration policy. There is no problem with an annual level of legal immigration from all sources of about 800,000, the current level. Given the policy recommendations regarding criteria for issuing a visa that are outlined below, I would expect the actual number to be closer to 600,000 per year in the near term.

A) Kinship Visas

The new policy would continue the current policy of providing visas without numerical limit (up to the annual ceiling) for the bona fide spouse and minor children (under age 18) of U.S. citizens. This would include the aged parents (over age 65) of U.S. citizens who are over the age of 21, provided the citizen sponsors can demonstrate and accept responsibility for the financial support of their parents. Aged parents admitted under this category would be in a special "parents visa" category and would not be eligible for U.S. citizenship or eligible to serve as sponsors for other relatives.

The bona fide spouse and minor children of individuals receiving a permanent resident alien visa under any category (kinship, refugee, employment based) would also receive a visa if they accompany the immigrant or come to the U.S. within one year.

All other kinship visas would be eliminated.

B) Refugee and Asylee Status

Refugee and asylee status would return to the original intent, small programs for individuals subject to persecution for political reasons. Current practice now recognizes claims based on coming from a dangerous place or a country with social policies or social norms that differ from our own. We have unwittingly made several Billion people potentially eligible. U.S. refugee/asylee policy cannot solve the world's ills. A more focused refugee and asylee policy has an important role to play, but current policy is out of control.

C) Productivity Based Visas

Productivity based visas would be of two types. One is an investor program the other a skill-based visa program.

The U.S. and other immigrant receiving countries have used an investor category to attract entrepreneurs and foreign capital. This program requiring, say, an investment of at least $1 million in a U.S. business would also require that the applicant demonstrate the possession of other assets or sufficient skill to sustain himself or herself if enterprise fails. The enterprise would need to be one that would create jobs for U.S. workers. One complaint has been that these enterprises tend to employ only relatives or petition for occupation-based visas for their relatives. This can be addressed by prohibiting the enterprise from "sponsoring" a foreign worker in its first five years.

The experiences of other countries and the research that has been done for the U.S. and elsewhere suggest the characteristics of a skills-based immigration policy. Two broad approaches are a "targeted employment" policy and a "point system" policy.

Under current U.S. immigration law, employment based visas are issued if an employer can demonstrate to the Department of Labor that a specific potential immigrant can and will do the job at prevailing wages after an unsuccessful intensive job search by the employer for a worker with a legal right to work in this country. This requires knowledge of "shortages" in the labor market which the Department of Labor does not have. Targeted employment policies invite sheer silliness--the 1990 Act included 10,000 visas designated for unskilled workers! It encourages illegal employment and bogus enrollment in U.S. colleges since the easiest way for a potential immigrant to get an employer to petition for a labor certification is to be working for that employer. Indeed, most workers receiving an employment based visa receive an "adjustment of status," meaning that they were already living in the U.S. when they received their visa.

The application procedure is burdensome, costly, time consuming and arbitrary. Having recently been successful in obtaining a labor certification and an employment-based visa for an assistant professor I can speak with some authority that the system is broken and needs to be replaced by a mechanism that does not target workers for particular job slots.

The alternative is a point system which is the basis of immigration policy in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Under a point system an applicant receives points for productivity enhancing characteristics. For the U.S. these would include level of education completed, age (young adults favored), skill-craft training, and English language fluency. A small number of points can also be awarded if the applicant can document pre-arranged employment (an employment sponsor), if the spouse has a high level of education or skill, or if there is a parent or sibling in the U.S. who will serve as a sponsor and guarantee financial support. Applicants receiving more than a threshold number of points would receive a visa, as would their accompanying spouse and minor children. The threshold level of points can be adjusted to change the size of the immigrant flow.

Under a skills based point system the U.S. will be able to attract a larger pool of high-skilled immigrants than under the current targeted employment approach.