Monday, March 27, 2006

Immigration: No Simple Solutions

(Click on cartoon for larger view.)
In today's NY Times op ed (below), The Krug Man corrects some misconceptions about the effects of illegal immigration on Americans, immigrants, and their respective countries. The issues are not simple, nor are the solutions.

How we address immigration challenges us to put our morality where our laws are. Since most of our parents, grandparents or great-great-grandparents immigrated to this country in search of freedom and opportunity, we have a responsibility to keep the door open to others deserving the same.

Our own failure to enforce our immigration laws has created this mess. Although Krugman offers no easy-fix, he wisely cautions against rushing into "ill-considered legislation that betrays our moral and democratic principles."

North of the Border
By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," wrote Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my throat. I'm proud of America's immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.

In other words, I'm instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1 percent.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration — especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren't for Mexican immigration.

That's why it's intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do "jobs that Americans will not do." The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays — and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

Finally, modern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should — and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.

Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they're here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country's experience with immigration, "We wanted a labor force, but human beings came." Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don't pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas, which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.

We shouldn't exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a "modest role" in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants.

But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?

Realistically, we'll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests — legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care — is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's plan for a "guest worker" program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who'd love to have a low-wage work force that couldn't vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I'd still be careful. Whatever the bill's intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice — that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

We need to do something about immigration, and soon. But I'd rather see Congress fail to agree on anything this year than have it rush into ill-considered legislation that betrays our moral and democratic principles.

Photo credit: Paul Krugman. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

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Anonymous said...

Paul Krugman, once again a balanced voice of reason. He presents the facts, some of the pros and cons, and encourages us to ask some good questions.

I've been waiting for him to write a piece about the immigration issue, and once again he's did a great job.

-CPA from Chicago

Chris B said...

I agree with both what Krugman and CPA said, and I'd like to add two thoughts.

First, a lot of the problems that large scale immigration, legal or not, is causing in areas like Texas and Southern California stem from the fact that a huge majority come from basically a single Hispanic culture. This is quite different from the experience of most of our immigrant ancestors, who had to adjust to the wider American culture to survive in the maelstrom of earlier immigrant centers.

Second, when most of our ancestors came here, our economy offered places for anyone, skilled or not, who was willing to work hard. That's no longer true, as our own high school dropouts find to their cost. We need people who can fit into a first world information age economy, and who are prepared to help their children fit in as well.

The largest cost of illegal immigration to the average American, I think, is not a direct economic cost, but the fact that far too many children of undereducated migrants aren't prepared to work to the level of their public school peers, and they drag down the level of the public schools everywhere they enroll. It's not their fault, really, but it's REALLY not fair to the American kids, white or brown, who have to wait while a Mexican eighth grader who isn't even fully literate in Spanish tries to struggle through a chapter of Huck Finn.

American immigration policy shouldn't be run primarily to supply cheap labor for exploitative industries. If it's truly too expensive to hire Americans to pick broccoli in California's Central Valley, or to slice up pork in North Carolina, then maybe we should be importing broccoli or dressed ham from Mexico or Chile, and growing something on that land that can be mechanically harvested or dressed. On the other hand, there are smart people all over the world, from cultures with much to teach us. Let's do what most of the rest of the OECD countries that have historically also been immigrant friendly, like Canada and Australia, do - welcome immigrants, but offer priority to those who have the most to offer us, immigrants who are highly educated and can contribute to our advanced economy and to our schools.

The competition will be bracing for white middle class Americans, who have been enjoying cheap maid service and hamburger preparation but not worrying about being beaten out for their next managerial promotion by a smart Ghanaian, but it'd be good for the whole of America, and it'd be especially good (as Krugman points out) for those who are being left behind by our exporting of low wage jobs to the globalizing developing world.