Bishop: Immigration, is it Really black and White?

Thursday, April 13, 2017
Brian Bishop, GoLocalProv Guest MINDSETTERâ„¢

Bishop asks if immigration is black and white
Identity politics is toxic. It doomed Hilary Clinton’s bid for president. But, the shoe can be on the other foot. Under President Trump, the debate is whether white privilege is a made up concept to enable colored victimology or correctly depicts the circling of the wagons of disillusioned whites into a closed, dead-end culture.

Conservative scholar Charles Murray has gotten himself run off of campuses around the country for the temerity of suggesting that poor whites have more in common with disadvantaged minorities than with the country’s elites. I thought that was the message of the class warriors all along, but they are so lost in racial identity that they can’t even see when someone agrees with them.

Harvard, of all unsuspected places, is home to an equally controversial academic, labor economist George Borjas, who has done for the question of immigration what Murray has done for class in America. Borjas’ recent book: We Wanted Workers takes on the narratives of immigration in this country.  He equally skewers the mulitculturalist’s “melting pot”; the libertarian’s “open borders”; and the nativist’s “fortress America”.

An immigrant academic’s view of immigation

Borjas, an immigrant himself whose family’s small garment factory in Cuba was confiscated after the revolution and who flew to the United States as a pre-teen on one of the last Pan-Am flights before the Cuban Missile Crisis, finds few friends in any camp. Still, his skepticism of the dominant academic narrative that immigration is a good thing for America means that many concerned about securing the border and about policy for assimilation of the existing immigrant population or deportation of elements of the undocumented population find a degree of comfort in what he has written.

They are right in two notable respects. First, Borjas believes that securing the border is critical to immigration policy because it is essentially impossible to have an immigration policy without borders. Under such a scenario, he believes in mixed immigration including both low skill individuals which reflects a historic commitment to the betterment of the huddled masses and high skill individuals who contribute an economic surplus to the country by their presence.

Secondly, Borjas, who pioneered the field of immigration economics, demolishes the notion that immigration does not negatively affect natives. On balance he finds immigration is about a break even for the country itself when it comes to tax and GDP contributions of immigrants and the benefits they draw and expenses they pose. But he highlights that the costs and benefits are not evenly distributed, particularly relative to labor rates. His findings are that a 10% increase in immigration in a particular skill level results in a 3% decline in labor rates for that sector, thus negatively affecting natives who are in direct competition. The simple economics of supply and demand are born out by the empirical data.

This is true whether we are speaking about legal and illegal low skilled immigrants or high skilled H-1B visa recipients who famously are granted entry on the basis that their skills are needed but who, in many unrefuted anecdotal cases, simply supplant native workers at lower salaries.

An academic who says immigration policy can’t be charted by academics

But Borjas introduces yet another self-deprecating irony in his approach, which is not to argue from authority. He says it is his values and not his research and academic credentials that are the basis for his ideas about immigration policy:

I have been employed by the Harvard Kennedy School for the past two decades, probably the premier place to study public policy in the world. Nevertheless, I happen to believe that the claim that mathematical modeling and data analysis can somehow lead to a scientific determination of social policy is sheer nonsense.

Actually, Borjas’ value based approach is not incompatible with another onetime Kennedy School lecturer, Lant Pritchett, who advocates that rather than build the wall at the border, we should build the wall around the welfare system.

The idea that we wouldn’t help a peasant trying to eke out a living on the side of a mountain in Nepal by letting him work in the United States, just because we have to, if he comes to the United States, endow him with all the rights of U.S. citizens – I think that moral calculus is backward.

 

This is actually somewhat coordinate with Milton Freidman’s outlook that you can’t have open borders and a welfare state. Borjas notes that Freidman went so far as to say that illegal immigration is better than legal immigration because it was a higher bar to welfare state benefits. Borjas though is suspicious of that in real world outcomes. His findings from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) data is that an incredible 46% of households headed by foreign born individuals receive government benefits when such benefits are not only barred to illegal immigrants to but to legal immigrants who have not first worked for 10 years in America.

One way to break the immigration logjam is to enforce meaningful sponsorship requirement

That provision, strengthened in the 1996 welfare reform signed by Bill Clinton, but nevertheless never enforced, is the remnant of the forgotten understanding that the family reunion process and sponsorship mechanisms in our immigration policy were meant to provide support to immigrants as a substitute for public benefits as they assimilated culturally and economically. So it would be the efficiencies of sharing expenses and living arrangements with family and friends that would help immigrants bridge periods of unemployment or underemployment.

This arrangement has likely been most oft but not exclusively altered by the birth of a child to an immigrant household in the United States making the child a citizen in an immigrant household and drawing benefits to the head of household in the name of the child.

Even with this stunning failure to enforce benefits law, Borjas believes the costs and benefits to the country of immigration are close to a wash. Depending on how you manipulate the statistics you could show a modest benefit or a modest cost. But the optics that it is our policy to subsidize immigrants who lower wages for American workers is the kind of double jeopardy that you don’t have to be a nativist to decry.

One way to introduce a degree of discipline into the existing framework of legal immigration, and even a notion of how to incorporate illegal immigrants whose only crime in America is to have come here, is to enforce sponsorship arrangements that require citizen sponsors to cover the costs of benefits if the household of the immigrant they sponsor becomes a “public charge”.

The optics of immigration subsidies need address even more than the costs


Every time we dream up a way for government to fix something, we import costs. It may indeed be true that, everything being equal, the cost to enforce sponsorship, in light of likely administrative effort and collection rates, might exceed the benefit. But that assumes that everything would be equal, that people might not think twice about sponsoring someone. And if sponsorship were made a serious institution, it could actually chart a way out of the shadows for those here illegally, i.e. that any program for regularizing undocumented aliens would depend not only upon their own commitments toward assimilation, but upon sponsorship.

And enforcing the economic commitment that was made by the immigrant and sponsor is far different than a mass deportation campaign. And since the current economic outcome of immigration is pretty close to a wash, such a program is not contemplated to raise money so much as change incentives.

It has the potential to do that for natives as well: from buoying the spirits of those who eschew welfare benefits themselves and are loathe to see them passed out to immigrants with whom they compete for work; to those native welfare recipients who could not help but be embarrassed by a program that could result in family, friends and community closing ranks around economic adversity rather than doing so with a government check.

This is about the incentive and perception of cash benefits, direct handouts like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, TANF ; Section 8 housing vouchers; food stamps and heating assistance.  Some indirect benefits would remain such as public education for children of immigrants and indigent medical care. Whatever the many faults of Obamacare or any conceivable replacement, Americans are simply unwilling to see the school house or hospital door closed to anyone in our country.

Immigration, it isn’t black and white!

An important insight from Borjas’ work is that immigration is not an identity issue. It is not black and white in terms of how constituencies are served racially. The success of both African American communities and the racially distinct cohorts of earlier immigrant citizens and their children, especially those in enclaves, are more negatively affected by the redistributive effects he identifies. The benefits of cheaper labor that crowds out workers in sectors more predominately occupied by African Americans and earlier immigrants flow to capital rich employers, i.e. the top of the economic food chain. So an unwillingness to confront freer immigration policy based on a loyalty to the multi-cultural ideal ignores that, as currently administered, immigration in this country is making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

That is a gross oversimplification and there are good arguments that the spillover profits going up the chain simply catalyze more growth and employment, but it is so difficult to model this reliably Borjas finds nothing but gibberish or desired outcome in the presentation of numbers that correspond to the outlook of the analyst. He argues that the exception is, in the short term, immigration hurts some natives and we should control the borders, the welfare state, and the administrative state to give consideration to those natives negatively affected, even while recognizing that immigrants and the country are themselves lifted up by the process of immigration.

Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, fighting overregulation and perverse incentives in tax policy. 

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