Rainbow didn't just happen

By David Warsh, Globe Columnist, 10/03/99

he politics of immigration come up rarely these days, at least in the newspapers. High-tech businessmen want more green cards for engineers. Like a lot of topics, however, the issue lies lightly on the mind of Pat Buchanan.

The bad boy of Republican politics got tangled up in Ivy League admissions last fall when he complained of ''a Harvard student body where non-Jewish whites - 75 percent of the US population - get just 25 percent of the slots. Talk about underrepresentation! Now we really know who gets the shaft at Harvard - white Christians.''

No wonder Buchanan wants to send the 82d Airborne Division to the Mexican border. So a certain apprehension is in the air.

Into this situation has stepped George Borjas, professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University, and author of ''Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy.''

In it, Borjas offers several reasons for his conviction that the level of immigration should be scaled back to 1970s levels, from its current level of around a million people a year. He also recommends the institution of a point system designed to give preference to the more highly skilled, to spare America's least skilled workers further competition at an especially difficult time.

Borjas brings with him a fair amount of ideological baggage. A refugee at the age of 8 from Castro's revolution, and now a conservative Republican, he served as adviser to then-Governor Pete Wilson of California in his failed 1996 presidential campaign.

But Borjas also brings a commitment to the highest standards of empirical research. (He is a Columbia-trained economist, greatly influenced by a postdoctoral year at the University of Chicago.) Thus, even when one disagrees, it is possible to narrow the grounds. A vigorous community of other economists studying the effects of immigration serves to keep the community honest.

Borjas traces the situation to changes that began with the 1965 amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act and that accelerated with its subsequent revisions. Before that, a quota system governed immigration, guaranteeing the lion's share of permits to immigrants from northern Europe, especially Britain and Germany.

The 1965 amendment repealed the restrictions on national origins that had been in place since the 1920s, increased the number of visas, and made family ties to those already living in the United States a key determinant for admission.

The result of the change was an influx of Asian and Hispanic citizens, especially Mexicans. In 1970, the US population was 5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, and 12 percent African-American.

By 2050, the composition will be 26 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian and 14 percent African-American, according to a recent projection that Borjas cites. (The growth rate is sustained by higher fertility rates among the second and third generations of the immigrant population.)

The rainbow complexion of the current population didn't just happen, in other words. It was another expansive impulse of the Great Society - of a piece with civil rights legislation, heightened sensitivity to gender, and the expansion of Social Security and health-care programs. No more than the other struts is it likely to be reversed.

Borjas makes two main arguments. The first, he says, is that the ''quality'' of new immigrants has been dropping since 1965. Today's newcomers have less schooling and fewer skills than their north European predecessors, he says. They are more likely to require public assistance and less likely to integrate smoothly into American life in the second and third generations.

The second is that the new immigrants hurt the native poor. He is highly alert to the significance of the pronounced decline in relative wages of unskilled labor that took hold in the American economy starting about 1980.

This means that it is harder than ever for those at the bottom of the ladder to make a living - especially if large numbers are added to those at the bottom of the ladder.

In these circumstances, mainly the well-to-do gain. By dragging down wages, immigrants shift around $160 billion from workers to employers and the consumers of their services, he calculates.

It is possible to argue these questions either way. Indeed, Borjas himself has reversed his position from time to time. And new evidence on the ''quality'' question - the absolute and relative level of skills of recent immigrants - is being introduced all the time. It is hard to believe on strictly intuitive grounds that recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants are dragging down the level of achievement.

What really isn't acceptable is the alarmist tone that Borjas adopts in framing the problem, specifically his argument that the changes flowing from the 1965 amendment constitute a ''Second Great Wave'' of immigration, equal to the First Great Wave from 1880 to 1924. Some 26 million Americans entered the country in those years. He illustrates his conviction with a simple chart, depicting two great spikes in the number of legal immigrants peaking in 1910 - and perhaps 1999.

At the peak of the First Great Wave, during the years 1901 to 1910, immigrants were arriving at the rate of 900,000 a year. By the early 1930s, after a decade of anti-immigrant agitation and amidst the Great Depression, the flow slowed to a trickle. Starting in the early 1980s, the annual rate of entry again soared to the 900,000 level. Hence, he says, a Second Great Wave.

The difference, of course, has to do with the size of the total population. In 1900, the US population was 76 million. Today it is 272 million. A million more citizens a year is a drop in the bucket compared with the earlier time. At present rates, Borjas says, it would take 30 years to reach the level of 1910, when 15 percent of the American population was foreign-born.

Making the problem seem bigger than it is is a bad habit that Borjas presumably picked up in Pete Wilson's failed campaign, grounded in the experience of California's massive in-migration. It is a legitimate strategy in politics. But it has no place in a work of scholarship.

For all its potential complexity, immigration policy comes down to a single numerical target and a set of rules for achieving it. Is the current rate of 1 million persons a year too many? Too few? Just enough? Suppose we agreed to cut it by a quarter? By a third?

This sort of thing is best answered by a blue-ribbon commission - after we see the results of the next election and once we begin to form an opinion about where the American electorate wants to go from there.

This story ran on page F01 of the Boston Globe on 10/03/99.
Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.