High U.S. immigration spurs new debate about who's coming to America.
The United States is in the midst of yet another great wave of immigration-and another great immigration debate.
Anxiety is rising among many natives who fear that the new-arrivals will take away jobs, strain welfare and other public services, and perhaps most vexing-fail to become "real" Americans by not learning English. Others argue that immigration "increases the economic pie" by creating new industries, new jobs, and new opportunities, benefiting the nation as a whole.
At the root of the debate is the simple fact that "the American people care about who the immigrants are," argues George J. Borjas of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Immigration policy should therefore begin with the fundamental questions of how many and what types of immigrants the United States wants, Borjas writes in his recent book, Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy.
As in the early twentieth century, migrants are entering the United States in large numbers. Because the overall U.S, population is much higher, though, the percentage of the population who are immigrants is lower (15% in 1910 vs. 10% in 1998).
"It is worth noting, however, that the foreign-born share of the population has doubled since 1970, when it was just below 5%," Borjas points out. One major difference between the first Great Migration and the second is the higher fertility rates of immigrants compared with natives, whose fertility rates declined throughout the twentieth century. Immigration thus accounted for at least a third of population change in the United States in the 1990s.
Another issue is how skilled the immigrants are. Settled immigrant males in the 1960s were slightly less well educated but earned about 4% more than their native counterparts. Skill levels began decreasing with each new wave of immigrants, Borjas notes, and by 1998, the newest arrivals had about two fewer years of education and earned 34% less than natives.
The author predicts that the economic gap between immigrants and natives will not narrow any time soon, and "the most recent immigrant waves will probably suffer a substantial economic disadvantage for decades to come." One obstacle is that the most recent immigrants are not acquiring the skills that employers want-such as English language proficiency-as quickly as previous immigrants did.
Because immigrant populations tend to have less education and fewer skills, as well as higher fertility and larger households, they tend to turn to welfare assistance at higher rates and for longer periods than natives do. "It is not being an immigrant per se that leads to high welfare use," Borjas writes. "Rather, it is the socioeconomic characteristics of the immigrant population."
But the immigrant population is not homogeneous, Borjas points out. In fact, it is highly bifurcated: "There are many immigrants with few skills and many immigrants who are highly skilled" and therefore more likely to succeed and even contribute to U.S. economic progress. Much of the differential has to do with national origin: "Immigrants from El Salvador or Mexico earn 40% less than natives, while immigrants from Australia or South Africa earn 30% to 40% more," he writes. "Immigrants who originate in countries that have abundant human capital and higher levels of per capita income tend to do better in the United States."
Even more beneficial to natives' welfare might be immigrants arriving with investment capital in hand. Borjas reports that a consulting firm placed an ad in an Oman newspaper offering U.S, green cards to anyone with $500,000. "The United States allocates 10,000 entry visas annually for wealthy foreign investors (and their families) who create at least 10 full-time jobs in the United States by investing $1 million," he writes. "The 'purchase price' is reduced to $500,000 if the investment is made in a high unemployment area."
Recognizing that immigration is an emotional and moral issue as well as an economic one in the United States, Borjas recommends a point system, similar to Canada's, for helping decide who should receive visas. The point system attempts to match skills with labor-market needs; it also emphasizes such characteristics as age, education, and experience. English proficiency might be another point-winning skill for U.S. immigrants. The bottom line, Borjas says, is that an immigration policy must be formed, or else interest groups in the near future may succeed in closing the borders altogether. He concludes: "Unless the United States chooses a wise immigration policy in the future, there is a real chance that there simply will be no immigration at all. That would leave many people-the immigrants who could benefit greatly from the opportunity of sharing in the American dream and who could, in turn, benefit the American people-forever knocking on heaven's door."