Harvard Magazine, January-February 2000

America's Open Door

Challenging the consequences of immigration

by NATHAN GLAZER

 

Heaven's Door is George J. Borjas's second major work on the economic consequences of the great wave of immigration into the United States of the last 30 years--a flow that gives no sign of moderating in the foreseeable future, short of major policy interventions. The first book, Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy (Basic Books, 1990), placed Borjas--a Cuban immigrant himself, who is now a professor at the Kennedy School of Government--in the camp of those somewhat skeptical of the economic benefits of the scale and kind of immigration we have had in the 1970s and 1980s. Since that time, Borjas has more sharply identified himself with the proponents of immigration restriction, and he lays out his case more extensively in his new book. But this is not the work of a polemicist: it is based on a great range of technical research on the effects of immigration, much of it by Borjas himself, who has been enormously productive in examining almost every economic aspect of the immigration issue.

One would think that when a highly skilled economist, making use of all the research that has become available in the past few decades, pronounces on the economic effects of immigration, there would be little room for any argument. Economics is, after all, the most advanced of the social sciences. Whatever the issue raised, some numbers can be found or generated to test the matter and to come to some conclusions. But even here there is apparently room for argument. Another highly regarded and productive economist, Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, has challenged Borjas's position in a review in the Wall Street Journal, and this has led to a sharp exchange of letters between them. When economists clash, it may be the better part of wisdom for noneconomists to stay out of the battle. But it is after all we noneconomists, in our roles as citizens and voters and members of Congress, who will in the end settle the matter, so we cannot escape taking part in the debate. And Borjas is a remarkably clear guide to the issues.

He describes our situation as one in which a second great wave of immigration is reshaping the country. The first wave he places between 1880, when there was a great upsurge in immigration from eastern and southern Europe, and 1924, when legislation to restrict immigration was adopted. That wave brought 26 million immigrants into the United States. (Of course there had been significant immigration into the United States earlier, from the 1830s on, but that was surpassed in scale by the immigration of the decades following 1880.) The second great wave, through which we are now living, Borjas dates from the end of the 1960s, though of course there has been substantial immigration since the end of World War II. This new wave has already brought 30 million immigrants to the United States. (The term "wave," in fact, may be a misnomer, since we have no idea whether it has crested, and whether and when it will decline.)

In contrast to the debate that brought the first great wave to an end, the debate over this immigration has been remarkably muted and civil. Among the host of issues the new immigration raises, only two have agitated the American public and its representatives. One has been illegal immigration, which we tried to curb in 1986 through major innovative legislation. We hoped to resolve the problem on the one hand by legalizing the situation of those here illegally (three million took advantage of the opportunity), and on the other by making it harder for future illegal immigrants to gain employment. The second major issue has been the fiscal impact of immigrants--illegal primarily, but also legal--on the cost of public services: welfare, health services, education, prisons, and the like. The key moment in that concern came with the passage of Proposition 187 in California, which denied benefits to illegal aliens.

Neither measure seems to have had much effect in stemming the flow of illegal immigrants--now estimated to number 5 million--but, perhaps because of the prosperous economy of recent years, concern over these issues has declined. In contrast to the debate over immigration in the 1920s, there has been remarkably little public discussion or expressed concern about the marked change in the ethnic and racial composition of immigration, from the Europeans who predominated before the 1970s to the Asians, Latin Americans, and Caribbeans who now make up the great majority of immigrants. If Borjas's analysis prevails, however, it will be impossible to keep discussion of this potentially inflammatory aspect of immigration under wraps.

For Borjas, the key development that should concern us in considering immigration is the decline over the last few decades in the immigrants' skills, measured by either their education or their earnings. However measured, Borjas argues that the economic quality of immigrants has declined, relative to the quality of native Americans. The evidence he lays out makes the point starkly. The consequences of this declining economic capacity of successive groups of immigrants since the 1960s or 1970s are first, to increase the costs immigrants impose on government (he emphasizes in particular a rising participation in welfare programs); second, to reduce the amount immigrants contribute in taxes, which increases the public costs of immigration; and third, to contribute to the rising economic inequality in the country.

This third effect is perhaps the most striking, because of the way it interacts with some of our key domestic problems. From an economic point of view, it stands to reason that if new immigrants are predominantly poorly skilled and educated, they will compete most directly with native-born Americans who are poorly skilled and educated. This competition will reduce the wages for such labor, making the plight of poorly educated and skilled Americans more difficult--and once we place racial tags on these groups, it will become evident that immigration not only contributes to growing inequality in general, but makes life more difficult for black workers in particular. More than the strictly economic argument is necessary to make this case, and Borjas does not go into these other aspects, but as Geyser University Professor William Julius Wilson and other researchers have shown, there are many reasons aside from wage rates why employers might prefer immigrants to native black workers.

Borjas's case extends beyond these immediate economic impacts. Looking into the future--and against those who have argued that these economic effects last at worst for one generation (earlier research, with earlier cohorts of immigrants, showed immigrants catching up to natives economically in 12 or 14 years)--he argues that the declining level of "ethnic capital" means that subsequent generations from immigrant groups with limited education and skills will in large measure inherit these deficiencies.

"Ethnic capital" is a version of "social capital," a concept that plays an ever larger role in our efforts to explain such matters as academic achievement and economic success. It refers to the characteristics of a community, rather than simply the characteristics of parents; in Borjas's analysis, these community characteristics do more to propel some groups forward and hold other groups back than parental characteristics do. Presumably the factors involved include such matters as a community's encouragement of and expectation of high academic achievement, or its disparagement of such achievement. His exploration of these matters is to me a real contribution. Popular wisdom often explains the relative differences in achievement among ethnic groups by a reference to "culture"; while Borjas is as much at a loss as the rest of us to specify just what in the culture counts, he can show that group effects--whatever we call them--markedly affect the rate of progress of subsequent generations.

How should all this affect our immigration policy? Borjas is fully aware that there are more than economic issues involved in determining such policy. He recognizes, for example, that moral and political considerations are expressed in our refugee policy. Our present policy also takes family connection as the decisive factor in determining who is able to enter--something Borjas criticizes as a possibly dominant factor in the declining economic quality of immigrants.

But if we do take the economic consequences for native-born Americans as crucial in considering immigration policy, and on the whole we do (and Borjas thinks this perfectly reasonable), then he believes we should favor skilled immigrants rather than family members. He argues for something like the point system that prevails in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to determine who should be allowed to enter. In such a system, one might give points for education, for skills, for English-language ability, for age (favoring the productive rather than the aged), and the like. Certainly this would make more sense.

Even as he indicates that there are other grounds for determining policy, however, Borjas does not touch on political considerations in this otherwise comprehensive book. From this point of view, his formulations are sometimes unwise. Thus, in summarizing his case, he provocatively emphasizes, "The decline in the relative economic performance of immigrants can be attributed to a single factor, the changing national origin of the immigrants." Whoa! Neither a trained economist nor a student writing a paper should ever designate "a single factor." That formulation suggests that if we want to raise the economic performance of immigrants, to the benefit of us all, we should revert to a national-origins system of immigration control. That is not something Borjas would ever propose. Indeed, any point system that takes into account skills and education is going to affect the most poorly educated stream of immigrants first. Why then should Borjas make his point in such a way as even to hint that we are concerned about the changing national origins of immigrants? He is interested in raising the economic quality of the immigrant stream, not changing its racial or religious or national characteristics. So why put the matter that way?

The political aspects of the story also concern the powerful forces defending the present system. It has been hard enough to get legislation to restrain illegal immigration. It has been impossible to get legislation to change the contours of legal immigration. It may be desirable to give preference to those we need for the economy rather than to the parents of American citizens, or their brothers and sisters, but the present political forces rule out that kind of change. Whatever the economic irrationality of our present policy (and it has some economic virtues, because family members may be expected to take care of each other), those who affect congressional policymaking when it comes to matters of immigration are the citizens who are concerned with their relatives, rather than those motivated by the public good. And those whose wishes might coincide with the economist's view of the public good--such as Silicon Valley employers who want to increase the numbers of skilled computer engineers allowed to immigrate--are of course acting in their own interest; it is only incidentally that this may coincide with the national interest as determined by an independent scholar.

But Borjas, one is convinced, is acting from a concern for the public good as his research has revealed it to him. As he tells us in his introduction: "I am fully aware that my own immigrant experiences and the policy recommendations contained in this book may seem somewhat incompatible to many....[M]y family would have been unable to 'pass the test' implicit in the skills-oriented immigration policy that I think would best serve the interests of the United States. There were no college graduates in my family, no wealth to prove that we would not become public charges, no particular skills that would be 'urgently needed.'" Borjas admirably transcends the particular to argue for the general. And yet the story gives one pause.

 


Nathan Glazer, professor of education and social structure emeritus, is the coauthor of Beyond the Melting Pot. His most recent book, We Are All Multiculturalists Now (Harvard University Press), appeared in 1997.