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I Find That Hard to Believe

March 15, 2010
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Yglesias has been using this study—which concludes that enhanced immigration from our southerly neighbors has not only not damaged our economy, but been beneficial to it—to argue for “comprehensive immigration reform” (which essentially amounts to open borders—the only difference is that reform would provide undocumented immigrants with a “meaningful way of enforcing their legal rights”).  Needless to say, this puts him in the typically awkward position of attempting to defend, from a “progressive” point of view, a policy against the cries of “But what about low-income Americans?” by advocating that said policy is pro-growth.  And if you think that’s weird, wait until you read this:

I think an important thing to note about this is that even if you cite an economist like George Borjas who’s more pessimistic about the impact of immigration on wages, the negative impact is restricted to high-school dropouts. It’s not, in other words, a question of immigrants plus pointy-headed elites versus average Americans. It’s a question, at worst, of pointy-headed elites plus average Americans plus immigrants versus high school dropouts. I don’t think we should be indifferent to the fate of native born high school dropouts by any means. But we shouldn’t be indifferent to the aspirations of would-be immigrants born into economically backwards societies that are often stuck in the mud, growth-wise, due to catastrophically poor governance. And given that those adversely impacted by high levels of immigration are a relatively small minority of Americans, and given that immigration vastly increases the volume of resources available to the country with which to help people in need, I think crackdowns on immigration are a very unappealing way of helping low-skill immigrants.

Okay, so here’s the argument as I gather it:  the portion of the American population that is adversely affected by low-skill immigration isn’t really all that big anyway, and immigration is good for economic growth as a whole, so we really ought to leave the floodgates open to these people, all the while providing for their legal documentation, since that’s the humanitarian thing to do.  It’s pretty interesting how he flipped that into an argument for liberal idealism and libertarianism at the same time.  As manifestly counterintuitive as that seems, I figured I’d look into the study (pdf) to see if it really suggests that importing low-skill workers on a mass level into our country is really good for us economically.  From the conclusion:

We find robust evidence that U.S.- and foreign-born workers are not perfect substitutes within an education-experience-gender group. This fact, and the yearly adjustment of capital to immigration, imply that average wages of natives benefit from immigration, even in the short run. These average gains are, in the short and long run, distributed as a small wage loss to the group of high school dropouts and wage gains for all the other groups of U.S. natives. The group suffering the biggest loss in wages is the contingent of previous immigrants, who compete with new immigrants for similar jobs and occupations. Finally, our model implies that it is hard to claim that immigration has been a significant determinant in the deterioration of the wage distribution of U.S.-born workers during the period 1990-2004.

Maybe this was discussed elsewhere in the paper—I didn’t read it all, I don’t have the time/desire to read fifty-four pages of experimental data, and I assume Yglesias doesn’t either, as he quoted the abstract—but does this account for the fact that undocumented immigrants don’t get paid as much as their American competitors otherwise would?  Wouldn’t that leave more dollars to rake in for the rest of the higher-up-on-the-food-chain native-born population?  And, if we are to indeed document them, thusly providing them with similar wages as their American competitors, wouldn’t this have unpleasant effects on that wage-increasing trend?  Also, the study notes that the most adversely affected group of people, American or otherwise, affected by immigration is “the contingent of previous immigrants”.  If that’s the case, how are we helping these low-skill immigrants by importing more low-skill immigrants?  Disregarding all arguments about wage increases as a function of immigration during the 1990s (an extremely prosperous time for the United States) and strain that immigration puts on our health-care and educational systems, I don’t think it’s safe a’tall to say that enhanced immigration is beneficial to the whole American economy (save that percentage of people that don’t graduate from high school and whose struggles are a simple side-effect of our great humanitarian effort to help the impoverished of other countries by… bringing them here).  I could conclude this with some lambasting of the open borders crowd, but I’ll let Derbyshire do it instead:

And, to be blunt about it, the open-borders business is so nutty I can’t take it seriously. Come on: It’s nutty — flat-earth nutty, Elvis-sighting nutty, Eisenhower-was-a-Communist nutty. You don’t want any restrictions on immigration at all? Into a nation with a 2008 per capita GDP of $47,500 from a world containing populous nations with per capita GDPs of $900? YOU’RE NUTS!

Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s tough to disagree with him there.

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