One-up­ping Don­ald Trump’s crackdown on im­mi­gra­tion

An em­pha­sis on skilled work­ers would boost growth and re­duce a feared na­tivist back­lash

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Peter Morici Peter Morici is an econ­o­mist and busi­ness pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, and a na­tional colum­nist.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s crackdown on im­mi­grants com­mit­ting crimes and em­ploy­ers abus­ing H-1B visas to re­place qual­i­fied Amer­i­cans with low-wage for­eign work­ers may be wel­come. How­ever, those fall far short of the com­pre­hen­sive re­form needed to bet­ter align im­mi­gra­tion policy with the needs of the coun­try. The United States has about 45 mil­lion im­mi­grants and an­nu­ally adds an­other 1.5 mil­lion. About one-quar­ter are illegal, but their to­tal num­ber has not changed much in re­cent years, ow­ing mostly to de­clin­ing birth rates and more ro­bust eco­nomic growth in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

In con­trast to many other in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries, the United States places much greater em­pha­sis on fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion. Green cards are granted vir­tu­ally au­to­mat­i­cally to spouses, chil­dren un­der 21 and par­ents of U.S. cit­i­zens. Sub­ject to lim­its set by Congress and the pres­i­dent, en­try is granted to other rel­a­tives of cit­i­zens and le­gal im­mi­grants, refugees and those with job of­fers or who con­trib­ute to eco­nomic growth.

The rules are com­plex but about 65 per­cent of im­mi­grant visas are granted based on fam­ily ties and 15 per­cent on the ba­sis of em­ploy­ment. The re­main­der is mostly refugees or ap­pli­cants un­der pro­vi­sions for un­der­rep­re­sented coun­tries.

Economists project long-term eco­nomic growth by ad­ding fore­casts for pro­duc­tiv­ity and la­bor force growth. Both have been fall­ing in re­cent years, caus­ing many economists to con­tend that 2 per­cent po­ten­tial growth — per­haps just a lit­tle bit bet­ter — is al­ready baked into the cake.

Miss­ing from all this is a dis­cus­sion of la­bor force quality. The pace of in­no­va­tion in ar­eas such as biotech­nol­ogy, new ma­te­ri­als, ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence still of­fers broad op­por­tu­ni­ties to dra­mat­i­cally boost pro­duc­tiv­ity, but Amer­i­can busi­nesses face dire short­ages of tech­ni­cians to main­tain com­plex de­vices and soft­ware, and en­gi­neers to trans­late break­throughs in ba­sic sci­ence into re­li­able, mar­ketable prod­ucts.

We can’t change the num­ber of na­tive-born Amer­i­cans en­ter­ing the la­bor force over the next two decades — that is de­ter­mined by past birth rates — but we can bet­ter align skills and needs through im­proved fo­cus on tech­ni­cal train­ing, boost­ing en­roll­ment in univer­sity sci­ence and engi­neer­ing pro­grams, and a more en­light­ened im­mi­gra­tion policy.

Un­for­tu­nately, the im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion tends to be older and have less ed­u­ca­tion, on av­er­age, than the na­tive pop­u­la­tion, and about half of im­mi­grants qual­ify for means-tested en­ti­tle­ments pro­grams such as free school lunches.

Ac­cord­ing to a de­fin­i­tive Na­tional Academy of Sciences study, im­mi­grant work­ers are con­cen­trated among those with less than a high school ed­u­ca­tion — folks that do the jobs Amer­i­cans won’t take — and those with more than a four-year col­lege de­gree — new ar­rivals that fill jobs not enough Amer­i­cans are trained to do.

Down­ward pres­sure on wages of lower-skilled work­ers is mea­sur­able but not large, likely be­cause the coun­try has a con­sid­er­able sur­plus of able-bod­ied adults who might be encouraged to work, if wages for “unat­trac­tive jobs” were not al­ready ham­mered down to the barest lev­els nec­es­sary to sub­sist when sup­ple­mented by food stamps, Med­i­caid and the like. How­ever, the over­all im­pact on growth is pos­i­tive. Af­ter all, the growth of tech­nol­ogy-in­ten­sive ac­tiv­i­ties are greatly en­hanced by the in­flux of highly skilled im­mi­grants, and those ben­e­fits over­whelm the costs im­posed by lower wages on un­skilled work­ers.

Im­mi­gra­tion stresses so­cial co­he­sion, mostly in blue-col­lar com­mu­ni­ties like those that voted for Mr. Trump, and cul­tural as­sim­i­la­tion would be aided by lim­it­ing the num­bers of lessskilled im­mi­grants. How­ever, vis­its to the of­fices of Man­hat­tan’s fi­nan­cial in­dus­tries or Cal­i­for­nia’s tech­nol­ogy cen­ters sup­port the idea that cul­tural affini­ties bind­ing to­gether pro­fes­sional groups tend to over­whelm eth­nic dif­fer­ences among highly ed­u­cated adults.

Hence, a bet­ter mix of im­mi­grants — em­pha­siz­ing highly skilled work­ers in gen­uine need — would boost growth and re­duce na­tivist back­lashes against im­mi­grants.

Sen. Tom Cot­ton, Arkansas Repub­li­can, has in­tro­duced a bill that would limit fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion visas to chil­dren and spouses, but leave the em­ploy­ment quota un­changed. That’s a good start, but grant­ing a visa to any­one with a col­lege de­gree or tech­ni­cal skill, has a solid job of­fer and does not dis­place an in­cum­bent worker would boost the size and quality of the la­bor force.

A bet­ter bal­ance of im­mi­grants would raise every­one’s po­ten­tial stan­dard of liv­ing, re­duce so­cial ten­sions and keep the Golden Door open to those it has al­ways wel­comed — the am­bi­tious who can make the most of Amer­ica.

Im­mi­gra­tion stresses so­cial co­he­sion, mostly in blue-col­lar com­mu­ni­ties like those that voted for Mr. Trump, and cul­tural as­sim­i­la­tion would be aided by lim­it­ing the num­bers of less-skilled im­mi­grants.

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