One-upping Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration
An emphasis on skilled workers would boost growth and reduce a feared nativist backlash
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.