Brief Post on Immigration

by Reihan Salam

The Pew Research Center has a new report on the children of unauthorized immigrants:

Unauthorized immigrants comprise slightly more than 4% of the adult population of the U.S., but because they are relatively young and have high birthrates, their children make up a much larger share of both the newborn population (8%) and the child population (7% of those younger than age 18) in this country.

I’ve noticed that defenders of the birthright citizenship status quo are emphasizing that unauthorized immigrants can’t immediately obtain citizenship by virtue of giving birth to U.S. citizens, and that is of course true. But is that the relevant issue? Recall that the place premium of working in the United States is very high, particularly for less-skilled workers. It is safe to say that deporting the parents of U.S. citizens is a politically delicate matter, regardless of their citizenship status. Other note that it is rare for parents to “drop-and-leave,” i.e., to give birth in the United States before returning home. Again, it’s not clear that this is the policy challenge that matters. Borjas and Katz give us a better sense of the real issues at stake:

Although native-born workers of Mexican ancestry have levels of human capital andearnings that far exceed those of Mexican immigrants, the economic performance of these native-born workers lags behind that of native workers who are not of Mexican ancestry. Muchof the wage gap between the two groups of native-born workers can be explained by the large difference in educational attainment between the two groups. 


Mexican immigrants have much less educational attainment than either native-born workers or non-Mexican immigrants. These differences in human capital account for nearlythree-quarters of the very large wage disadvantage suffered by Mexican immigrants in recentdecades.

As Jason Richwine argued in National Review last year, this creates challenges and complications that might prove difficult to manage:

The consequences of a large ethno-cultural group’s lagging behind the majority in education and income are significant. In strictly economic terms, perpetually poor immigrants and their descendants will be a major strain on social spending and infrastructure. Health care, public education, welfare payments, the criminal justice system, and programs for affordable housing will all require more tax dollars. 

In light of the enduring gap in educational attainment, Richwine then suggests a potential cultural problem:

Even if economics were not a concern, the lack of Hispanic assimilation is likely to create ethnic tensions that threaten our cultural core. Human beings are a tribal species, and this makes ethnicity a natural fault line in any society. Intra-European ethnic divisions have been largely overcome through economic assimilation–Irish and Italian immigrants may have looked a bit different from natives, but by the third generation their socioeconomic profiles were similar. Hispanic Americans do not have that benefit.

My guess is that the United States could successfully manage this transition. We are a wealthy country with a vibrant culture. If our immigration policy is motivated by humanitarian concerns, we obviously wouldn’t focus on Mexico as opposed to the world’s poorest countries. And if our immigration policy is not motivated by humanitarian concerns, we’d presumably want to place a greater emphasis on drawing skilled migrants rather than less-skilled migrants, as Richwine and many others recommend. In either case, we’d need a very different immigration system. The main case for the status quo, or for a comprehensive immigration reform that entrenches existing patterns, seems to rest on interest group politics.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.