I’m an admirer of Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor, and I recently praised his proposal for “assimilation bonds” as a strategy for improving the U.S. immigration system. In a new Washington Examiner op-ed, Vigdor observes that the influx of less-skilled Mexican labor that has so transformed American life is most likely at an end as the Mexican population ages and grows more affluent. Over the past five years, the net increase of 2.3 million immigrants, but net migration from Mexico was zero. As Mexican immigration has faded, immigration from Asia, the rest of Latin America, and Africa has increased. This raises a number of interesting possibilities. One concern about the Mexican influx has been its sheer size, and the prospect that a distinctive Hispanophone Mexican-origin community might endure in American life. Though most second- and third-generation Latinos speak English as their first language, and in many cases their only language, the duration of the Mexican influx and the robustness of transborder cultural ties might in theory contribute to a sense of cultural apartness, at least for some minority of Mexican-origin Americans living in heavily-Latino enclaves. A more diverse, fragmented influx is perhaps more likely to assimilate, as it would be difficult for Tagalog- or Wolof-speakers to achieve critical mass. Vigdor writes:
These trends can help us to think about what our “new” immigration policy should look like. Border control will be of declining importance in a world where most migrants arrive in the United States from a different continent. Spanish will begin to recede as the nation’s de facto second language; Mandarin, Hindi and Tagalog will be among the most prominent replacements.
Guest worker programs might not work as well as they would have in the past; the vast networks of underemployed Latin Americans who might have once jumped at the chance at a temporary job in the United States are aging out of their prime years of physical labor, and there aren’t as many younger adults around to take their place.
Bracketing the question of whether guest worker programs were ever likely to work well, it seems clear that as long as there is a large place premium, i.e., a large gap in wages for identical workers working in the U.S. and other jurisdictions, one assumes that vast networks of underemployed natives of poor societies with high birthrates will replace the vast networks of underemployed Latin Americans Vigdor describes. This is why the question of whether we ought to allow for a formal channel for temporary less-skilled labor, and how this channel ought to be designed if we do indeed choose to create it, remains very relevant.