The Agenda

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

Opposing an Increase in Less-Skilled Immigration Isn’t the Same as Opposing Immigration


I was pleased to see David Brooks reference Richard Alba’s excellent book Blurring the Color Line, which I briefly discussed in a column The Daily back in 2011. Alba’s book offers a very smart framework for thinking about America’s ethnic future. Basically, periods of ethnic transition go more smoothly when there is robust economic growth, as growth creates the possibility of “non-zero-sum mobility,” in which members of the dominant group and members of minority groups can rise in tandem. Sluggish growth, in contrast, implies that members of the dominant group might resist progress by members of outgroups, as everyone is duking it out over the size of the slices of a slow-growing pie. Alba, and by extension David, are absolutely right that the retirement of the baby boomers creates opportunities for members of minority groups. One anxiety, however, is that the level of educational attainment among Latinos and African Americans is somewhat lower than it is among Asian Americans and non-Hispanic white Americans, and so as the demographic composition of the labor force shifts, there is a real danger that, for example, the college wage premium will increase, which in turn will exacerbate racial inequality.  I recently discussed this dynamic in a post on “The Undereducated American and U.S. Immigration Policy.” I would thus argue that raising the level of educational attainment among Latinos and African Americans is a higher priority that increasing the size of the less-skilled immigrant influx, as the former strategy will tend to mitigate interethnic economic divides while the latter strategy will tend to exacerbate them.

More broadly, I disagree with David about some fairly important issues, e.g.:

Some intelligent skeptics say that mobility is fine through the second generation but stalls by the third. It is indeed harder to rise in a more chaotic and fragmented society. But one of the country’s leading immigration researchers, Richard Alba of the City University of New York, calls the third generation stall “a statistical illusion.”

Much of the research that shows the effect compares today’s third-generation immigrants with today’s second-generation group. But the third-generation families originally came to the U.S. decades ago, at a time when segregation was prevalent, discrimination was high and immigrants were harshly treated. You’d expect those families to progress more slowly than families that came to more welcoming conditions a generation later.

It could be that segregation, discrimination, and harsh treatment are the main factors that held back less-skilled immigrants in earlier eras. But as David Autor and Melanie Wasserman document in “Wayward Sons,” their report for the center-left think tank Third Way on “emerging gender gap in labor markets and education,”

Figure 2 plots changes in real hourly wage levels by sex and education group between 1979 and 2010 for two age groups: ages 25-39 and 40-54.8 The first category corresponds to young prime-age workers, and the latter represents workers in their peak earnings years. This figure highlights two key facts about the evolution of U.S. earnings. First, real earnings growth for U.S. males has been remarkably weak. For males with less than a four-year college education, earnings fell in real terms, declining between 5% and 25%. The steepest falls are found among the least-educated and youngest males, in particular, males under age 40 with high school or lower education. Only among males with four or more years of college education do we see real earnings growth in this 30-year period.

Equally apparent from the figure is that the earnings trajectory of U.S. women has been far more propitious. Females have fared better than males in every educational category, and highly educated women have made especially sharp gains in earnings. While real earnings gains among women without any college education have been modest— especially for younger workers—the trends are at least weakly positive for seven of eight female demographics (the exception being young, high-school dropout females).

The report goes on to document declining male employment rates, which are concentrated among less-skilled workers. Note that Autor and Wasserman are writing about all U.S. workers. Even if we assume that segregation, discrimination, and harsh treatment have vanished entirely, less-skilled workers face an extremely challenging environment, even if we assume that Autor and Wasserman are overstating the case.  

David is lumping together all opponents of the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill as, among other things, opponents of assimilation, love, social mobility, skilled immigration, and ethnic diversity. This strikes me as an offbeat interpretation. The main reason I oppose the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill in its current form is that it increases the less-skilled influx beyond levels I consider wise or appropriate – at this point I accept that immigration reform will include a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants who’ve resided in the U.S. for longer than X number of years. And as I’ve been writing in this space, the reasons I favor a bias towards skilled immigrants are legion, and they correspond neatly to David’s categories: skilled immigrants with a high level of English language proficiency have very low incarceration rates, high rates of labor force participation, high incomes, and they are more likely to assimilate and somewhat more likely intermarry. The children and grandchildren of the college-educated tend to experience more upward mobility (in absolute terms) than the children and grandchildren of the non-college-educated. Proponents of skilled immigration are pretty clear in favr of skills. And skilled immigrants come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, e.g., large numbers of skilled immigrants to the U.S. hail from sub-Saharan Africa, a region that has been historically underrepresented in immigration flows to the U.S. 

So if we stick with David’s (defensible and reasonable) criteria for the things one ought to care about in an immigration reform proposal, one has pretty good reason to be concerned about the aspects of the legislation that will increase the size of the less-skilled influx — as less-skilled immigrants are less likely to assimilate and intermarry, their children are more likely to struggle in a knowledge-intensive economy and to remain in ethnic enclaves, etc. David is extremely sensitive to the importance of cultivating skills and networks, and doing it in a way that benefits the poorest and most vulnerable children. This is why he strongly supports early childhood interventions. My argument is simple: given the scale of the domestic multigenerational poverty challenge, does it really makes sense to make this challenge more difficult to solve by welcoming large numbers of non-college-educated workers to live and work in the U.S.? 


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