Politics & Policy

“Do No Evil”

The Bush/Kennedy immigration bill will make things worse.

Sometime around 1990, I was invited to participate in a small gathering where a few University of California professors were going to brief a number of California state representatives on some of the issues facing the state. It was the first time that I had been in such a gathering and I remember expecting the worst: finding a bunch of cynical, vote-grubbing politicians who would do or say whatever it would take to get reelected.

I came away with a somewhat different impression. Although some of the politicians did their best to confirm my low expectations, there were a few who clearly were not in that mold. One representative, in particular, said something that has stayed with me for all these years. Over lunch, we were sort of comparing jobs: I was telling him what being an academic was really all about, and he was telling me why he did what he did and what principles guided him. And the thing he said was: “Do no evil” (and this was years before Google was even a glimmer in anyone’s imagination). He went on to tell me what he meant. “I just think that whatever I do should not screw up things more than they are.”

Good words to live by — particularly in the current immigration debate. It is hard to argue that the bill now before the Senate will improve matters and it is very easy to argue that it will just “screw up things more than they are.”

Amnesty: There’s nothing in the bill that will solve the illegal-immigration problem. Instead, the second large-scale amnesty in 20 years should teach everyone abroad who wants to move to the United States an important lesson: If enough of “us” do it, we will all eventually get green cards.

Guest workers: A little common sense can go a long way — how exactly will the United States “encourage” these guest workers to return? After all, a guest worker with an expired visa will be much better off living in the United States as an illegal immigrant than returning home? The framers of the “comprehensive immigration reform” bill are attempting to make a dishonest sale that would be considered fraudulent in the private sector: A sizable increase in permanent immigration is being disguised as a temporary guest worker program.

Labor-market impact: A guest-worker program of at least 200,000 persons per year will inevitably have an impact on the relative wage of competing workers. And the people who will likely pay this price will be low-skill workers who will face even tougher conditions in the labor market. I realize that more than a few economists seem to have developed amnesia during the recent immigration debate, and can’t seem to remember the laws of supply and demand. And there seems to be a thriving industry to come up with excuses that will help them ignore the logical conclusion that an influx of workers are going to depress wages in the labor market — just like an increase in the supply of oil would lower gas prices. But I suspect that the amnesia and the search for far-fetched excuses will end soon after the debate is over — after all, economists cannot go on forever denying the basic laws of economics. 

Costs and benefits: On net, immigration is neither a huge boon for the United States nor a huge drain. Even the “optimistic” Bush-appointed Council of Economic Advisers concludes that the benefits from immigration are around $30 billion a year — in a $13 trillion economy. This amounts to about 0.2 percent of GDP. Let me put this statistic in perspective. Consider a worker who makes $50,000 a year. Immigration benefits this person by a grand total of … $100, or less than $2 a week. Moreover, the small $30 billion gain does not account for the costs of providing social assistance to the immigrant population. A lot of wishful thinkers will say that immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits — and many immigrants surely do. But a disproportionately large number of immigrants have low skills and high participation rates in welfare programs. It is simply incorrect and not credible to argue that, on average, immigrants “pay their way” in the welfare state.

So what to do: Do no evil! The current situation, as bad as it is, will only get more screwed up after this type of “comprehensive” solution is imposed. A much more prudent and sensible approach is to try to tackle a problem at a time. And there’s no better place to start in the post 9/11 world than by the Bush administration taking border security more seriously than it has in the past.

  George J. Borjas is Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy at Harvard.



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