Politics & Policy

Skilled Immigration: Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Would increasing high-skilled immigration really benefit the country?

Yuval Levin and Reihan Salam’s outline of a possible compromise approach to immigration has much to recommend it. But they share a blind spot with many conservative immigration skeptics: support for increases in skilled immigration. To be sure, they do not call for an increase in overall immigration, but seek to make up for more narrowly defined family-based admissions with increases in skills-based ones so as to keep the level of immigration roughly where it is now. There are a number of problems with this.

First, consider the politics. Policy aside, Levin and Salam present their compromise vision as a “plausible resolution” of the quandary we’re in, a “constructive alternative” that offers something to both cosmopolitans and populists. In other words, they’re describing what they hope might become a politically viable package, as well as one that serves the national interest.

Making any broad changes to immigration is politically difficult, as everyone can see, but an approach that increases skilled immigration at the expense of family admissions would be uniquely inflammatory because of its clear ethnic overtones. It’s likely Levin and Salam haven’t even thought about it in these terms, but what they’re proposing is essentially an end to Latin American immigration and its replacement with increased flows from Asia. Many other conservatives, though, who share the goal of reorienting immigration toward skilled workers are explicit in their preference for Chinese and Indians over Mexicans and Hondurans.

Their proposal is certainly not invalidated by this inevitable result; “disparate impact” is an obsession best left to the Left. But it does make it considerably less viable than broad reductions in all categories. This “skilled good/unskilled bad” approach would be — already is — presented as an attack on Hispanics. Combine that with Levin and Salam’s idea of a non-citizenship amnesty, where former illegal aliens (overwhelmingly Hispanic) would remain a sort of helot class, albeit a legalized one, and you have a recipe for an even more polarized and inflammatory debate than we have already.

This conflict is not just theoretical. The only reason we have not seen increases in the numerical caps on H-1B visas (mainly used by tech firms to import cheaper “skilled” labor) is that it has been consistently vetoed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Representative Luis Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who’s perhaps the loudest pro-amnesty voice in Congress, made this explicit at a hearing on skilled immigration a few years back where I testified along with several tech-industry lobbyists. Gutierrez essentially told the other witnesses that he was prepared to give them what they wanted but only if he got his amnesty for low-skilled Hispanics as part of the deal. Canada and Australia, the authors’ model for skill-based immigration policies, don’t have this problem; there’s no large lobby in those countries that sees the emphasis on skills over family ties as an attack on its constituents.

But what of the policy itself? Levin and Salam make two claims about increased skilled immigration: It would be economically beneficial and would promote assimilation. Both are debatable.

First, it depends what you mean by “skilled.” A century ago, simply weeding out illiterates could result in an immigrant flow more skilled than the native population. In modern America, with some 30 percent of the native-born having bachelor’s degrees or higher, any broad increase in the labor force’s educational attainment would require an immigration flow that was substantially more educated — 60 or 80 percent degree holders. This is improbable if only for mathematical reasons; fully one-third of the current immigration flow is spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, which will not be cut, meaning that there’s a lot less wiggle room for increasing skilled immigration than people suppose, if you’re going to keep the overall level the same.

And would large-scale skilled immigration even be good for Americans (who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of their government’s policies)? In Heaven’s Door, Harvard economist (and NRO contributor) George Borjas speculates on the effects of admitting 1 million college-graduate immigrants per year. He estimates that after a decade and a half of such a flow, the wages of native-born college grads would be reduced by 15 percent. What’s more, this reduced return on investment in college would translate into a 15 to 30 percent drop in native college enrollment, turning college attendance into yet another “job Americans won’t do.”

Some proponents of increasing skilled immigration acknowledge this effect and see it as a good thing. Alan Greenspan, for instance, in 2007 explicitly called for increased skilled immigration to reduce the wages of educated Americans and thus narrow the gap between rich and poor: “If we open up a significant window for skilled workers, that would suppress the skilled-wage level and end the concentration of income.” The National Science Foundation way back in 1989 said more foreign Ph.D. candidates needed to be imported to “hold down the level of Ph.D. salaries.”

Levin and Salam next claim that a shift to higher-skilled immigration would facilitate assimilation. On its face this seems plausible. It’s certainly true that “concentrated ethnic poverty” hampers assimilation and that skilled immigrants are more likely to know English, have jobs, earn higher incomes, and live dispersed among Americans rather than in ethnic ghettoes. But assimilation is not a matter of bread (or even English) alone. Deep or patriotic assimilation — the development of an emotional and psychological attachment to America — may actually be less likely to occur among educated immigrants. Sociologist Douglas Massey and a co-author examined a large survey of new green-card recipients and concluded that “the bearers of skills, education, and abilities seek to maximize earnings in the short term while retaining little commitment to any particular society or national labor market over the long term.” They also note that “those with high levels of education are least likely to express satisfaction with the United States,” and thus less likely than others to plan on staying permanently or becoming American citizens.

In other words, increased high-skilled immigration risks importing even more cosmopolitans, strengthening the very “cosmopolitan consensus” for ever-higher immigration that Levin and Salam are arguing against.

Increased skilled immigration is fool’s gold. Instead, as I spelled out in these pages earlier this year, our country needs to narrowly define each category of immigrant: family immigration should be limited to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens; humanitarian immigration to those who do not, and never will, have anywhere else to go; and skilled immigration to the genuine best and brightest, the top talents on the planet, whose presence can increase the nation’s productive capacity to such a degree that it offsets the other problems it creates.

— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.


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