The Corner

On Low-Skilled Immigration

The Future of Capitalism blog took issue with the op-ed I co-authored with Bill Kristol, particularly what it said about low-skilled immigration. A flavor of it:

Immigrants may arrive here with low skills, attend our colleges and universities or receive on the job training, and wind up with high skills. Or the low-skill immigrants may have children or grandchildren who acquire high skills. Mr. Kristol and Mr. Lowry, who are both pro-life in the abortion rights debate, might come around on this if they try to think about newly arriving immigrants like newborn children. They don’t show up with any skills, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let them into this world.

The concern voiced by Mr. Kristol and Mr. Lowry for low-skilled native and already-here-immigrant workers is touching, but those workers are already competing in a global economy with overseas workers.

I asked a friend who is an expert in this area what he thought, and here’s his take:

It’s idiotic to think of immigrants as newborns. First, the average age at arrival for immigrants is 28 years. Someone arriving in a new country with less than a high-school education at that age has a hell of time mastering English, getting a GED, and going on to get additional schooling. Some do so, but the vast majorities do not. We know that less-skilled immigrants (high school or less) never come close to matching the income, poverty, and welfare-use rates, etc. of the native-born, even when they have lived here for 20 years. (If you want to see a lot of data on this take a look at Table 28, page 57, of this report.

How will the kids of today’s immigrants do? No one knows for sure. But about 60 percent of children born to immigrants are born to Hispanics, so how Hispanics do is critically important. While second generation Hispanics are better off than immigrant Hispanics, they do not close the gap with non-Hispanics natives. And third generation Hispanics are often slightly worse off than second generation Hispanics in terms of income, poverty, welfare use, etc. Just one example, of households headed by immigrant Hispanics, 51 percent use one or more welfare programs. For second generation Hispanics it is 38 percent, for third generation it is 41 percent. For native-born whites it is 18 percent. Part of the reason Hispanics lag so far behind is that the immigrant generation enters with so much less education.

The idea that less-educated natives are in competition with the less-educated around the world, so adding more less-educated immigrants does not matter is also rather silly. It’s like arguing that taxes are already high, so raising them further does not matter. Moreover, it is simply wrong. Only about 8 percent of the U.S. work force is in manufacturing now. Construction, retail, food service, building cleaning/maintenance, delivery, home health care, and many other service jobs are NOT subject to significant import competition. It makes an enormous difference whether the immigrant comes here or stays in his home country. If we all agree the unskilled are doing poorly, why add to the problem?

The author’s main point is that we should not worry about less-educated immigrants because some will do well. But the evidence is overwhelming that less-educated immigrants never close the gap with natives. He also seems to say that their kids will do well. The evidence is far from clear that is the case for Hispanics. But also remember one-third of all children in poverty today live in immigrant households. Also, 68 percent of the growth in the uninsured in the last decade is new immigrants and their young children. Now this certainly implies significant costs even if the children or grandchildren eventually become average. 

But perhaps even more important from a conservative point of view is the enormous political pressure dramatically growing the low-income population creates for ever-more government spending to “fix” these and other related problems. This is one reason immigration is so helpful to Democrats: It doesn’t just add to their voter base; it also makes other voters more sympathetic to the liberal argument for more spending to address the problems less-skilled immigration creates. In short, even if the U.S.-born kids do well, there is an enormous down-side to less-skilled immigrants for decades after they arrive.


Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

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