NR Digital

Less Immigration, for Immigrants

by Reihan Salam

The ongoing influx harms those already here

One of the great ironies of the immigration debate is that those who favor reducing less-skilled immigration are routinely characterized as anti-immigrant. The truth is that the people most harmed by an ongoing influx of less-skilled immigration to the United States are the less-skilled immigrants who already live and work in this country.

This is a personal issue for me, since I am one of roughly 35 million second-generation Americans, and my parents are among the 13 percent of U.S. residents who were born in a foreign country. Most of my close friends and loved ones are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and my sympathies with the women and men who have settled in this country to better their lives and the lives of their children run deep. So when I’m told that my desire to curb less-skilled immigration is anti-immigrant, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The key to understanding the immigration question is that, like it or not, it looks increasingly likely that the United States will absorb its current unauthorized population of roughly 11 to 12 million. Some will disagree with me, and I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong. But if I’m right, we as a country will be taking on the challenge of keeping this extremely poor population, which includes well over 1 million children, from getting permanently stuck at the bottom of American society. We will need to take steps to integrate this population into the mainstream, and the most important step we can take is to dramatically reduce future less-skilled immigration.

The absurd conceit behind comprehensive immigration reform is that we must treat several entirely separate issues — whether to legalize unauthorized immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S for years; whether the country might benefit from welcoming more English-speaking skilled professionals with high earning potential; and whether we should also invite low-skill-level immigrants, who will almost certainly find themselves earning poverty-level wages — as though they can be addressed only in a single bill. This makes some sense from a political perspective. Lumping together skilled immigration and less-skilled immigration sees to it that Silicon Valley and Wall Street will join hands with low-wage employers in agriculture, tourism, and the hospitality business. Throwing in legalization brings in Latino and Asian voters sympathetic to the plight of their co-ethnics, and other voters who are convinced that deporting those who have violated U.S. immigration laws is cruel, racist, or both. The prospect of linking these constituencies proved attractive to both the Bush and the Obama administration, and it is easy to see why.

Yet it is not at all obvious that these three broad components fit together.

Legalizing unauthorized immigrants means, in effect, that we as a country are taking some responsibility for their well-being, so it helps to understand how they’re faring. In May of last year, the Migration Policy Institute released a detailed profile of the unauthorized population, and the results were eye-opening. Just under one-third (32 percent) of unauthorized-immigrant adults lived in families below the federal poverty level, and 62 percent lived in families earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level. Only 14 percent lived in families earning more than 400 percent of the poverty level, the cut-off for Obamacare subsidies. A narrow 51 percent majority of unauthorized children lived in families earning less than the poverty level, 78 percent lived in families earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level, and only 8 percent lived in families earning more than 400 percent. Moreover, only 30 percent of unauthorized-immigrant adults are proficient in English, a strong barrier to upward mobility.

Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform often argue that legalizing unauthorized immigrants will increase their wages. Last year, Robert Lynch and Patrick Oakford of the left-leaning Center for American Progress analyzed what might happen to the wages of unauthorized immigrants if they were granted legal status but not citizenship. Drawing on a U.S. Department of Labor study of the five-year impact of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), they projected that in the first five years after legalization, these immigrants would see their wages increase by 15.1 percent.

As María E. Enchautegui of the Urban Institute has observed, however, there are significant differences between the unauthorized population that was legalized under IRCA and the unauthorized population of today. The good news is that today’s unauthorized workers are better educated than those of the 1980s. While 72 percent of IRCA immigrants did not have a high-school diploma, the same was true of only 42 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults in 2012.

Nevertheless, today’s unauthorized immigrants are actually faring worse in the labor market relative to natives. While the median weekly earnings of IRCA immigrants were 60 percent of those of the median full-time worker in the mid 1980s, the median weekly earnings of current unauthorized immigrant workers were only 55 percent of the median full-time worker’s earnings in 2012. This could reflect more aggressive workplace-enforcement measures, which make it harder for the unauthorized to bargain for higher wages. But it might also reflect the fact that even as the skill level of unauthorized immigrants improves, it lags far behind the rest of the U.S. work force. Over one-fifth (22 percent) of all adults without a high-school diploma are unauthorized immigrants, and unauthorized immigrants represent roughly 4 percent of all adults living in the U.S. And of course the labor-market position of less-skilled workers has deteriorated sharply over time, owing to the decline of employment in low-skill manufacturing and construction.

Even if we accept that Lynch and Oakford are right and that the experience of today’s unauthorized immigrants will be identical to that of immigrants in the 1980s, a 15.1 percent wage increase won’t suddenly vault this population into the middle class. So it is noteworthy that there is a scholarly consensus that the arrival of new immigrants tends to lower wages for earlier immigrants.

Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri are two of the most widely cited experts on the economics of immigration. They are particularly popular among advocates of a substantial increase in legal immigration, because their work has found that immigration increased the average wages of native-born U.S. workers between 1990 and 2006 by (hold your breath) 0.6 percent. But Ottaviano and Peri also found that, over this same period, new immigration reduced the wages of existing immigrants by 6 percent.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Immigration advocates often blur the distinction between skilled and less-skilled immigrants, but these groups have very different impacts on the U.S. labor market. Less-skilled immigrants complement skilled workers, whether immigrant or native-born, by taking on labor-intensive tasks that allow skilled workers to work longer hours. In some cases, less-skilled immigrants complement less-skilled natives. For example, a less-skilled native who speaks English well isn’t necessarily competing with a less-skilled immigrant for jobs. The native English speaker might take a job at the front counter that involves interacting with English-speaking customers while the non-English-speaking immigrant might work in the kitchen, where she can make use of her native language. But there is no getting around the fact that old immigrants and new immigrants with the same skill sets are competing with one another.

So if our goal really is to bring today’s unauthorized immigrants and their children into the mainstream of American life, opening the spigot of less-skilled immigration is exactly the wrong thing to do. Rather, we ought to reduce less-skilled immigration in order to dampen labor-market competition and allow for some measure of upward mobility, while increasing skilled immigration to raise demand for less-skilled labor, whether it is that of natives or of immigrants who’ve already settled in the country.

One comprehensive 2011 analysis of post-war U.S. immigration, by economists Xavier Chojnicki, Frédéric Docquier, and Lionel Ragot, concluded that although post-war immigration had benefited all U.S. natives, the benefits would have been larger had the U.S. pursued a more selective, skills-based immigration policy. They also observed that “a stronger selection would obviously be more profitable to low-skill workers than to medium and high-skill workers,” and that, for recent age cohorts, “gains for the low skilled are twice as large as for the highly skilled.” This effect is likely to be particularly strong for less-skilled legalized immigrants.

Reducing the influx of new less-skilled immigrants won’t be enough to successfully incorporate today’s unauthorized population. In their paper “Dreams Fulfilled, Dreams Shattered: Determinants of Segmented Assimilation in the Second Generation,” the sociologists William Haller, Alejandro Portes, and Scott M. Lynch detail the vast gulf separating the children of skilled immigrants from the children of less-skilled immigrants, and the unique problems facing children raised in unauthorized-immigrant households.

Among other things, Haller, Portes, and Lynch observe that incarceration rates for second-generation Mexican-American and Caribbean-American men are just as high as incarceration rates for African-American men, while adolescent-childbearing and dropout rates for members of these communities are higher than they are for black Americans. Integrating the unauthorized population is going to be a long and difficult process, and an expensive one, too. America will no doubt gain from the talent and drive of this population. But the country will also have to reckon with the fallout from the family instability that plagues many less-skilled immigrants, and with the fact that we are incorporating this very poor population with limited skills right when what Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call “the second machine age” is rendering many low-skill jobs obsolete.

This is all the more reason why legalizing the unauthorized population and increasing skilled immigration are complementary strategies. By welcoming a larger number of skilled, high-wage immigrants who are unlikely to be heavy consumers of public services, we increase America’s fiscal capacity to give the native-born poor and the existing stock of less-skilled immigrants a boost. By welcoming less-skilled, low-wage immigrants, who will rely heavily on public services, including expensive specialized services, we increase competition for limited public resources.

Granted, most current immigrants — legal or illegal — favor increasing legal immigration, not least because many of them hope to have relatives and friends from their native countries join them in their new one. That doesn’t change the fact that one of the best things we can do for America’s poor immigrants is to limit the labor-market competition they face from people who are very much like them.

Send a letter to the editor.

Get the NR Magazine App
iPad/iPhone   |   Android