The Agenda

Immigration Policy by Anecdote

Carol Matlack, Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, has a short piece arguing that immigration reform efforts should recognize that “the U.S. needs immigrant bus drivers and bookkeepers, too.” A more accurate title might have been “Immigrant Bus Drivers and Bookkeepers Do Pretty Well in the U.S.” The article reflects many of the things that frustrate me most about the immigration debate. It begins by describing an appealing couple, Yuri and Lyudmila, who secured visa under the diversity visa lottery program in the U.S., and who’ve managed to achieve middle-income prosperity after having led a modest life on the outskirts of Kiev as recently as the 1990s:

Nowadays, Yuri and Lyudmila own a condo near Seattle. He drives a bus and works a second job at Trader Joe’s. She works nights and weekends as a bookkeeper. Their daughter graduated from college and works for a bank in New York City. All three are now U.S. citizens.

Yuri and Lyudmila are grateful for the opportunity to live in the U.S., and for good reason. Access to the U.S. labor market is extremely valuable. Yet while Matlack clearly establishes that immigrants benefit from settling in the United States, she doesn’t really address the salient question, which is how the U.S. ought to structure its immigration policy. Rather, she begins by tugging at the heartstrings of her readers to nudge them towards a conclusion:

Now, the program that brought Yuri and Lyudmila to the U.S. could end. A pending immigration-reform bill would eliminate the lottery, which is open to people from countries that send relatively few immigrants to the U.S. The bill has been stalled in Congress for months, but now President Obama wants to re-start the debate.

True, it’s hard to defend handing out green cards by lottery, rather than choosing people with sought-after skills or money to invest. There’s no humanitarian argument for the lottery, either, since unlike asylum-seekers, they aren’t fleeing persecution in their home countries.

Still, the lottery promotes diversity (the countries with the most winners last year were Ukraine, Nigeria, and Iran), and recent research (PDF) shows that a diverse immigrant pool can produce economic benefits for the host country.

Would the U.S. really have been better off with a few more software engineers or millionaire investors, instead of Yuri and Lyudmila? Seems to me that we still need immigrants who—like many of our own ancestors—are ready to work hard in unglamorous jobs to give their families a better future.

Seems to me that the U.S. labor market is changing in lots of important ways in light of automation, offshoring, and economic polarization, and it seems to me that the U.S. has an entrenched poverty problem among the native-born and that we should use immigration policy with an eye towards alleviating it.

Note how Matlack tries to personalize the discussion — if one maintains that the U.S. ought to allow more software engineers or millionaire investors rather than people with more modest skills, we are essentially acting against the interests of Yuri and Lyudmila. Note, however, that Yuri and Lyudmila are both college-educated. What if we established that we’ll just revise the diversity visa lottery program to see to it that the minimum educational attainment for beneficiaries would be a college education and not a high school diploma? This would protect Yuri and Lyudmila — it might even have improved their chances. Might the fact that Yuri and Lyudmila both had college educations have contributed to their success in the U.S. labor market, by demonstrating a wide range of noncognitive skills, including persistence? A relatively high level of educational attainment might have also made them more economically resilient. (If bus drivers are supplanted by the rise of autonomous vehicles and bookkeepers are displaced by intelligent financial software applications, education will make it easier for them to pivot to new careers.) So right away, the story of Yuri and Lyudmila leads us to a different conclusion than that we should keep the diversity visa lottery program intact. Matlack cites a paper by Alberto Alesina, Johann Harnoss, and Hillel Rappaport on “birthplace diversity and economic prosperity.” But Alesina et al. also note that the positive effect associated with birthplace diversity “is stronger for skilled migrants (workers with college education).”

Moreover, Matlack tells us the story of Yuri and Lyudmila, a couple that flourished in the U.S. without also sharing the stories of immigrants who haven’t flourished. In One Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century, Annelise Orleck offers a survey of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have settled in the New York metropolitan area. This community that has made enormous cultural and economic contributions to the United States over the past four decades. She notes, however, that not all Soviet émigrés have fared well economically.

Many young people, who came as children or were born in the United States, have done well for themselves economically, especially in the fields of high technology and finance. Most of New York’s Soviet émigrés are not economically thriving, however. Despite high levels of education, 69 percent of Russian-speaking Jewish households in the eight-county New York City area in 2011 earned less than $50,000 a year, a very modest income in an area as expensive as New York (Cohen et al. 2012). One reason for their low income is that about a third of Russian-speaking Jews were elderly. In Russian Jewish households with seniors over 65 in the eight-county area, the poverty rate was as high as 73 percent. Russian Jews have been consistently among the largest immigrant consumers of public assistance in the city, with a rate comparable to that of native-born African Americans and Puerto Ricans. At the turn of the twenty-first century over a third of Soviet Jewish New Yorkers were receiving food stamps, Social Security, and/or Medicare. One 2008 study found that children of Soviet immigrants in metropolitan New York were more likely than children of Chinese, Dominican, West Indian, or South American immigrants to have grown up with someone in their household receiving public assistance (Lakhman and Goldiner 1999; Treiman 2003; Miller and Ukeles 2004; Kasinitz 2008).

Because so many Soviet Jews came as refugees, many had access to government benefits right away—and Jewish social service agencies were on hand in New York to make them aware of and to help them apply for these benefits (Kasinitz 2008). In 1995–1996, when over 40,000 Soviet Jewish émigrés came to New York City, 85 percent came with full refugee status, which meant that they received federal subsidies to ease housing, job training, and education costs and were able to apply right away for various kinds of public assistance.

Low-income immigrants who depend on SNAP to make their way in the world have compelling stories of their own. One assumes that like Yuri and Lyudmila, these less fortunate immigrants are grateful to have had the opportunity to live and work in the U.S., but they’ve had worse luck, of they are suffering the consequences of missteps made earlier in life. These people are presumably much better off in the U.S. than they would have been in their native countries. As a public policy matter, however, it is not unreasonable to ask whether the U.S. ought to revise its immigration policies, even if we accept (as I do) that you don’t have to own a condo near Seattle or have a daughter who graduated from college and now works at a bank to be a good human being who deserves a chance in life. My own view is that everyone in the world deserves such a chance, but that it is not feasible or wise to use U.S. immigration policy as the chief vehicle for the uplift of the global poor. Rather, U.S. immigration policy should be built around the interests of U.S. citizens (and perhaps lawful permanent residents aspiring to citizenship) as a whole. I would also argue that we should place a heavier emphasis on benefiting the most vulnerable U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, including people who are the products of several generations of poverty and the low-income foreign-born. Through this lens, giving a preference to “software engineers” and “millionaire investors” makes sense — not because Yuri and Lyudmila aren’t good people (I’m sure they are), but because immigrants who make large net fiscal contributions are more likely to have a positive impact on the lives of poor people currently living in economic, cultural, and linguistic isolation. Immigration policy is not be about rewarding morally praiseworthy human beings, if only because any plausible immigration policy will involve keeping far more good, decent, hard-working people out than we will let in.

Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development has also written on the research from Alesina et al., and he actually (if perhaps inadvertently) reinforces the case for revising U.S. immigration policies to emphasize skills and some degree of linguistic and cultural familiarity:

There’s evidence that a more diverse immigrant pool may even bolster the benefits of immigration. A new paper [PDF] by Alberto Alesina and colleagues from Harvard University suggests populations with a diverse stock of first-generation migrants see significant economic benefits. Building on previous studies suggesting companies with more diverse management gain higher market share and profits, the authors similarly find that countries with more diverse foreign-born populations have more patents granted each year and higher overall incomes.

Alesina and colleagues do suggest that the migrants with the biggest positive impact are college-educated and born in reasonably rich countries with an “intermediate level of cultural proximity,” as they put it (think of it as the distance from classical music to the Beatles rather than classical to thrash metal).

But the diversity rationale doesn’t seem to outweigh the benefits of an emphasis on skills and English language proficiency. Indeed, it is fully compatible with it: perhaps the U.S. ought to recruit skilled English-speaking immigrants from a wider array of middle- and high-income countries.



Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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