The Agenda

Should We Have a More Selective Immigration Policy or a Less Selective Immigration Policy?

One of Shikha Dalmia’s central arguments regarding less-skilled immigrants and means-tested benefits, as I understand her column, is that because the utilization of means-tested benefits among less-skilled immigrants is lower than it is among native-born citizens earning similar outcomes, which as we’ve discussed is almost certainly true, it is foolish to be concerned among the prospect that less-skilled immigrants will become public charges. Andrew Biggs raises the following concern:

Presumably we don’t like it when the native born are poor (and not simply because they use more welfare) and we have educational and training policies designed to bring the poor out of that state. So it seems wrong to compare the welfare utilization rates of people we choose to allow into the country with those the native born we consider to be unfortunate cases that we seek to prevent. A better comparison would be to the average American, although even then it’s not clear why we shouldn’t have a higher standard.

Biggs makes a closely related point at AEI Ideas:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, “In 2009, 29 percent of the foreign-born population between the ages of 25 and 64 had not completed high school or received a GED, compared with about 8 percent of the native-born population.” At the same time, the federal government, states, and localities spend billions each year trying to prevent US schools from graduating students with precisely these low levels of educational attainment.

So the types of workers we don’t want US schools to produce are precisely the type the American economy needs more of? I can see how we could use more highly-educated workers, but more people with 8th grade educations?

One could argue that Americans ought to be less concerned about raising graduation and college completion rates, as U.S. firms, in the agricultural sector but also in low-end services, have a significant appetite for low-wage labor. And if the utilization of means-tested benefits is our concern rather than the persistence of poverty, we could simply eliminate means-tested benefits for the native-born poor, as many libertarians and conservatives who favor a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration suggest we do for less-skilled immigrants. I think many of us find this idea discomfiting, and for good reason.

The goal of means-tested benefits and publicly-funded human capital investment is to better the lives of all members of the American polity, but particularly the most vulnerable, by giving them a foundation for participation in our shared economic and civic life. We might disagree about how much we ought to spend and how these programs are structured, with people like me favoring a limited scope for social programs, choice and competition, and an emphasis on work supports, etc., but support for the idea of a safety net and a place for the public sector in education is pretty firmly entrenched. When we expand the American polity, it makes intuitive sense that we would want to do so by welcoming individuals who are already well-prepared to fully participate in economic and civic life, as we’ve learned through long experience that people who are ill-prepared will face tremendous difficulties, as will their children. For a variety of reasons, individuals with 8th grade education and limited English proficiency are less likely to flourish in the U.S. than individuals with a college education and a high degree of English proficiency. If it is also true that less-skilled and less-affluent U.S. residents with limited English proficiency benefit more from an influx of skilled immigrants (potential customers or complements) than from an influx of less-skilled immigrants with limited English proficiency (potential competitors), the case for a more selective, skills-based immigration policy becomes even stronger. 

Another concern is that the path of assimilation is not as smooth of the descendants of less-skilled immigrants as it is for the descendants of skilled immigrants, as Jason Richwine’s analysis of the gap between second and third-generation Hispanic Americans suggests


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