Liberals and Immigration

Peter Beinart has an excellent essay in The Atlantic entitled How the Democrats Lost Their Way On Immigration. The article perfectly encapsulates the conundrum faced by liberals when they think about immigration:

Progressive commentators now routinely claim that there’s a near-consensus among economists on immigration’s benefits….There isn’t. According to a comprehensive new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Groups comparable to … immigrants in terms of their skill may experience a wage reduction as a result of immigration-induced increases in labor supply.” But academics sometimes de-emphasize this wage reduction because, like liberal journalists and politicians, they face pressures to support immigration…

The problem is that, although economists differ about the extent of the damage, immigration hurts the Americans with whom immigrants compete. And since more than a quarter of America’s recent immigrants lack even a high-school diploma or its equivalent, immigration particularly hurts the least-educated native workers, the very people who are already struggling the most. America’s immigration system, in other words, pits two of the groups liberals care about most—the native-born poor and the immigrant poor—against each other.

Beinart also raises an issue that is only whispered about in private and swept under the rug in public: Who is paying for all the pro-immigration research in economics? Whoever came up with the phrase “Follow the money” surely had an exquisite sense of where the bodies are buried. There need not be any intellectual corruption for this flow of money to influence the debate. As Beinart aptly puts it, “the prevalence of corporate funding can subtly influence which questions economists ask, and which ones they don’t.”

Finally, anyone who knows me knows that I would not be classified as progressive-leaning on economic policy (although I’m a live-and-let-live type of guy when it comes to social issues). Beinart actually cites the very progressive suggestion for “mitigating the problem” that I proposed in We Wanted Workers:

A better answer is to take some of the windfall that immigration brings to wealthier Americans and give it to those poorer Americans whom immigration harms. Borjas has suggested taxing the high-tech, agricultural, and service-sector companies that profit from cheap immigrant labor and using the money to compensate those Americans who are displaced by it.

This is one of those articles that is worth reading in full and thinking about very carefully.




Author: George Borjas

I am a Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.