Russ Roberts and I talked about immigration and We Wanted Workers for over an hour back on December 20. Obviously, there’s no discussion of the various immigration-related brouhahas from the past week, but I think many people will still find it to be an interesting conversation. Russ and I have known each other since 1977, dating back to our University of Chicago days. Immigration was not something that I (or many other people) gave much thought to back then. Funny how times change.
Robert VerBruggen just wrote a very interesting, and quite insightful, overview of my work and We Wanted Workers for The American Conservative. I spoke to him just three days after the election, and probably rambled a lot about the surprise outcome. So I’m certainly grateful he was able to somehow weave those ramblings within a long essay that gives a coherent description of my research.
I was particularly impressed by his observation about my place in the academic community, because it certainly strikes a nerve.
It is hard to call Borjas an outsider…He publishes in the best journals, presents his work at leading academic conferences, is consulted when major scientific organizations…summarize the state of knowledge in his field. But it’s equally hard to say he fits in.
Christopher Caldwell has a very thoughtful review of We Wanted Workers in the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books. He raises so many interesting points that I am going to have to mull over them for a while. His concluding paragraph, and especially that last sentence, catches in a nutshell the core of the immigration debate these days:
If…immigration suppresses the wages of workers, and transfers much of their wealth to elites, then liberalized immigration is a policy that cannot be carried out without simultaneous injuries to democracy. For why would native workers favor a system that makes them poorer? Perhaps they have somehow been hoodwinked out of an accurate assessment of the effects of the system. Perhaps they have lost their purchase on democracy itself. Either way, in exchange for a nickel here and a nickel there, we appear to have created a political problem of considerable gravity.
More than a few people have asked me in the past few days what advice, if any, I would give to President-elect Trump about immigration. Here are some more-or-less random thoughts that touch on a few of the policy issues that have to be confronted:
Enforcement First. The first step must be immediate action to greatly reduce the inflow of illegal immigrants. Illegal immigration has had a deeply corrosive impact on the immigration debate; it has paralyzed any rational discussion of how we should proceed along all other aspects of immigration reform. The open borders approach that allowed the entry of millions of illegal immigrants makes legal immigration policy “a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” Why bother waiting years abroad for that green card in the mail—such as the 23-year wait that some Filipino visa applicants are now enduring—when one can accomplish much of the same goal by running across the border or overstaying a tourist visa? I am not sure that a wall—despite its signal that we are finally getting serious about illegal immigration—will do the job; many of the illegal immigrants do not enter through the southern border. But I am willing to bet that the mandated adoption of an electronic system (such as E-Verify) that would force all employers to certify the visa status of all hires, along with very large fines and criminal penalties for law-breaking employers, would go a long way towards stemming the flow.
Benign Neglect. What to do about the 11+ million undocumented immigrants already living in the country? I think the wisest answer is: For the most part, ignore them! I find it very heartening that we do not have the stomach for such large-scale deportations. Most of those immigrants have led peaceful and uneventful lives in our country and became part of our communities. Their sudden removal would certainly not represent the America that many of us envision. I am also old enough to remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan being vilified for using the phrase “benign neglect” to discuss policy options regarding black economic progress in the late 1960s. Maybe it’s time to resurrect those words in the context of illegal immigration. Sometimes inaction is the best action. Most of the illegal immigrants already here will eventually qualify (if they haven’t qualified already) for visas through the family preference system. If the “enforcement first” step of stemming the illegal flow is successful, there can perhaps be eventual agreement on legislation that would accelerate the process of granting family preference visas to the existing undocumented population.
Edward Alden (of the Council of Foreign Relations) and I spent over an hour last month talking about We Wanted Workers. The conversation will air this Saturday, November 12, at 10 pm as part of the After Words series on C-SPAN 2. I don’t like watching myself on TV or hearing myself on the radio so I don’t really know how the conversation turned out, but I’ve been told it is “terrific.”
Ted Alden, by the way, is the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy, a brand new book that addresses many of the same themes as We Wanted Workers. I strongly recommend Ted’s book. I found it to be very informative and insightful.