David R. Henderson  

Daniel Kuehn on Immigration

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Appropriately, given that it's Labor Day, one of Econlib's two feature articles is on immigration. In "Why the Conventional View of Immigration is Wrong," author and economics graduate student Daniel Kuehn challenges two conventional views on immigration:
(1) That the U.S. government should discriminate in favor of high-skill workers, and
(2) That undocumented immigration is a threat to the social fabric, domestic labor markets, and even national security.

Here's his bottom line:

The conventional view of both high-skill and undocumented immigration is misleading. The economic case for giving high-skill immigrants an advantage in the immigration process is weak. Moreover, undocumented immigrants, far from being undesirable, signal through their efforts to enter and stay in the country that they are a valuable addition to American society.

The whole thing is well worth reading.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Chris H writes:

That is an excellent article and in particular a fascinating take on the self-selecting process of immigrants. I've argued that self-selection makes immigrants more likely to fit in with the culture they immigrate to before, but Daniel's point on this with regards to illegal immigrants is new to me and rather interesting.

One thing I might add to this is with his discussion of the incentives regarding the potential criminality of immigrants is that given the lesser amounts of corruption in most immigrant receiving countries compared to the sending countries, career criminals are more likely to be able to use bribes to avoid punishment if they stay in their own country. This then reinforces the point that there is relatively weak incentives for immigrants to come to new countries and become criminals.

MikeP writes:
On the issue of high-skill immigration, the conventional view is that high-skill workers are in short supply, and that well educated guest workers offer greater benefits to the American economy than other kinds of immigrants because they advance scientific and technological frontiers. High-skill migrants are also considered non-threatening and unlikely to go on welfare.

These reasons for a bias toward high-skill immigration are actually not addressed by the interesting, but narrow, argument of the article.

The second is a very important point, yet it goes utterly unrefuted.

The first point, however, has a more subtle angle that cannot be refuted by arguments of supply, demand, and wage. The labor supply arguments show that high skilled labor will in time gravitate toward those occupations where there might be a shortage. But it doesn't show that low skilled labor will become high skilled labor in response to such a shortage.

Immigration, on the other hand, allows an economy to increase the pool of high skilled labor for any and all occupations at once. More specifically, if innovations and advances are more likely to come from 90th percentile workers, then high skilled immigration lets an economy inflate that cohort above 10% of the population.

None of that argument is diminished by allowing low skilled immigration either: the more highly skilled people that work together in an economy, the better off the economy is. So, whatever your position on low skilled immigration, arguing against high skilled immigration is like cutting off your head to spite your face.

Yancey Ward writes:

Take a guess at what the political affiliations of the types of immigrants are likely to be, and you can probably predict the arguments themselves.

It isn't an accident that Democrats favor lots more low-skilled immigration from certain countries, and Republicans favor (to the extent they favor it all) relatively higher-skilled immigrants from other countries.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I'm not sure how true that is, Yancey. One of the nice things about the issues I chose were that for the most part people of all political persuasions seem to agree that:

1. We should give special access to high skill immigrants that isn't available to other immigrants, and

2. We should prevent undocumented immigration.

This isn't a Republican or Democratic thing - this is the stuff they can agree on (broadly speaking). This is precisely what's so interesting about these cases.

Anyway, if you still think this hopefully I offer at least one datapoint that to challenge that story you tell.

Yancey Ward writes:

Daniel, you know nothing (or are pretending to know nothing) of the politics of immigration. It really isn't the case that Democrats oppose undocumented immigration- if they did, you wouldn't see them pushing so hard for every amnesty bill that comes along- you would see them trying to shut the border and deport the ones that are found, so your #2 is already wrong. I find it completely unsurprising that your study thinks undocumented immigration beneficial (and, note, I actually to see your analytic results in this case- I favor open borders myself even without that result).

Your #1 really isn't true either, though I will say this that there isn't much support from either party for actually tipping the scales towards better educated and high skilled immigrants. Programs like the H1B are tiny compared to the overall flow of immigrants into the US. However, to the extent they do favor immigration, you will find quite a few more Republicans in favor of such programs and fewer Democrats than you see in support of the lower skilled immigrants. So, again, I don't find it surprising that your study finds such programs are not all that beneficial to the US.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Yancey -
Take a look at immigration enforcement over the past decade and look at who has been backing it. Your argument seems to be that if Democrats don't take the absolute most draconian steps, they aren't opposed to undocumented immigration, generally speaking. Amnesty is a gleam of reality and pragmatism shining through, but have you taken a look at the provisions for amnesty? It's not a particularly generous option.

In the same way that I don't take the open borders line that to be pro-immigration you have to support extreme degrees of openness, I don't think it's very fruitful to speak as if only the most draconian opponents of undocumented immigration are actually anti-undocumented immigration.

re: "So, again, I don't find it surprising that your study finds such programs are not all that beneficial to the US."

Wait a minute - are you under the impression I'm some kind of partisan Democrat?

I don't align with either party, and my view is that all immigrants should be welcome here - high skill, low skill, documented and undocumented -regardless of their background. This does not jive well with your sense of what is driving policy.

Chris H writes:


I think you are missing some important issues in the politics of immigration in the US. Democrats have not been all gung ho about every amnesty or reform bill and Republicans haven't been all against them. Check out the legislative history for George W. Bush's attempt at immigration reform. Who are the people pushing it? John McCain, Ted Kennedy, John Kyl, Harry Reid, and George Bush. What finally defeated the bill in the Senate? A coalition of Republican and Democratic senators.

Immigration reform has floundered due to the fact that the cross-party coalition against reform has been able to block the cross-party coalition for reform, not because one party has backed it and the other hasn't.

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