Immigration impacts: a murky debate

Immigration impacts: a murky debate
The “Our View” opinion offers an excellent example of the difficulties in sorting out argumentation on public policy issues, and in particular the myriad aspects of the immigration debate. Specifically, the author(s) exhibit a tendency to respond to arguments about economic efficiency with rebuttals couched in terms of equity. From a policy analysis perspective, “efficiency” arguments or policies focus on the conflict between market forces and the opinions of experts. With regard to the immigration debate, this is most focused on issues related to market structure: what effect does immigration have on the labor market in this country? Equity issues, on the other hand, are focused on conflicts between market forces and politics. Here the key question for the immigration debate is focused more on “standing:” whose interests matter most, native born Americans, or immigrants?

For example, “are immigrants taking jobs away from American citizens?” is a question of economic efficiency regarding the effect of low priced immigrant labor on the domestic labor market. “Should immigrants be allowed to compete with native workers?” is a question of equity, focused on the values that should be used to determine the importance of the first question. If we believe that immigrants should be allowed to compete without restriction, then it doesn’t really matter if they take jobs away from native or not. A major problem is that the results of each question impacts the other question. Our values might change depending on the impact that immigrants actually have on the job market in this country.

Heaven’s Door by George Borjas to offers a significant amount of empirical evidence to use for analysis of the efficiency issues related to the immigration debate. While he doesn’t focus nearly as much energy on the equity side of the conversation, the evidence Borjas presents is highly relevant to consideration of equity issues. For example, Borjas presents a thorough analysis of the skill levels of immigrants over time, and concludes that the skill levels of recent immigrants are significantly lower than those of previous immigrants. Specifically, he looks at wages earned by immigrants against the length of time they have been in the U.S. as an indicator of skill level and impact on the job market. Wages earned by immigrants who arrived prior to 1980 increased over time. Generally, the longer they were here, the more they earned. On the other hand, wages earned by immigrants who arrived between 1985 and 1989 have declined over time. The implication is that lower skilled immigrants are entering the workforce at lower wages and putting pressure on native workers (and other immigrants).

As a result of this wage pressure, native workers are “voting with their feet.” Borjas presents evidence that for every 10 immigrants that move into a state, 8 natives either move out of that state or chose not to move into it (p. 77). This conclusion is supported by reports presented to Congress just this week concluding that immigration accounted for “just less than 60% of population growth from April 2000 to July 2004” in California (Lochhead, C., Immigration hurts American workers, lawmaker says, S.F. Chronicle, May 5, 2005, 5 star edition, p. A4). More directly, these studies concluded that “newly arrived immigrants have filled all net new U.S. jobs created since 2000.”

While the author(s) of “Our View” seek to challenge “the idea that there are a finite number of jobs,” the evidence presented by Borjas and the congressional testimony reported by the chronicle suggest otherwise. More importantly, this evidence could strongly impact how one feels about whose interests matter most in this debate.

From SnarkyBoy on 2005-05-05 08:06:54 - recs (104)
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