Admit More Talented Immigrants

Immigration offers many potential advantages both for immigrants and for United States citizens.  Many immigrants increase their human capital just by coming to our shores, because our superior laws allow them to earn more and retain more of what they earn. Many also gain more opportunities for collaboration with our highly educated work force. Still others escape from oppression and benefit from the freedom to practice their religion and avoid forms of state sponsored, invidious discrimination.

Our citizens gain advantages from immigration as well because most immigrants contribute to greater economic growth and many become forces for innovation.  Welcoming people who choose to embrace our ideals can at its best also help renew the American project.  Nevertheless, immigration can impose some costs, both to particular citizens and to the nation as a whole. Here are four categories of costs, two of which have grown with the decline of limited government and of our own confidence in American exceptionalism.

  1. Competition for Jobs. To individual citizens the greatest cost is increased competition of immigrants for jobs. But that competition benefits most other citizens as goods and services become cheaper because of pressure on wages. Thus, it seems to me that we should be most concerned about the effect of immigration on low-wage earners. There the concentrated costs on those least able to afford it could conceivably outweigh more diffuse gains.
  2. Growing the Welfare State.  Many immigrants are poorer than the average citizen and may be tempted to vote themselves benefits from the government. This danger was much less acute when the United States had a limited government, but the welfare state forces us to take this problem seriously today.
  3. Changing the Culture.—The cost hardest to define lies in cultural change caused by immigration. Of course, culture is always changing but immigration may transform it more dramatically, particularly in areas with high numbers of immigrants. This change might create social problems of two kinds. The first is a decline of civic culture, including the culture of self-restraint needed for republican governance. The second is a decline of the culture of civic association—the capacity of like-minded individuals to provide public goods. Tocqueville saw this capacity as a peculiarly American virtue.  There is some evidence that the diversity created by immigration is in tension with the willingness to engage in such joint enterprises.  The costs to American culture were less likely, when America was more confident of its exceptionalism and thus generated social norms more demanding of assimilation.
  4. Terrorism—A new potential cost is the possibility that an immigrant is a likely terrorist. Very few will turn to terrorism, but that is a high cost if it happens.

Not all immigration is equally likely to create such costs. Mass immigration from a single poor nation that does not speak English is likely to generate the most difficulties. In contrast, permitting entry of English speaking workers with high skills will give us the benefits of immigration without substantial costs. Hillary Clinton has a point when she favors stapling a “green card” to those who come to America to get a PhD in STEM subjects. If she were to combine that idea with very careful vetting of those from nations with a problem of terrorism, it would be her most sensible policy proposal.

Reader Discussion

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on August 24, 2016 at 12:22:34 pm

I was thinking about this very thing yesterday, coincidentally.

One of the problems of open immigration into a more excellent nation is that it weakens the neighboring nations. When talent and love of freedom moves to the more excellent nation it must leave the neighboring nations, leaving them less prosperous and less desirous of freedom. This helps establish economic and social disparity, and eventually conflict between nations.

I'm not saying that's a bad or good thing, just that it is a cost. The greatest benefit is found in the synergy produced by having a lot of talented liberals in a single place, since that eventually benefits all nations as their technical and social artifacts become evenly distributed.

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Scott Amorian
on August 24, 2016 at 14:43:49 pm

Admit More Talented Immigrants

OK! Ok! I admit it—they’re more talented!

Happy now? (….jeez….)

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on August 24, 2016 at 17:14:41 pm

Fine but let us not be so quick to accept the received wisdom that a) immigration hurts only low wage earners and b) that there is a shortage of STEM workers.

STEM graduates are still being produced at record levels AND Lo and behold a quite substantial number of them are unable to find employment or re-employment. One must ask do we really need to bring in foreign STEM workers when many of our own are unemployed and saddled with rather large student debts.

Here is a counter suggestion:

Let us increase the number of foreign Lawyers admitted into the US - or better yet, foreign politicians (not just foreign campaign donations, Ms. Hillary).

Oops, won;t work for Lawyers, after all they have a Bar Association to keep out the riff-raff foreigner lawyers.

STEM WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!!!!!! You, too, can go *wobbly*.

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Image of gabe
on August 28, 2016 at 21:48:21 pm

Experience from Kenya is interesting. Nurses migrate to the UK and other countries for higher-paying nursing work. Kenyan government and others took steps to slow or tax nurses leaving for UK (and concern in UK too). But then research showed nursing opportunities abroad led to far more Kenyans training to be nurses. Many decided not to leave, so the opportunities abroad for higher skilled nursing positions led to more Kenyans gaining those skills and practicing in Kenya.

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Gregory Rehmke

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