Campus & Community

Migration Washes Over Ambivalent America

6 min read
Kennedy School of Government economist George Borjas believes current immigration levels hurt low-wage workers. Photo by Justin Ide.

Make up your mind, America.

That’s the message of Kennedy School of Government economist George Borjas, a specialist in immigration who believes the United States is of two minds about which immigrants – and how many of them – to let into the country.

In his own estimation, Borjas believes the country is admitting too many immigrants – about a million a year – and too many of them are low-skilled workers. He believes the United States should let in about half as many immigrants as it does now and should create a point system to screen for skills needed in the nation’s economy.

Borjas, an immigrant himself, came to the United States as a boy from Cuba in the early 1960s. Before coming to Harvard, he taught at the University of California at San Diego and served as an adviser on immigration to former-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Borjas, Pforzheimer Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School, acknowledges that the policies he espouses would have barred his mother and him from settling here. In addition, the policies he recommends would effectively bar many immigrants from third world nations where education standards are lower than they are here.

Still, he maintains, a country should consider its national interests when setting policy.

Borjas acknowledges that he’s looking at the problem from the standpoint of an economist and said he understands that immigration policy is not set according to economic data alone. Other considerations, such as political and humanitarian concerns, are also important driving forces in crafting immigration guidelines.

“All the data is meaningless unless the country first decides what it wants to get out of immigration,” Borjas said. “If one thinks immigration should help native workers, then current policies are bad. If immigration is to help those who are less well off [in the world], then it is more of a humanitarian program.”

One symptom of America’s two minds about immigration is the recent public and bitter debate over whether to send 6-year-old Elian Gonzales back to Cuba or keep him here, “safe” from Cuban communism, Borjas said. Borjas penned a New York Times op-ed piece comparing the Gonzales case with the more clear-cut case of a young girl from Togo facing culturally mandated genital mutilation if she returns to her native land. While this girl’s case seems clear, he wrote, our ambivalence over immigration is what becomes clear in Elian’s case.

“We have to decide at this point what a refugee is. It used to be easy. If the person came from a communist country, they were a refugee,” Borjas said.

Borjas said the op-ed, which supported keeping Gonzales here, gained him more feedback, mostly favorable, than any of his other books or publications.

The economics of immigration, asserts Borjas, clearly indicate that a radical change in immigration policy is needed, one that moves away from a system based on family ties that he says annually admits more than 1 million legal and illegal immigrants, many of them unskilled, to a more selective policy that allows half that many and that selects much more closely for those who would better fit into the increasingly highly-skilled workplace of the United States.

His argument is detailed in his most recent book, Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy, published last year by Princeton University Press. In it, Borjas argues that immigration has a small net effect on the U.S. economy, adding roughly $8 billion to $10 billion in a national economy that was $8 trillion in 1998. Even that small beneficial effect, he argues, may be outweighed by the increased use of social services by immigrants, who, he argues, have a higher usage of welfare programs than native-born Americans.

The largest effect of today’s immigration policy, he says, is a redistribution of America’s economic pie. He estimates immigration has caused the shift of roughly $160 billion from the paychecks of low-skilled Americans into the profits of the business owners they work for by increasing the supply of low-skilled workers and allowing business owners to lower wages.

All this happens even though today’s immigrants are better educated than those of decades past because the average American has even more education and the U.S. workplace places a high premium on skilled work.

Heaven’s Door has put Borjas squarely in the midst of the contentious, emotional debate about U.S. immigration policy. The book garnered a wide variety of reviews, ranging from “impressively researched, brightly written and tightly argued” by the New York Times, which characterized Borjas as “one of the nation’s leading – and certainly gloomiest – experts on immigration,” to “critically flawed” and an “alarmist analysis,” by The Wall Street Journal.

Borjas said the purpose of his book was to reframe the debate away from arguing about numbers and shift it instead toward a discussion of the nation’s goal for its immigration policy: to benefit workers, to benefit the country as a whole, to reunite families, or to provide a new start to workers from disadvantaged countries.

Borjas terms the immigration that has taken place since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s “The Second Great Migration,” noting that the number of immigrants entering the country today surpasses even the peak years of the Great Migration, which lasted from 1880 until 1924.

Further, he says, though Great Migration immigrants were also unskilled, they came at a time when the Industrial Revolution was demanding a large supply of unskilled workers, unlike today, when American jobs increasingly require advanced skills.

Borjas’ point system would assign a certain number of points to things like age, education, and field of expertise, a nd would be designed to admit workers skilled in fields policy-makers deem important.

Immigration guidelines, Borjas said, should be designed based on more than the Statue of Liberty’s invitation to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.”

“At that time [1886, when the Statue of Liberty was given to the United States by France], the country wanted the tired and poor because it wanted to build an industrial infrastructure,” Borjas said. “One shouldn’t make policy based on mythic history.”

The United States is a nation of immigrants — but what does that mean for our future? Who gets in and what happens when they get here? Carola and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco are among the Harvard scholars researching and writing about one of the nation’s thorniest political debates. Please see the other stories in our special section: “Harvard Dialogues: Immigration.”