Bringing Some Sanity To The Immigration Question

Milton Ezrati

Chief Economist

Immigrants and and immigration again dominate the headlines. This time the subject is a large group of predominantly Honduran-born people who very publicly trekked across Mexico with the intent of sidestepping formalities and taking up residence in the United States. Matters have reached a point now of people rushing the border amidst tear gas. The scene delivers irresistible drama and high emotion for all. But drama and emotion offer poor bases for thought much less policy making. The country needs a calmer, saner approach to immigration, one that deals in facts and realities more than hopes and fears.

A report prepared by the Census Bureau not too long ago can in this task. It profiles all immigration into the United States as well as other developed, democratic countries.  Its findings bring reason for optimism and caution about the future. Those findings also offer guidance on a much-needed rationalization of this country’s immigration law and with it, presumably, a way to generate a national commitment to enforce those laws. Neither of these elements exists in today’s milieu.

Probably the report’s most encouraging findings are the skill levels it charts among recent immigrants. Contrary to popular notions, it shows that in the last decade, fully one-third of the immigrants legally entering the United States had bachelor’s degrees or the equivalent and some 16% had higher degrees. Those figures rival the native population, which shows some 32% with bachelor’s degrees and 12.6% with higher degrees. Before 1970, when strictly enforced immigration law still relied on ethnic quotas that favored Europeans generally and Western Europeans in particular, less than one-quarter of this country’s immigrants had bachelor’s degrees or the equivalent and less than one-eighth had higher degrees. Although higher education is far from the only measure of skill, it is nonetheless indicative. The country is getting more economically useful people than it once did, people who presumably can integrate better — into the economy at least, if not necessarily into broad American culture.

Of course, the Census Bureau is measuring legal immigration. The people throwing rocks and rushing the border are a long way from legal processes, even if some of them will eventually qualify for legal residence, wither as refugees or through one of the other means available to secure that status. These people, by their own description of themselves, are neither well educated nor especially skilled.  Were they, it would cast doubt on the desperation they claim. But their criminality or need constitutes a separate question from the value of immigration overall and should not color it. Crime and drama on the southern border aside, Census shows that immigration flows look like a good deal for America, at least economically.

Still, these encouraging findings are no cause for complacency. The Census report makes that clear.  It shows that newer immigrant groups tend to carry the highest education and skill levels. When a particular national or ethnic group becomes better established in its host country, the group’s less personally powerful individuals frequently follow. This pattern is evident in the skill levels of different immigrant groups. Asian immigrants to the United States, for instance, still a relatively small group here, have the highest skill levels. Over half have bachelor’s degrees or the equivalent and about a quarter have higher degrees. That is well above the general American population and certainly higher than the populations from which they emerged. In contrast, Latin Americans, which have well-established communities in this country, show only 12.9% with bachelor’s degrees or equivalent and only 4.2% with higher degrees.

Part of this difference may simply reflect the way this country’s law encourages immigration by people with associations among existing residents – “chain immigration,” as it is called. But as Census shows, the tendency for early migrants to have the most skill while later migrants have less is also a natural pattern that would occur regardless of legal biases. Such trends exist in other countries with different laws. With this pattern in mind, the Census report issues a warning that the favorable skills mix it has charted will not likely persist. On the contrary, subsequent waves will tend to bring lower skill and education levels.

Anticipating such a charge, and perhaps also today’s problems at the southern border, the Census report hints at suitable directions for future U.S. immigration law. To keep up the skill and education levels of future immigration waves, it speaks positively of the point systems used by Canada and Australia, two other immigrant nations. Though both these countries allow for compassionate family reunions, they mostly filter immigrants according to the skills needed in the host country. Prospective residents receive preference if they speak the language, English in Australia and English or French in Canada. They get added advantages for years of education and occupational skills they can document. They also get points for any assets they might transfer. In this way, Canada and Australia serve their own economies. They also avoid social discord, since these immigrants, even if they resist integration into the larger Canadian and Australian cultures, do integrate better into the economy, making them content sooner and native communities less frightened and hostile.

To be sure, such policies leave many immigration questions unanswered, most especially the illegal flows, which would likely continue. But they would rationalize the law in an unbiased way, at least where race and ethnicity are concerned. Such an approach would also quiet that element in the country worried over social discord and economic burdens. On both counts, it would help win a widespread commitment to efficient and consistent law enforcement, a commitment that today in the United States has dissipated, both among the general population and with officials. In doing so, it would permit a more compassionate, less fearful approach to refugees. It is at least worth a look. The Census Bureau has served the country well with its effort.

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