Low-Skilled Immigrants Drive the American Economy

(Bloomberg View) -- The case for high-skilled immigration to the U.S. isn't hard to make. All those Ph.D.s in science and technology help build the nation's advanced infrastructure while adding to the store of human capital and generating national wealth.

As a 2016 Congressional Research Service report stated, "This workforce is seen by many as a catalyst of U.S. global economic competitiveness and is likewise considered a key element of the legislative options aimed at stimulating economic growth."

The low-skilled immigrant is less beloved by economists, and an easier target for anti-immigration groups. President Donald Trump largely refrains from attacking Asian immigrants, who tend to be highly educated and skilled. But he broadcasts calumnies about Mexicans without restraint.

Unskilled and low-skilled immigrants are already being edged out of the national portrait. As demographer William Frey has written, foreign-born arrivals from 2011-2015 are more highly educated than their predecessors: "That is, nearly half (48 percent) of recently arrived immigrants are college graduates, compared with only 28 percent of those who arrived before. Moreover fewer have not received a high school education (19 percent) than among those who arrived previously (30 percent)."

The typical complaint about low-skilled immigrants is that they drive down wages for already struggling low-income natives. (Some who complain of downward pressure on wages seem less interested in boosting the working poor when it doesn't entail restricting immigrants.) The claim about wages is both complicated and disputed. But even presuming low-skilled immigrants have a small but significant effect depressing wages, restricting their entry is a fraught response.

Two of the fastest-growing occupations of the decade ahead -- home health aides and personal care aides for aging baby boomers -- require minimal education and pay around $22,000 annually. Natives are not lining up to perform those duties. It's more likely the jobs will be done by immigrants. Likewise, the agriculture industry, which is already experiencing some labor shortages, won't find many natives -- or robots -- eager to pick strawberries or many other crops.

Privileging skilled immigrants over those with low skills isn't a new idea; U.S. immigration policy has done so for decades.

In the national panic after the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the State Department’s administrator of security and consular affairs, Roderic O’Connor, said that the era of "mass labor from whatever sources" was over. "The Soviet Sputnik has dramatically emphasized a different need," he said. "Today we need scientists and technicians. We need professional people, doctors and teachers. In short, we need highly skilled and specialized immigrants."

I found that 1958 quotation in the dissertation of Philip Wolgin, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress. "These debates aren’t anything new," Wolgin said, via email. "In my dissertation I talked quite a bit about the debate, in the run up to the 1965 immigration bill, over what was then called 'new seed' immigrants -- basically immigrants without skills or family ties."

The "new seed" immigrants were the rough and uneducated strivers who came to the U.S. and worked their way up. Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, a co-author of the landmark 1965 immigration bill, spoke of the new seeds who had "opened the frontier, built the railroads and laid the foundations for industry," Wolgin wrote in his thesis. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee said they were “the hardy freedom-loving pioneers" who constituted "the new seed of our national existence.”

In the end, the U.S. restricted legal immigration of low-skilled immigrants while tacitly allowing their immigration through illegal channels. 

The economic arguments for low-skilled immigration are linked, but not identical to, the new seed argument, which is essentially a claim for the continued relevance of the American Dream. To open a path to new seeds is to recognize that luck is determined in no small part by borders. It's to declare that anyone can come from anywhere and make something solid -- maybe even something spectacular -- with enough gumption and hard work. And if it doesn't quite work out for you, it can still come true for your kids.

Trump and other nativists claim poor immigrants mostly hang around collecting welfare. (The self-described "king of debt," who just transferred $1.5 trillion from the Treasury to wealthy taxpayers, grows fiscally conservative whenever out-groups make claims on public funds.) But other than refugees and asylum seekers, recent immigrants are barred from most public benefits, including programs to which they contribute tax dollars.

Shutting down low-skilled immigration, abandoning the new seeds, isn't about safeguarding the public treasury. It's about engineering the composition of the nation, much like previous efforts to bar Asians or restrict southern Europeans. It makes a gated community of the winner's circle, and takes aim at the American Dream itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

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