Immigration Reform Banner

How should we value immigrants, and how should that affect immigration reform?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How should we value immigrants? Most of the discussion in the immigration debate leaves implicit this key question. Yet behind the recommendations for immigration reform is some notion of why immigration is useful and what goal we are trying to achieve by offering outsiders admission into the community of US citizens. Leaving that target implicit rather than making it explicit often confuses the debate. It is for that reason that our opening symposium focuses on this key question that motivates the discussion on immigration reform.

A number of reasons are behind the desire by most US residents’ wanting to allow some immigration. Front and center among the most frequently discussed goals is the ability to augment the stock of human capital by bringing in outsiders. This is the “make-or-buy” decision. One way to enhance human capital in the United States is to improve our school system. Another is to bring in immigrants who already have high levels of human capital, perhaps, in part by attending US universities. Encouraging the skilled to immigrate may be one way to move human capital up a notch quickly and may, in the short run, be an effective approach to acquiring human capital.

There are direct spillovers from immigrants to the native population. When immigrants arrive, some of what they produce is captured by them through the wages that they receive.  Some, though, accrues to others in the economy, namely, owners of capital and other workers who are complementary to the labor that immigrants provide.

Others have thought of immigration as a way to improve the government’s fiscal situation, although some worry that immigration will worsen the situation. If improving fiscal balance is the primary goal, then we are likely to prefer young, working and high income groups who will be net contributors to the budget.

Another goal is that of family reunification, which recognizes that Americans would like their family members to join them and that current Americans value family members more highly than they would other immigrants.  Family reunification is a worthy goal, however, it is not necessarily completely consistent with economic goals, specifically that of improving human capital in the United States or of providing the best relief to a stressed fiscal environment.

Most view the rapid assimilation of immigrants as desirable. The immigration filter and selection rule affects the type of person coming in and also the rate of assimilation. More balanced immigration (by national origin) tends to foster more rapid assimilation than does more concentrated immigration and policies that result in a broader supply of immigrants will also likely speed up assimilation. Similarly, more educated individuals tend to be more rapidly integrated into US society and the economy.

Many of the economic factors may be subsumed in the general notion of selecting immigrants who are most likely to contribute to economic growth. There can be disagreement of who those immigrants are likely to be, but this goal is one that is simple to understand, discuss, and may serve as a useful backdrop to the immigrant debate.

Finally, it is important to design an immigration system that is stable and that is not undermined by large flows of immigrants who enter the country illegally. Most Americans prefer that new entrants come to the United States legally, using the system that is set up to accommodate them.

Only when our goals are well articulated and stated explicitly can we have a reasoned and intelligent debate on how to change immigration policy in the most favorable way. With this in mind, we begin our first symposium.