Immigration Reform Isn't Just About Numbers—It's About Skills, Too

Since immigrants are disproportionately poorly educated, any overhaul needs to focus on bringing in fewer but more talented people.

At a Hollywood conference on innovation on Friday, Vice President Joe Biden credited “constant and overwhelming” immigration for American creativity. Obviously, immigrants have contributed hugely to America’s legendary dynamism. From Alexander Hamilton to Sergey Brin, people born off these shores have founded new companies, invented new products, and disseminated new ideas.

All the most enthusiastic tributes to immigration as a source of renewal are true.

But those tributes are not the whole truth.

Since 1965, American immigration policy has tilted further and further in favor of the poorly educated and the unskilled. In consequence—and with full acknowledgement of the many, many spectacular individual success stories—American immigration policy in the aggregate has degraded the country’s skill levels and pushed the United States down to the bottom of the developed world in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving.

A new OECD report delivers grim news about how poorly Americans score in the skills necessary to a modern economy: “Larger proportions of adults in the United States than in other [advanced] countries have poor literacy and numeracy skills, and the proportion of adults with poor skills in problem solving is slightly larger than average, despite the relatively high educational attainments among adults in the United States.”

In literacy, for example, the OECD graded populations into five categories, 1 and 2 being the lowest. One in six American adults scored below level 2 for literacy, as compared to one in 20 adults in Japan. Nearly one in three scored below level 2 for numeracy. One in three scored at the lowest level for problem-solving in an advanced technical environment.

Why did Americans score so uniquely badly?

Immigration isn’t the whole answer, but it is the largest—and fastest-growing—part of the explanation of the deskilling of the American labor force.

Only 6 percent of native-born Americans of working age lack a high-school diploma. More than a quarter of working-age immigrants do. The newest arrivals are the worst educated: Almost 28 percent of those who have entered since the year 2000 did not finish high school. The poor schooling of America’s immigrants has massively deskilled the American labor force as a whole. Although immigrants provide only 16 percent of the American labor force, they account for 44 percent of all workers without a high-school degree.

Fareed Zakaria pointed out in a Washington Post column about the skills report that the foreign-born make up an even larger portion of the population in other OECD countries than the United States. This is correct. But a closer look at those numbers reveals the uniqueness of the American immigration flow.


The OECD country with far and away the highest proportion of foreign-born workers is Luxembourg, where a third of the population consists of nationals of other European states, notably next-door France. That’s not immigration. That’s commuting. The next runner-up is Israel, whose largest sources of migration are the countries of the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Only with migration-receiving countries 4, 5, and 6—New Zealand, Australia, and Canada—do we encounter countries where most migration comes from countries of origin poorer than the receiving country. All three of those countries operate immigration programs very concerned with attracting highly skilled workers. Their migrants are better educated and better skilled than the native born.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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