The Problem With Only Letting In the 'Good' Immigrants

It’s difficult to determine who is “good” without making some troubling assumptions.

Immigrants at Ellis Island, New York, circa 1910
Immigrants at Ellis Island, New York, circa 1910 (Library of Congress)

American culture contains several competing, powerful psychological narratives about how immigration works—or at least how it should work. There is America as a glorious “melting pot” of cultures and America as a benevolent shelter for the tired, poor masses. There is also a view of a country threatened by new arrivals, typically non-white aliens with inferior cultures—“stupid” and “swarthy” newcomers, as Ben Franklin once wrote of Germans. Though the rhetoric has evolved over the centuries, debates over immigration to the U.S. have often boiled down to this: One side talks about how immigration benefits everyone, and the other side talks about how immigration hurts American workers and taxpayers. It’s rare to hear many voices that reside in neither camp.

George Borjas, a professor of economics and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, argues that the truth is a bit of both. In his new book, We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative, Borjas says that some Americans will benefit and others will be harmed from immigration to the United States. Those who get the biggest payoffs from immigration are employers and big businesses, he says, because of simple supply-and-demand economics: If there are more workers competing for the same jobs, employers can pay workers less. The people harmed from immigration are American blue-collar workers, he says, because the large influx of unskilled immigrants has made them compete fiercely for the shrinking slice of jobs that are unskilled but well-paid.

This argument isn’t new, though most economists contend that, overall, immigration doesn’t hurt the American workforce. They find that, on average, immigrant labor allows companies to grow and hire more workers, though there is some disagreement over whether immigration does lower wages for low-skilled American workers. A new report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine analyzed the research of 14 leading economists, including Borjas, and found “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term.” That blue-collar workers are struggling today is not the result of immigration but other powerful dynamics in the economy, such as globalization, shareholder primacy, and weak antitrust enforcement.

Borjas’ message is that the United States is not just attracting the best and brightest immigrants from around the world—it’s also attracting a large number of poor, uneducated, unskilled immigrants, who he says are more of a burden to the American economy than a benefit. Limiting immigration to high-skilled immigrants, he argues, is the best solution if the point of immigration law were to make all Americans wealthier. “High-skilled immigrants would share the cost of the welfare state and help pay for all the liabilities that will have to be funded as we grow old,” he writes.

While Borjas insists his focus is on pure economics, there are racial implications of his analysis. It’s of course true that not all immigrant groups are equally successful in the United States, but Borjas builds a simplistic hierarchy of the best and worst immigrants. Mexican immigrants are at the bottom, he says, not because they are Mexican, but because they tend to be unskilled and uneducated. According to Borjas, the fact that there are so many Mexican neighborhoods in the United States also makes it harder for them to assimilate and prosper: He cites Census figures showing that, in 2010, new immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic earned 50 percent less than Americans did, while immigrants from Germany or Canada earned about 70 percent more. “It would not be too much of an exaggeration to claim that the best single predictor of an immigrant’s economic performance in the United States is his or her country of origin,” he writes.

Borjas attempts to differentiate between the economic circumstances of a certain group and their nationality. He writes that Mexicans’ relatively slow socioeconomic ascension “has nothing to do with their being Mexican, and everything to do with the skills they brought and the environment they face.” But he also implies that some groups are tainted because of the misdeeds of a “few.” “A few of those refugees [from Middle Eastern countries] bring grudges and conflicts they wish to rekindle, and a few other import cultural attitudes that may undermine the social or political stability of the receiving countries,” he writes. Comments like these risk painting a whole group as dangerous, when in reality the vast, vast majority of people will come to America and lead peaceful, productive lives.

Ultimately, Borjas’ hierarchy of desirable and undesirable immigrants is all too reminiscent of America’s xenophobic history. Julie Greene, a professor of history and the co-director of the Center for Global Migration Studies at the University of Maryland, says that while it’s important to realize that not all immigrants are the same, it’s still problematic to lump them into rigidly defined groups. “From the very beginning or our history, there was a class emphasis and race emphasis on who should be allowed to become citizens and who shouldn’t,” she said.

And  racism has always been a factor in shaping U.S. immigration policy since the country’s founding. The Naturalization Act of 1790 first established that only free, white immigrants could become U.S. citizens. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to halt immigration of Chinese laborers during the Gold Rush. (The law also made it illegal for Chinese immigrants already in the country to marry white or black Americans.) Later, the Immigration Act of 1917 restricted immigration from other parts of Asia too, such as India. Then the Immigration Act of 1924 set strict limits on immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, specifically for groups who at the time were derisively called “P.I.G.S.”: people from Poland, Italy, Greece, and Slavic countries. It also limited Jewish and African immigration, and outright banned Arabs from moving to the country. It wasn’t until 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, that the United States took national origin (and therefore race) out of the equation, opening up immigration to more countries with lower proportions of white citizens.

The Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seems to want to take the country back to a time when race and religion were bigger factors, describing Mexican immigrants as undesirable and talking about banning Muslims from entering the country. Borjas’s argument is hardly this extreme, but he does say that it’s better for the United States to limit immigration of people from certain cultures and classes. Though he claims to base his reasoning mostly on economics, and not race, he doesn’t acknowledge how hard it is to separate the two.

But it is worth questioning the premise of this entire approach. The U.S. immigration system exists not solely as an engine of economic growth. There are other reasons to have liberal immigration policies—such as a humanitarian desire to provide people with a refuge from oppressive regimes, regardless of the economic toll such policies may exact. Borjas himself admits that the United States should continue welcoming some immigrants who are uneducated and unskilled, because, he says, “it’s the right thing to do.” That should be reason enough.