After Words: George Borjas

Some weeks back, I saw this C-SPAN interview with George Borjas, a professor of economics and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of the forthcoming We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative. Bojras is himself a Cuban immigrant.

In The American Conservative, Robert Verbruggen profiles Borjas and notes:

Borjas believes that immigration has severe “distributional consequences” for natives: those who compete with immigrants lose; those who employ immigrants benefit from cheaper labor; and everyone else enjoys slightly lower prices…

There is much more to immigration economics than the question of whether native workers take a hit to their wages. Economists have also invested much effort in quantifying the overall gains from immigration (including gains to the immigrants themselves), and in tracking immigrants’ assimilation over the years in their new countries. Borjas has studied all of this, and in We Wanted Workers he provides readers a glimpse behind the curtain—explaining not just what various studies find, but also the assumptions and data manipulations that are needed to produce each result.

Borjas deploys statistical analysis in his focus on the social costs of immigration and cites some of the methodological flaws (or deliberate obfuscation, as I would argue in our SJW age) of liberal immigration studies. For example, Borjas notes how liberal think tanks like to measure ‘immigrant welfare usage’ at the individual level rather than the family level. However, doing so is disingenuous as the average welfare usage by immigrants’ families would be significantly higher than native populations. (This is because the respective immigrant’s progeny, if born in the U.S., is categorized as a ‘native citizen’ rather than an immigrant.) Measuring immigrant welfare usage by family household shows a higher rate of welfare usage by ‘immigrant households’ than ‘native households’.

Verbruggen paraphrases Borjas in the following contrast between the idealized, libertarian, theoretical construct of a borderless-world (the reason I left libertarianism 15 or so years ago) vs. the real world of different nationalisms and affiliated cultures:

There can be little doubt that immigration produces economic gains. A low-skill worker who moves from Mexico to the United States, for instance, becomes immensely better off, regardless of how he affects native wages. But what happens if we extrapolate from this fact and “imagine there’s no countries,” as one of Borjas’s favorite musicians once said “isn’t hard to do”?

This has been a favorite exercise of libertarian open-borders supporters, who claim—with studies to back them up—that there are “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” that humanity can pick up merely by ending immigration restrictions and letting the third world flood into the first. That brings out the geek in Borjas. “What assumptions are these people making to get all these trillion-dollar bills?” he asks. “What would happen if you reconstruct the model they’re using?”

It turns out some key facts are left out. For one thing, even with open borders, many of the world’s poor wouldn’t move, and thus couldn’t benefit. Humans seem to place an immense amount of value on staying in place, among family, friends, beloved cities, and people who speak the same language. And for another, those who did move would be large enough in number that they might overtake the cultures and institutions that make rich countries rich, rather than magically becoming wealthy themselves simply by virtue of having moved to a wealthy nation.

Mind you, Borjas is no Alt-Righter. He is far from it.

So what does the George Borjas immigration plan look like? “I think if we’re going to talk about changing immigration policy, the first thing we have to do is be sure that the inflow of illegal immigration slows down dramatically,” he says. “Because if anyone can cross the border or overstay a visa, it really makes a mockery of legal immigration policy.”

Borjas suggests requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure their workers aren’t in the country illegally, and otherwise supports a period of “benign neglect” toward those already here: no deportation, but no amnesty either, at least until the enforcement-first strategy proves successful.

He would make drastic changes to legal immigration as well, in particular the H-1B program, through which companies can bring in skilled workers. “Maybe the people who claim it’s terrific should bear some of the cost,” he says. “They’re laughing all the way to the bank. We have to set up a system where they appreciate what it’s like to be a worker who has to train their replacement.” Borjas has suggested charging companies thousands of dollars for each visa; if skilled immigrant workers are truly as valuable as these companies claim, he says, that will be a small price to pay. Another option would be to tax the industries that most benefit from immigration.

Underlying all of this is a sense of “responsible nationalism”: Borjas encourages us to ask ourselves, “Who are you rooting for?” In his view, American immigration policy should exist mainly to benefit Americans.

In his recent Politico piece “Yes, Immigration Hurts American Workers”, Borjas himself writes:

I’ve been studying immigration for 30 years, but 2016 was the first time my research was cited in a convention speech. When he accepted his party’s nomination in July, Donald Trump used one of my economic papers to back up his plan to crack down on immigrants and build a physical wall: “Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers,” he told the cheering crowd. But he was telling only half the story.

Hillary Clinton, for her part, seemed to be telling only the other half. At her convention a week later, Clinton claimed that immigrants, both legal and illegal, improve the economy for everyone. She told the crowd: “I believe that when we have millions of hardworking immigrants contributing to our economy, it would be self-defeating and inhumane to try to kick them out. Comprehensive immigration reform will grow our economy.”

Here’s the problem with the current immigration debate: Neither side is revealing the whole picture. Trump might cite my work, but he overlooks my findings that the influx of immigrants can potentially be a net good for the nation, increasing the total wealth of the population. Clinton ignores the hard truth that not everyone benefits when immigrants arrive. For many Americans, the influx of immigrants hurts their prospects significantly.

The above is the typical framework and theoretical lens of the economist.

But the “Who are you rooting for?” question, central to Borjas’ overall normative approach to the immigration issue (insofar as he has one), is a crucial one, and one that lends itself to America First positions.

This entry was posted in Immigration. Bookmark the permalink.