Quotas on immigration to the United States are not only xenophobic; they are pragmatically backfiring.
Perhaps the strongest argument against opening our boarders is economic — but I think economics can also provide the strongest argument for opening our boarders. As we are learning from the economic downturn, our economy is a delicate mechanism of interlocking parts. Shocks to the housing market and financial system have reverberated throughout our economy. Likewise, letting immigrants into the United States poses a potential threat to our economic stability.
In specific, many commentators have worried that letting in immigrants could hurt American workers competing for the same jobs. The Department of Homeland Security is responding to these fears when it requires that applicants for employment visas show they are filling a “shortage occupation.”
Furthermore, low-skilled and illegal immigrants may create economic surpluses, but they also drain resources from governments. Illegal immigrants do not receive occupation-based health insurance. They take the resources of local schools. And they tend to pay little in taxes — although they often pay into social security and receive no benefits.
On the other side of the argument, commentators cite the economic benefits of immigration. A report by the National Research Council suggests that immigrants generate between $1 and $10 billion of economic surplus to the economy on top of the wealth they accrue to themselves.
Of course, this whole debate is somewhat moot. A steady stream of illegal immigrants heads into the United States every year, regardless of how pundits hash out the net costs and benefits of immigration. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that about 400,000 illegal immigrants slip into the country each year, and many think this estimate conservative.
The problem with immigration is not specifically the increase in absolute numbers; it is the rebalancing of skills in the labor force. The national population has doubled in the last 50 years. Yet during that time period the wage rate and per capita GDP, even adjusted for inflation, have skyrocketed, while the unemployment rate has stayed virtually flat. An economy can scale to any size so long as the population expands proportionally in all sectors.
But large labor increases in the poorest, least educated and least skilled sectors of the economy can potentially push the lowest wage rates down further and increase levels of inequality. Therefore, our current immigration policy makes imbalances in the labor market particularly acute.
Whatever the immediate boon to the economy, illegal immigration of low-skilled laborers increases economic inequality, and this can have dangerous long-term effects. Economic inequality is a self-perpetuating problem. In the United States, people largely segregate by economic status, so the poorest people lack access to important social services, such as good schools and preventative medicine.
Instead of pouring government funds into attempts to secure the border, it would be simpler to abandon quotas on skilled labor. The Department of Homeland Security currently grants only 140,000 employment-based visas each year, despite the fact that 400,000 illegal immigrants providing low-skilled labor find a way in. Of those 140,000, nearly 60 percent must either have an advanced degree on top of a bachelor’s degree or be employed in a managerial or executive position.
Why do we have such exacting standards for who is legally allowed to enter this country when there are no qualifications for who illegally enters this country? We should allow anyone who has a college degree and a job offer to immigrate. This would make our economy stronger, create more jobs and actually make it easier for the United States to scale up the economy.
Furthermore, if we accepted more skilled workers, we could begin legally accepting unskilled workers, thus reducing the need for people to cross the boarder illegally.
Our economic incentives clearly align with letting more immigrants into the country. The only thing holding us back is xenophobia.
Tyler Ibbotson-Sindelar is a senior in Branford College.