Immigration Reform Should Avoid a Credential Fetish: A Response to NRO's Reihan Salam

Over at NRO, Reihan Salam offered a two-part response to my recent Bloomberg View piece on why opposition to low-skilled immigrants because they’ll strain the welfare system is based more on myth than fact. Salam, who is in favor of looser immigration policies though not open borders, acknowledges that welfare use among low-skilled immigrants, even among their American children, is lower than among similarly placed native born. But he offers four main reasons, as I understand him, for why this doesn’t mean we should remove the barricades on the Southern border:

One: The lower welfare use among low-skilled immigrants is a result of their linguistic isolation (not, eg., lack of need).  

Two: Lower welfare use is a result of the unauthorized status of low-skilled immigrants that makes them ineligible for most (though not all, he insists) means-tested benefits. But amnesty for those here illegally and more legal immigration options for future low-skilled workers will make more of them welfare eligible.

Three: Even if one concedes that low-skilled immigrants are a net economic plus (as I note here), high-skilled immigrants are an even bigger plus. Hence, unless one believes in open borders, why shouldn’t the selection criteria of the host country favor high-skilled over low-skilled immigrants, especially since “the labor market position of less-skilled individuals in the U.S. has been deteriorating for at least 30 years”?

Four: Quoting Andrew Biggs at American Enterprise Institute, Salam points out, the country is spending gobs of money to prevent U.S. schools from producing students with low-levels of educational attainment. So how does it make sense to import foreigners with low educational attainment?

Salam’s first point that one reason low-skilled immigrants use less welfare is because their poor language skills render them less able to navigate the bureaucracy might be true — but so what? It doesn’t negate my central thesis that so long as America needs a labor class, a foreign-born one (that needs welfare but can’t access it) is cheaper than a homegrown one (that needs welfare and can get it). This might be unfair to foreign workers — although they are obviously better off with a job in America even with differential access to welfare than in their home country or they wouldn’t be here — but not to America. (I am merely describing the current state of affairs, not endorsing it.)

Salam’s second point that legalizing low-skilled immigrants might make them more expensive for the welfare state is more on point, but it is impossible to predict in a vacuum whether their cost will exceed their economic benefits (which, as I noted in my piece, are substantial according to several state-level studies).

As per current welfare law, temporary visa holders don’t qualify for most means-tested benefits and green card holders qualify only after five years. Under the Gang of Eight’s proposal released Thursday, unauthorized workers who came to the U.S. prior to 2011 will be able to obtain temporary legal status right away on the payment of fines. But they won’t become eligible for a green card for at least 10 years after that (and presumably citizenship another 5 years). Given that the last big round of amnesty was in 1986, this means that these illegals would have worked and paid taxes in this country for anywhere from 12 to 48 years, depending upon when they came here, before they would be eligible for full-blown welfare. Many of them no doubt will be dead before they qualify. It is hard to imagine that amnesty will completely wipe out their contributions.

But what about future low-skilled workers who come here legally? The Gang of Eight has proposed a new W-visa program for them. W-visa holders, unlike holders of existing H2-A and H2-B visas for agricultural and non-agricultural workers, will be allowed to apply for green cards after these visas expire in three years. Depending on how long it takes for their green cards to arrive (currently, wait times are in decades, although the one good thing about the reform proposal is that it would cut that), it is theoretically possible that they’ll go on the dole sooner than those who receive “amnesty.”

However, whether they do so at rates worth worrying about is an open question: One reason low-skilled workers lag behind high-skilled workers and native born in terms of economic advancement — a point that Salam hammers — is that most of them are illegal and therefore don’t have either the opportunities or the inclination (given the uncertainty of their situation) to invest in their human capital: acquiring new skills or completing their education. Changing their status will change their incentives, allowing many more of them to pull themselves out of poverty, diminishing their need to go on welfare. But if they do go on the dole that would be an argument for scaling back their eligibility (or the welfare state itself) not barring them from entering.

Salam’s third argument that if we can’t admit every foreigner, then its best to admit highly-skilled ones who are more economically beneficial than low-tech ones who are relatively less is certainly clever, but ultimately can’t avoid the knowledge problem that bedevils all central planning efforts. Indeed, Canada tried to do just that with its federal bureaucrats applying a complicated point system that privileged foreigners with advanced degrees in STEM and other fields. The upshot was a complete mismatch between the skills of the foreigners admitted and local economic needs. (I once hired a cab in Toronto whose driver, a Russian immigrant, had a Ph.D. in physics but couldn’t find a job in a university.) Canada is rapidly moving away with from its centralized approach and empowering its provinces to effectively write their own immigration policies based on their own economic needs through the Provincial Nominee Program that I wrote about here. (Also read Nancy Scola’s absolutely first-rate account of the program for Next City, “Welcome to Winnipeg.”) Most provincial programs have completely scrapped the high-skilled, low-skilled distinction and others treat jobs that in America are considered low skilled — welding and certain kinds of masonry — as skilled work, demonstrating just how arbitrary such distinctions are.

As for Salam and Bigg’s objection that it makes little sense for America to import foreigners with an 8th grade education when it is trying to raise general educational attainment levels, it sounds perfectly reasonable, but here’s the thing: The goal of an education policy and an immigration policy are not identical. The primary purpose of an education is to produce well-honed, well-rounded, self-actualized individuals — not necessarily generate workers for an economy. The economy certainly shapes individual career choices — just as it is shaped by the availability of workers -- but that doesn’t mean that at any given time individual aspirations are going to be perfectly in sync with the needs of an economy. A well-crafted immigration policy can help alleviate workforce imbalances and go a long way toward enhancing economic productivity. The fact that between 1995 and 2005, about 700,000 low-skilled foreigners every year managed to be gainfully employed (legally and illegally) in construction, agricultural, landscaping, restaurant, house-cleaning industries speaks for itself.

It is really vital that the upcoming immigration reform avoid a credential fetish and take its cues from companies and industries — actual economic actors, that is, not abstract worries.

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  • Almanian!||

    Agreed.

    But, but.....ANKUR BAYBEEZZZ!!111!

    Nicely done, Ms. Dalmia.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Either I'm getting better at recognizing idiot arguments or Salam is a particularly easy idiot to recognize, but I was surprised to find I saw the flaws in his arguments as I read them.

    I also thank you, Ms Dalmia. These idiots need to be beat down.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    "A well-crafted immigration policy can help alleviate workforce imbalances and go a long way toward enhancing economic productivity. The fact that between 1995 and 2005, about 700,000 low-skilled foreigners every year managed to be gainfully employed (legally and illegally) in construction, agricultural, landscaping, restaurant, house-cleaning industries speaks for itself."

    The fact that it's 2013, and not between 1995 and 2005 should speak for itself.

    "More Than 101 Million Working Age Americans Do Not Have A Job"
    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/.....t-have-job

  • Almanian!||

    When I see some of these Americans working on the yard crews, painting crews, bricklayers, etc. or out in front of Home Depot every morning along with the cholos, then I'll agree immigration's TUKKING RRR JERBSZ!

    Till then, keep 'em coming, and fuck those people who "give up" and wear out their 99 weeks of living off OPM.

  • Homple||

    You seem to imply that all illegal immigrants are working on yard or painting crews, laying bricks, and standing in front of Home Depots waiting for day work. You forgot roofing, but there may, just may you understand, be folks who wander in to get the same goodies from the welfare system that the give-ups are already milking.

  • ||

    Not likely. Illegal immigrants aren't eligible for most welfare, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

  • Homple||

    Indeed? So all the illegals are completely supporting themselves and their families by legal work without any sort of public assistance.

  • ||

    Get that straw man! Get it good!

    I never said that. I said that immigrants aren't eligible for most forms of welfare in the U.S., which is true. Unless you're claiming that they are, then illegal immigrants aren't "wandering in to get the goodies". Coming to a country with the vague hope they'll maybe get some financial assistance someday probably isn't on most immigrants' minds.

  • Jordan||

    Okay, I propose a compromise for those opposed to open borders: open borders for only Asian women. What say you?

  • Calidissident||

    How about just for women (I'm pro-open borders, but that would be a "reasonable, common-sense compromise."

  • Jordan||

    I like it. I like it a lot.

  • ||

    You fucking racist misandrist!!!

  • Jordan||

    Check your privilege, bro.

  • Almanian!||

    I say, Me love you long time

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Probably be a lot of refugees wanting free sex change operations.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Simple solution - burn down the welfare state. The newly imposverished former dole residents will take those jobs which would previously go to immigrants. Once the workforce participatin rate improves, then we can discuss loosening controls on entry.

  • UnCivilServant||

    And I am again plagued by typos, making me sound more like a raving loon.

  • Sidd Finch||

    others treat jobs that in America are considered low skilled — welding and certain kinds of masonry

    Who considers welders low skilled?

  • Sidd Finch||

    The primary purpose of an education is to produce well-honed, well-rounded, self-actualized individuals

    Then why does Reason, and you specifically, talk so much about test scores. What do they have to do with self-actualization?

  • Loki||

    the country is spending gobs of money to prevent U.S. schools from producing students with low-levels of educational attainment.

    And how's that working out?

  • Chris Mallory||

    Because if there is one thing America needs, it is more Central Asian goatherders! The two in Boston weren't enough. Go back to India,Dalmia. Destroy your nation and leave mine alone.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Your ancestors stole it from the Indians, who were misnamed by Cristo Columbo in his trench coat smoking illegal Cuban cigars.

    She's Indian and entitled to steal it back on behalf of her ancestors whose country was stolen from them by the English, who we stole the 13 colonies from after they stole it from the Cristo Columbos.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Until someone managed to steal it from us, it's still our plot of dirt!

  • ||

    My plots don't belong to you, neither do the positions I might hire for. If they want to buy or rent property, that's between them and the property owners. If they want jobs, that's between them and the people hiring.

  • KDN||

    Geography lesson: Chechnya is in Southeastern Europe, not Central Asia.

    Grammar lesson: Goatherds, not goatherders.

  • 21044||

    Geography lesson: Chechnya is in Southeastern Europe, not Central Asia

    Point accepted, but it is a bit of an arbitrary line between Europe and Asia.

    Grozny is 1000 miles east of Istanbul and east of 2/3 of Asian Iraq.

    Georgia is in Europe, but is Azerbaijan Asia or Europe?

  • prolefeed||

    Point accepted, but it is a bit of an arbitrary line between Europe and Asia.

    It is a completely arbitrary line, since Europe and Asia are both part of one continent. When two alleged different continents are connected by several thousand miles of land at their "border", they are one continent.

  • prolefeed||

    Three: Even if one concedes that low-skilled immigrants are a net economic plus (as I note here), high-skilled immigrants are an even bigger plus. Hence, unless one believes in open borders, why shouldn’t the selection criteria of the host country favor high-skilled over low-skilled immigrants, especially since “the labor market position of less-skilled individuals in the U.S. has been deteriorating for at least 30 years”?

    Even if you were a statist who doesn't value individual freedom at all, why would any rational policy exclude any immigrant who would be a net economic plus? Everyone who wants to work should be allowed in.

  • FatDrunkAndStupid||

    Because most people care more about quality of life than a marginal increase in the profit margins of ADM or Tyson Chicken?

  • FatDrunkAndStupid||

    Don't really get the point about the taxi driver with a PhD and I think this strikes to the heat of the debate here. The "mismatch" of the adult, high IQ immigrant is a temporary problem. If he's young enough, he can probably sort it out himself and work his way from Taxi Driver to a job better matched to his skill set. But his high IQ children won't have such a problem. The problem here is temporary. The low IQ, third world taxi driver on the other hand, is a permanent mismatch. He isn't smart enough to ever be anything other than the underclass, and the same will hold true for his children.

    All things being considered, it is better to live in a society where the Taxi Driver could be an engineer or the janitor at your child's school could sub for a sick teacher for a week without anyone thinking twice about it. Denmark is a lot like that. What Shikha is promoting is a societal change that shifts us more and more towards the Brazilian model of vast divide between the top and the bottom with an ever shrinking middle.

  • prolefeed||

    You're assuming that allegedly low IQ people will have low IQ children, and high IQ people will have high IQ children.

    Except, military IQ tests at the beginning of the 1900s found that Jewish soldiers were supposedly low IQ. Anyone want to posit that their great grandchildren are gonna also score low on IQ tests?

  • FatDrunkAndStupid||

    I am not disputing that the Flynn effect exists. But there is no evidence the effect is so great it can overcome the differences we are talking about here. And with respect to the Jews, you don't have your facts quite straight. The very first IQ tests of Jews put their IQ at just slightly ahead of the white average. Decades later, the gap had widened a bit, but there was never a point at which Jews had "low IQ".

  • blackford_oakes||

    Why do people always compare immigrants to poor Americans when it comes to welfare? For one thing some of the poor Americans are no doubt former immigrants and for another they are still going to consume a lot in the way of public spending even if the rate of use is lower. Especially in terms of education and healthcare which are conveniently not counted as welfare. Legalizing them will only make it worse in terms of what benefits they get.

    I know that is more of an argument for getting rid of the welfare state, but until that happens we should only allow in those who can show they are not going to be a burden on the state.

  • SIV||

    But shikha says we should prioritize sick and deadbeat family members and public charges in general because CANADA!

  • SIV||

    (I once hired a cab in Toronto whose driver, a Russian immigrant, had a Ph.D. in physics but couldn’t find a job in a university.)

    CASE CLOSED. Damn that's some fine apocryphal cabbie anecdote analysis, Shikha.

  • KevinP||

    Immigration bill to bring in at least 33 million people, says group

    http://dailycaller.com/2013/04.....on-people/

    The vast majority of these people will be big government dependents, supporters and voters. This should rapidly advance the libertarian agenda.

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