This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Is Immigration Good For America?

This is almost a silly question, because the obvious answer is YES. Yet, for most of American history, including now in the midst of the latest discussions on immigration reform, it has not seemed obvious to a lot of people, despite the country priding itself on being a nation of immigrants. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the 1929 Immigration Act which severely limited immigration from anywhere but Europe (and which was not dismantled until 1965), Congress has been ambivalent, at best, about the value of immigration. Matthew Yglesias of Slate takes up this issue in a blog post emphasizing the point that immigration raises American incomes, no matter how the critics might try to twist the facts around.
There's an awful lot of issues about which reputable economics literature disagrees. One exception to that is the hot-button topic of immigration, where everyone's research indicates that immigration is economically beneficial to America. As I wrote last week, even immigration restrictionists' favorite labor economist George Borjas has done research that clearly shows this, requiring the application of a very strange moral calculus to make immigration look bad.
Without immigrants, services would be harder to come by, and most things related to everyday life would likely cost more.
Immigrants pick crops and build houses. They work in meatpacking plants and fast food restaurants. They clean hotel rooms. They also write computer software and treat sick people. It would be foolish to pretend that there's zero distributional impact of all this, but the idea that "users of immigrants" is some discrete class of people whose interests need to be weighed against those of wage-earners is a delusion. The big winner across the board would be retired people, who consume services but don't earn wages. Like the fact that the big economic loser from increased levels of immigration is previous immigrants (who face the most direct labor market competition) this should be a clear sign that immigration politics isn't about economics. If it were, you'd have a bunch of cantankerous old white people demanding open borders while young Latinos argue for pulling up the ladder of migration opportunity. In reality, you get exactly the reverse as people's policy preferences track their cultural affinities or phobias.
The latter point is the key to the debate, of course. Immigration discussions are not about economics, they are about the perception of cultural change. In the end, as I have said so often, it all comes back to xenophobia.

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