I have long complained that The Great Immigration Debate is short on both facts and participants (Congress doesn’t seek our input). So in response to the recent A Day Without Immigrants campaign, I am hereby declaring A Day Without Immigration Rhetoric. In order to give everyone time to prepare, I’ve set the date to be April 1. 🙂
OK, OK, forgive the tongue-in-cheek lead, but of course I was absolutely serious in that first sentence. The two sides have been talking past each other, typically with unsupported, sometimes deliberately deceptive arguments. Those who know my view won’t be surprised to hear me say that I find the Restrictionist side to be the more responsible one, but only relative to the Let in As Many As Possible side.
What sparked this post today was an article in the California Aggie, the student newspaper at my university, UC Davis (it does not appear to be online yet), which unwittingly brings up a number of issues related to these themes.
The article’s headline and lead report that Ali Baba, a popular Middle Eastern fast food cafe in town, closed in observance of A Day Without Immigrants, especially in protest of President Trump’s recent temporary travel ban; Ali Baba terms the action “unconstitutional.” The article then gives the usual pro-immigration quotes, but I was startled by one from a DC think tank that is generally regarded as leaning toward tightening up a bit in national immigration policy.
That think tank is the Economic Policy Institute. The article refers to a quote by ABC News of EPI Director of Immigration Policy and Research Daniel Costa, who noted that if all immigrants were to disappear tomorrow, our nation’s economy would be devastated. He cited construction and IT as examples.
I have enormous respect for EPI in general and Daniel in particular. But clearly he was setting up a straw man. Any sudden disruption to any system would likely cause turmoil, but that is irrelevant to the question of designing good long-term policy.
Moreover, the quote illustrates one of the most prevalent and pernicious types of fallacies in the immigration debate, the notion that without immigrants from Widgetland, we would have no one available to work in our bustling widget factories. And that is indeed a fallacy in most cases, sometimes directly demonstrably so.
Take construction, for example. Many of you will recall that after the ravaging of the New Orleans area by Hurricane Katrina, some local African-Americans were hired to help rebuild. But after a couple of days, their supervisor told them, “Y’all are fired, because the Mexicans have arrived.” Or consider the case of the security baggage screeners at SFO. They used to be almost exclusively Filipinos, and it was claimed that this simply wasn’t a job that mainstream people wanted to do. But after 9/11, Congress mandated that (a) the workers be citizens (the Filipinos were mainly green card holders) and (b) the workers be paid a decent wage. Lo and behold, TSA was inundated with applications from mainstream Americans. Today, the screeners at SFO are models of — dare I use the term? — diversity.
I teach computer science, and I would estimate that at least 75% of my American (not foreign student) undergraduate students are children of immigrants. You’d be amazed to see how many of them have first names beginning with Z — Chinese, Eastern European, Indian, Middle Eastern and so on. In other words, without immigration, most of my students wouldn’t be in my classes. And for that matter, without immigration, neither would I myself be in my classes; indeed, I would not exist. 🙂 But I won’t flatter myself into thinking that there wouldn’t be someone else teaching CS instead of me, and that there wouldn’t be a student body whose roots go back more than just one or two generations. After all, most universities worldwide do not rely on children of immigrants to populate their classes.
In fact, in the case of IT, I have written — ironically, in a report for EPI — that the immigrant workers in the CS field are on average slightly weaker than their native peers. Note carefully that my analysis involved the former foreign students in U.S. universities, the immigrant group the industry considers the best of the ones coming from abroad. In other words, I have argued that on the whole, immigration has harmed the tech industry, and with it the American economy and ability to compete internationally. (I have thus called for stringent restrictions on work visas and employer-sponsored green cards, but liberalizing the aspects of our current policy for visas and green cards for the truly Best and Brightest.)
One more point about the Aggie article: In reporting the widespread participation in A Day Without Immigrants, the story cites rates of nonattendance in various schools that day. In particular, it seems, a KIPP school in Dallas had droves of kids staying home. Fine, but KIPP schools are designed to help disadvantaged, low-income, typically minority kids do well academically and aspire to college. Assuming that a substantial number of those Dallas KIPP kids were from immigrant Latino families, the incident illustrates a sad truth: Immigration policy has winners and losers, and the losers tend to be minority/low-income folks, especially African-Americans. We know from study after study that this group is harmed in terms of work opportunities (see Katrina above), but it is seldom mentioned that resources aimed at improving academics for the lower class are spread thin by the large influx of working-class, poorly-educated immigrants. We must serve ALL kids in this category, but with highly limited resources to do so, immigration has a direct adverse impact.
In other words, the KIPP example, which the article is presenting as evidence that the populace wants more immigration, actually is an argument for having less immigration.
There are many such considerations arguing for tightening up on immigration. At the same time, there are other reasonable arguments for liberalizing policy. Where do we draw the line?
We as a nation need to discuss just what it is that we want from immigration, and how to achieve it. Unfortunately, no one is asking for our input on this, but even if someone did so, we be so handicapped by the paucity of fair, insightful analysis that our inputs would not be so meaningful after all. So, see y’all on April 1.