The RAISE Act: the Good, the Bad and the Politically Possible/Impossible

As I reported here the other day, the White House has endorsed an immigration reform bill by Sens. Cotton and Perdue, known as the RAISE Act. The bill seems to be already drawing both support and fierce opposition. CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta was so upset about the Trump administration’s endorsement of the bill that he picked a fight with Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller during the latter’s press conference. Harvard economist George Borjas talks up the bill in a Politico column today. Here I will add my own comments.

The good:

RAISE plugs two longtime, gaping loopholes in immigration policy, both unintended consequences of the landmark 1965 Immigration Act.

First there is the problem of family reunification aspects in the policy set in 1965, specifically what today is called the Fourth Preference. Under this provision, U.S. citizens can sponsor their adult siblings for immigration. It was sold, I believe, as means to reunite families that had been split up by war, both World War II and various conflicts related to the Cold War. It was anticipated that the provision would be lightly used, and that most beneficiaries would be European. Though it may seem odd in 2017, especially to younger readers here, there was considerable fear in both parties at the time that the Act would bring in a flood of Africans and Asians. But it was pointed out that the (immigrant) African and Asian populations in the U.S. were tiny, thus resulting in very little usage of this part of the Act by those groups.

This of course turned out to be stunningly incorrect. I must interject here that I am glad for this, and strongly believe that the diversity that has resulted is a highly positive outcome for our nation. But it remains the case that the authors of the Act, and Congress as a whole, simply got it wrong. The Fourth Preference (called the Fifth at the time), turned out to completely change the demographics of the U.S. Congress missed that, as they had no inkling as to the intense desire of Asians and Latinos to immigrate to the U.S., nor did they realize the high level of resourcefulness with which the Asians/Latinos, especially the former, would be able to exploit the Fifth Preference provision. It resulted in what is now called chain migration — John sponsors his sister Mary, who immigrates with her husband Bill. The latter’s sister Barbara sponsors her husband, who in turn…well, you get the idea. John might also sponsor his elderly mother, who then sponsors her siblings, forming another chain.

And of course this now wasn’t really family reunification to remedy family splits due to war. On the contrary, it is almost entirely motivated by economics. One person comes here for a better life, thus deliberately DIS-unifying his family, and later sponsors the family members for “reunification.” And by the way, when A sponsors B, the latter often settles hundreds or thousands of miles away from A, straining the “reunification” idea further.

Congress has been aware of these distortions for a long time — decades. People in both parties have tried to shut down the Fourth Preference, but always have backed down in the face of heavy lobbying, e.g. by the Organization of Chinese Americans.

In recent years there has been renewed interest, again on both sides of the aisle, in repealing the Fourth Preference. The RAISE Act contains such a provision.

The other unforeseen consequence of the 1965 Act was skyrocketing usage of welfare by elderly Asian immigrants, primarily the Chinese and Koreans. This includes cash in the form of SSI, health care through Medicaid, government-subsidized senior housing and so on. These benefits are typically enjoyed by people who have never worked a day in the U.S., absolutely not the intent of the 1965 Act nor of the welfare system.

Congress became aware of this in the early 1990s, and reforms were made in 1993 and 1996, always in a bipartisan manner. But it is still a major problem.

Canada had a similar problem, so much so that a Chinese language pun developed, a play on the Chinese word for “Canada,” Jianada. Canada, the joke went, was really Dajiana, meaning “Everyone come and get it!” Accordingly, Canada has recently tightened up, and my understanding is that it does not allow elderly parents of immigrants to become citizens and thus become eligible for welfare. A parent can be a long-term visitor, but the sponsoring son or daughter must provide iron-clad proof of supporting the senior during the visit.

The RAISE Act contains a similar position. Note too that this also helps reduce chain migration.

The bad:

From my point of view, the bill has two major drawbacks. First, as I mentioned earlier today, I don’t like point systems, as they are elitist. I believe the nation benefits by having a diversity of socioeconomic classes in its immigration pool.

The second point is more subtle. Many of you are aware of various proposals to “staple a green card” to the diplomas of foreign STEM students earning master’s degrees or PhDs at U.S. universities. The immigration reform groups have rightly opposed such proposals, which would flood the STEM job market, greatly reducing wages and job opportunities for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. A particular harmful consequence would be to exacerbate the rampant age discrimination problem in the tech industry, since the Staple bills would apply to new graduates, who are young.

The problem is that RAISE would appear to have the same effect as Staple. It would give points for: earning a master’s or PhD; specializing in a STEM field; having good English; and being young — basically Staple a Green Card. (For those of you saying, as you read this, “My daughter’s TA in college had terrible English,” it’s the same point I discussed the other day: With the incentive of a green card, those TAs would go to huge efforts to develop whatever level of proficiency were required.)

Sorry, this would be a deal breaker for me, even if I did not already have one concerning the elitism.

The politically possible/impossible:

Clearly RAISE, if it ever even gets to committee, would face huge opposition from the Asian and Latino activist groups, and the wide array of entities that find high levels of immigration in their interest — the SIEU labor people, teachers, churches and so on, not to mention politicians with large Asian and Latino constituencies. But this may not be as difficult as it may appear.

For instance, I have seen various signs that the Chinese organizations have been shifting their emphasis from Fourth Preference to tech employer-sponsored green cards as a way to maintain/increase their numbers. If RAISE would throw in a provision for accelerated clearance of the current Fourth Preference backlog, the Chinese may be on board. And if a similar acceleration were done for the current huge backlog in employer-sponsored visas, the Indians would likely join in too.

The Latino groups would be a much tougher sell, though as Mark Krikorian has pointed out, adding DACA and similar programs could sway some of them.

But the opposition of the tech industry would be insurmountable. They would say that the point system, in spite of being tantamount to Staple a Green Card (albeit a finite version), would not give them the pinpoint accuracy they need in hiring for their special needs. Microsoft doesn’t hire many botanists, right?

The bottom line:

For the reasons I gave, RAISE is not my preferred solution. But it is a sound piece of legislation.

RAISE, in spite of what you hear on CNN, is thoroughly mainstream, similar to policy in several other liberal democracies. It fixes some longstanding problems. And maybe under RAISE the powers that be will decide that African-Americans can do a fine job of rebuilding a city post-hurricane after all.

Not being a DC insider, I don’t know whether RAISE is intended to go anywhere. It may simply be offered as a marker for future legislative proposals. Even as such, it likely will be brought into immigration discussions for quite some time.

Yikes! Two of My Favorite Economists Go Against Each Other

One of the classic academic studies of the effects of immigration on low-skilled Americans is that of David Card, concerning the Mariel Boatlift. Card found that the sudden Cuban influx had little or no adverse work impact on native African-Americans. Lately George Borjas, one of my favorite economists, has disputed Card’s findings, only to find my UC Davis colleague Giovanni Peri disagreeing. Needless to say, Borjas has been responding to Peri. And today I was taken aback to find that another of my favorite economists, Jennifer Hunt, also disagrees with Borjas.

I have been quite open in pointing out that Peri, while very sharp and by the way very personable, generally does not cite work by those taking views opposite his — a grievous academic transgression — and is prone to contradicting his own work, as I have explained before and is also seen in the first link above. Card is highly prominent, in part because of his pro-immigration, pro-labor work, but I have seen serious indications of his bias as well.

But Borjas and Hunt are the real deal. George may have a viewpoint, but I have never seen anything other than fully professional behavior on his part. To my knowledge, no one has ever accused Jennifer of bias either.

I have not read the papers on the boatlift by any of the above, and I do not intend to, because I believe that this is a question — like many — that can’t be settled by numbers alone.

As a statistician — and all of those papers are purely statistical, nothing really drawing upon economic theory — I have always stressed to my students and my consulting clients the importance of complementing the quantitative with the qualitative. Do the numbers make sense in light of qualitative knowledge, and if not, can the discrepancy be reconciled?

What qualitative knowledge can we draw upon here? There are well-documented examples of immigrant Latinos be hired in lieu of — indeed, replacing — native blacks, such as the case of black LA janitors. There is the infamous example of Hurricane Katrina, in which African-Americans had been hired to clean up and rebuild, only to be told soon afterward that they were fired, because “The Mexicans have arrived.”

So, sorry to say this Jennifer and Giovanni, but I think it’s obvious that the arrival of the Marielitos did adversely impact local black workers. There remains the question of degree and extent of impact, and though some have described the boatlift as a “natural economic experiment,” ideal for settling the question of whether immigration harms blacks, I continue to maintain it just is not possible using just data.

But for the purpose of assessing White House adviser Stephen Miller’s claims in support of the new RAISE bill (second link above), I have to side with him. Mind you, I don’t support the bill — I don’t like points systems, as I would like to see a mix of immigrants socioeconomically, racially and so on — but there is far more to this issue than “He said, she said” academic papers.

Followup on the English Issue

Judging from some comments I’ve been receiving, I see that many still don’t get my point about the impact of requiring legal immigrants to know English. Actually, I suspect that even Stephen Miller doesn’t understand this.

To make the point most clearly, suppose that Congress adds the English requirement but makes no other changes (i.e. no point system etc.). My point is that the same people would come here, with and without an English requirement. Those of you who are thinking that this means the main people who immigrate are the college educated have it wrong. The blue collar, lesser-educated people are highly motivated to immigrate and thus WILL develop the necessary level of proficiency in order to attain a green card.

As I mentioned, long ago I was an ESL instructor in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (The story of how I got there is interesting but a tangent here.) I taught mainly ESL 50, the lowest level. Actually, the lowest had been ESL 100, but so many immigrated knowing next to nothing that the city instituted an even lower course. Most were not high school graduates, and basically knew the ABCs; some didn’t even have that. But they all learned, and by the end of the semester most were fit to work in a low-level service job in which English is spoken, and I would set this level as the requirement. Had English been a requirement for their green cards, they would have picked up their English back home before they immigrated.

By the way, refugee status is not the same as a green card. Refugees may arrive under circumstances that do not give them time to learn English before coming here. But under current law, they can apply for green cards after a year in the U.S., and again that would give them time to come up to speed in English.

Miller vs. Acosta

I seldom call for a journalist to be fired, but the behavior of Jim Acosta of CNN in today’s briefing by White House adviser Stephen Miller was disgraceful and inexcusable. Acosta was acting like an opposition party politician, not a professional journalist.

But my main point in this blog post is to explain why Acosta was wrong. First, though he may be correct in saying that a points-based immigration policy would be a radical change for the U.S., it is the approach taken by Canada and Australia, whose systems I’ve never heard criticized by CNN/Acosta. Indeed, a points-based policy was the basis of the bipartisan 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill. And to my recollection, no one at CNN opposed that approach, including Acosta. In other words, CNN/Acosta’s view of a bill depends on who supports it, not its content.

I personally have never been a fan of points-based systems, and I don’t believe something like it would be approved in the U.S. But Acosta is being hypocritical and, again, unprofessional.

The point I most wish to bring up here, though, is the objection Acosta had to requiring immigrants to know English as a precondition for being granted a green card. I have been advocating that for 20 years, and I am speaking on more than just armchair punditry, as I am a former ESL teacher in San Francisco’s Chinatown (I usually teach the sub-beginner course), and am someone who has been immersed in Chinese-immigrant communities for 30 years.

Let me state the obvious: English is a lot harder for Chinese people to learn than for, say, Spanish-speaking people to learn. And yet the Chinese do learn, because they know their success in the U.S. depends on it.

Moreover, if it were required that potential Chinese immigrants learn English back home before immigrating, they would learn English back home before immigrating. They would do this because of their intense desire to immigrate. There are lots of learning tools on the Web, and I guarantee you that English tutorial companies would spring up in China like mushrooms after a rain. They would not be of high quality, but they would be good enough. Even as it is, if you go into a bookstore in any Chinese city, you will see many books, tapes and so on for learning English.

THIS IS A NON-PROBLEM, FOLKS. Having this requirement would help the U.S. and help the immigrants, a win-win situation if there ever was one.

And yes, if I wasn’t clear, Acosta should be fired.

H-1B: It is NOT a Matter of Degree

As any reader should know, I consider the biggest obstacle — indeed a danger — to genuine reform of the H-1B work visa program (other than lack of political will) is what I call the Intels Good, Infosyses Bad (IGIB) myth. The presumption there is that the Indian firms such as Infosys who hire H-1Bs and “rent” them to U.S. employers are the main abusers of the visa program, while those who hire H-1Bs directly, say Intel, use the program responsibly. Actually, any legislation based on IGIB will be based on a false premise, and will likely make things worse, not better.

The latest attempt to justify IGIB is an article in today’s Quartz, which shows that the (a) Intels tend to pay more than do the Infosyses and (b) the Intel H-1Bs tend to have master’s degrees while the Infosys ones have only a bachelor’s. Both (a) and (b) are true but highly misleading, as I will explain later in this post. (The data source is USCIS.)

I have explained why IGIB is a myth many times, such as in my Huffington Post op-ed:

A popular tack taken by industry lobbyists and their congressional allies is to blame Indian firms that hire H-1Bs and “rent” them out to mainstream companies. This is pure scapegoating and a veiled appeal to xenophobia. It’s an attempt by Silicon Valley firms to distract attention from their own abuses of the system. The data show that the Silicon Valley firms do indeed underpay their H-1Bs, and individual examples of abuse by household-name firms are disturbing, to say the least.

Cisco, for instance, was exposed as routing job applications from American engineers to an immigration law office, rather than to engineering managers, apparently to gather evidence that no qualified Americans were available for the job taken by a foreign worker. The immigration lawyer was deciding who was “qualified.” A former manager at Oracle accused the firm of justifying underpayment of an H-1B by saying, “It’s good money for an Indian.”

Promoters of IGIB make a point of the fact that the Intels tend to sponsor their foreign workers for green cards. This again is correct, but it actually is the reason that the Intels’ abuse of H-1B is even worse than that of the Infosyses. Green card sponsorship gives the Intels a huge incentive to give foreign workers preference over Americans in the hiring process. Again, from my HuffPo piece:

…sponsorship renders the workers de facto indentured servants…

This immobility is of huge value to many employers, as it means that a foreign worker can’t leave them in the lurch in the midst of an urgent project. In a 2012 meeting between Google and several researchers, including myself, the firm explained the advantage of hiring foreign workers: the company can’t prevent the departure of Americans, but the foreign workers are stuck. David Swaim, an immigration lawyer who designed Texas Instruments’ immigration policy and is now in private practice, overtly urges employers to hire foreign students instead of Americans.

Now returning to the Quartz article, its point that the Intels pay more than the Infosyses is accurate but obfuscates the issue, by misleadingly giving the impression that the Intels are not underpaying their foreign workers. The problem with that thinking is that the Intels are hiring a higher class of worker. As Quartz notes, the Intels’ H-1Bs tend to have a master’s degree, but it is not just that; it is an American master’s, not an Indian bachelor’s from a three-year program, a huge difference. Thus the Intels do indeed pay more, because they are hiring better-quality people. But they are still underpaying for the level of workers they are hiring. So the Intels/Infosyses pay disparity does NOT imply that the Intels are acting responsibly. As I’ve written before, it’s like buying a car: If you have a chance to buy a car at a 20% discount, it doesn’t matter whether you are buying a Corolla or a Camry; you’re getting a bargain either way.

There is also the vital point that both the Intels and the Infosyses hire mainly YOUNG foreign workers, to the major detriment of Americans over age 35.

You might ask, “Isn’t it better to hire people with master’s degrees? Doesn’t that justify IGIB?” This is the implicit message that the Intels give Congress and the press. Let’s take a close look at this.

One can immediately see big problems with that claim. First, if master’s degrees were so important, why do the Intels routinely reject qualified Americans at the master’s level, without even a phone call? Why don’t the Intels subsidize part-time master’s work for their employees, a perk that was standard in the past? The industry’s actions simply don’t live up to their words here.

And what is so magical about a master’s degree anyway? There is no standard MSCS curriculum, and a strong bachelor’s program will always beat a mediocre master’s. Indeed, in my EPI paper, I showed that Americans with a bachelor’s degree are on average stronger than foreign workers with a U.S. master’s. And of course, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison and so on never even finished their bachelor’s work.

American students know that a bachelor’s is enough, and many see no point to going further. On top of that, they are typically burdened with student loans to repay. So why forego two years of industry-level salary to pursue a master’s, even with a graduate assistantship?

Texas Instruments (see point about Swaim above) is one of the leading firms lobbying Congress for more H-1Bs. In my report on TI’s 2011 testimony to Congress, I wrote that TI’s remarks put the lie to the industry claim that not enough Americans study engineering:

Texas Instruments V.P. for HR Darla Whitaker…essentially admitted that all that “Johnnie Can’t Do Math” stuff was just slick PR…Ms. Whitaker stated that TI has plenty of engineering applicants with Bachelor’s degrees, and thus does not hire foreign workers at that level. She stated TI does hire H-1Bs, and sponsors them for green cards, at the Master’s and PhD levels, where she says there is a shortage. This naturally led one of the congresspeople on the committee to ask Whitaker, why don’t the American engineering students go on to grad school? She replied that she supposed that the American students were anxious to get out and start making money.

TI is one of the firms that, in the pre-H-1B days, used to subsidize their American engineers for master’s study.

Senator Grassley once said that “No one should be fooled” by the slick industry PR propaganda about H-1B. As shown above, slick as it is, the propaganda can be seen through with a little thought. Yet sadly, Grassley too now supports IGIB, and so do even some major H-1B critics.

The latter say that solving part of the H-1B problem, by clamping down on the Infosyses, is better than no remedy at all. But the bottom line has to be, Will any given legislation help or hurt Americans in STEM?

The fact is that the bills based on IGIB would make things worse for Americans. Many of those bills would raise the H-1B cap (on the grounds that it eliminates the abusers). Many others would grant automatic green cards for the Intels’ hired foreign students; this would be a major catastrophe, exacerbating the age discrimination issue (students are young), and adding tens of thousands of STEM workers per year as permanent fixtures to the STEM labor market, to the general detriment of the U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are already here.

Significantly, no bill features the one type of foreign worker expansion in the interests of the nation: Facilitate the immigration of the true “best and brightest.”

“No one should be fooled,” indeed.

Immigration, Crime and Terrorism

A few months ago, a journalist from a left-wing (not merely liberal) publication was interviewing me about the H-1B work visa. He had quoted me before, and was generally sympathetic to my views. At one point, the conversation turned to Pres. Trump’s views on immigration. I mentioned that though I hadn’t voted for Trump and had been critical of him in this blog and elsewhere, I feel he is often treated unfairly by the press, e.g. on the issue of immigration and crime — contrary to press claims, Trump never said that most immigrants, or even most Mexican immigrants, are criminals. His choice of words was, as always, completely blunt and unrefined, and without the obligatory disclaimers, but all he really said was that immigration brings some crime.

The reporter was mystified by this. He replied, in a “this is the fundamental truth and it’s a settled issue” kind of tone, “It’s well established that the crime rate among immigrants is lower than in the society at large.” This statement has been questioned by some, but my point is that it is not relevant; if safety is the concern, then what matters is the absolute number, not the rate.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, as of 2013 there were over 70,000 noncitizens in state and federal prisons. In addition, there is a certain number who haven’t been caught, or are awaiting trial, some naturalized citizens etc. Some are white collar criminals, of course, but even if the number of immigrants in prison for violence, drugs, prostitution/trafficking, burglary and so on is “only,” say, 50,000, that should worry almost anyone. This is 50,000 criminals who would not be in the U.S. if we had zero immigration. In terms of concern for our person and our property, this 50,000 figure is what counts, not the rate, i.e. not the percentage of immigrants who commit crimes. Even the left-wing reporter seemed taken aback when I pointed this out.

Clearly, I am not advocating a zero-immigration policy. No government policy is without drawbacks, and those of us who value immigration (who, I claim, comprise the vast majority of Americans) know that there will be some downsides. The questions, though, are: How many? Who? With what responsibilities? And so on. More simply: Where do we draw the line?

Whether deliberately or unconsciously, by simplistically dismissing the crime issue by saying, “The immigrant rate is lower,” the politicians and the press are not allowing the American people to develop informed opinions on this vital issue. This is criminal. (Pun intended; originally I planned  to title this post, “Criminal Statistics.”)

Keep this in mind in the coming weeks especially, as the trial of the accused killer of Kate Steinle in San Francisco is now starting. You will hear repeatedly from the pundits and immigration advocates that “The immigrant crime rate is lower,” when in fact that really is not the issue for public safety.

The issue of Pres. Trump’s temporary immigration ban from certain majority-Muslim countries is quite similar. Neither Trump, AG Sessions, White House Adviser Steve Bannon nor any other policymaker has claimed that most Muslims are possible terrorists. Obviously the rate is quite minuscule. And I personally opposed the ban even when it was just in the talking stage.

Nevertheless, it is a legitimate issue, not something for the Trump bashers. Remember, the Trump policy, still in litigation, took an Obama policy as its foundation, even listing the same seven Middle Eastern countries. And as with the crime case, the absolute number of terrorist incidents is what matters, not the rate.

Yet it is the rate, not the absolute number, that is the focus of an article in Scientific American, reprinted in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, titled, “Why Data Science Argues against a Muslim Ban.” This one is especially insidious, as it is cloaked in one of the hottest areas in today’s tech industry, Data Science. (Also known as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Predictive Analytics and so on.) The author is Eric Siegel, founder of the Predictive Analytics World conference series.

As you read the article, watch for the tell-tale signs, e.g. phrases like “more likely” and “less likely” — in other words, rates. That, after all, is what Data Science (DS) is all about. For instance, one of the big applications of DS is marketing, i.e. identifying customers who are more likely to purchase a certain product if shown an ad for it. So, let’s take a closer look at that, putting aside the absolute numbers vs. rate question, and focus on rates. They will be quite relevant to the Trump policy, in ways that Siegel isn’t telling you.

A good data scientist is really interested not just in direct rates, but also expected utility. If say in real estate even the most likely customers have low individual rates of responding to an ad for a $20 million estate, it still makes economic sense to target those most likely customers, since the payoff is so great.

In the case of potential terrorism, the expected utility is negative. But for the very same reasons, it pays to target the most likely candidates, even if their individual probabilities of terrorist activity are quite low. As Siegel points out, it would be ideal to use personal behavior to try to compute such probabilities. Yet look at the outrage from the immigrant advocates when the U.S. government has recently been attempting to do exactly that, by requiring that travelers from the specified countries provide their social media passwords.

Highly intrusive? Of course. But when weighed against the possibility of terrorism on U.S. soil, we must strike a balance, and it again becomes a question of, Where do we draw the line? Siegel is hypocritically obfuscating that issue.

And there is more: As we all know, the Obama people constructed the list of seven countries for travel restrictions (though not outright bans) specifically because those countries were identified as harboring terrorists. Any data scientist worth her logistic regression coefficients would use this information in her prediction model. Yet this is precisely what the article here is objecting to, Pres. Trump’s singling out those seven countries, because Siegel doesn’t like the fact that they are majority-Muslim.

Returning to the issue of absolute numbers, so far we have had just a few per year in the U.S., say 5-6 including foiled plots. Is that tolerable? What if it were to rise to 25-26?

So, one more time: The question is, Where do we draw the line? Do we want Trump’s line, Obama’s line, or Siegel’s line? These are ordered from safest to most dangerous, while also being ordered from least- to most-protective of civil liberties. You be the judge. Just don’t let people like Siegel fool you in the name of Data Science.