Eric Ruark's picture


  by  Eric Ruark

Last month, the Center for Immigration Studies published a blog by Jason Richwine. Richwine, who knows well the debate over the economics of immigration, wrote:

No fair reading of the literature could conclude that economists believe immigration has only costs or only benefits.

Nevertheless, just about everything the American people are told by the corporate media promotes the idea that there is only an upside to mass immigration. As an example, Richwine quoted a headline from Vox that read “There’s no evidence that immigrants hurt any American workers.”

Vox regularly runs ridiculous headlines that go with their regularly ridiculous “newsplaining” of U.S. immigration policy – and one has to wonder whether that website is not a brilliant MAD Magazine-style send-up of contemporary journalism (R.I.P. Alfred E. Neuman) – but it is far from the only media outlet that purveys such nonsense.

Yes, there is economic literature supporting the position that immigration to the United States benefits everyone, and that the only downside to this is not every Americans appreciates how well-off they are. Some Americans even dare to question the expert consensus!

The problem is, arguments supporting the only-upside-to-immigration position are utterly unconvincing. They are based upon assumptions that, while possible within the realm of imagination, do not comport with observable reality; which is why the upside-only economists have to carefully choose their data, and ignore, as much as possible, the bulk of evidence contradicting their claims.

The real debate among economists is where does immigration have an effect within the economy and how much can that effect be quantified using economic metrics. This debate is based on plausible assumptions about how one thing (immigration) may affect another (the job and wage prospects of native workers).

There is a substantial body of literature that takes up these questions, and substantial disagreements over which answers are the correct ones. These substantial disagreements are not being presented to the American people in a substantive manner, at least not through the traditional media outlets, and certainly not in the political arena.

In his blog, Richwine references an important 2016 study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that surveyed the “economic and fiscal consequences of immigration.” Noting the negative wage effects of immigration on Americans, one of the patterns the NAS found in their survey of the economic literature was that:

…native dropouts tend to be more negatively affected by immigration than better-educated natives. Some research also suggests that, among those with low skill levels, the negative effect on native’s wages may be larger for disadvantaged minorities and Hispanic high school dropouts with poor English skills.

Media coverage of the NAS report was largely muted, and the coverage it did receive generally mischaracterized its findings. A glaring example was the write-up in The New York Times, which told its readers that the NAS hadn’t found something they weren’t looking for.

Since the NAS report, there have been many more examples of economists who have published works detailing some of the costs of immigration. Richwine lists a number of these publications, with a short summary of each. Anyone interested in a more comprehensive understanding of the academic literature would do well to take a look.

It may come as a surprise to some Americans who consider themselves to be well-versed on U.S. immigration policy to discover there other academics working on the issue besides Captain Complementarity, Giovanni Peri.

Economists Agree: Immigration Increases GDP

One great benefit of the internet age is that Americans have direct access to much of the relevant academic literature on the economics of immigration (and on virtually any topic, even if sometimes it’s behind a paywall). But, in reality, how many Americans have the time and the training to review academic papers in order to form political opinions about immigration policy? The answer, of course, is very few, so most turn to sources of information they find to be trustworthy or authoritative.

The challenge corporate media outlets are facing is that the internet has also allowed Americans to get their news and analysis from a variety of sources. This challenge has been exponentially compounded by the fact that many Americans have long been distrustful of the corporate media, which for so long dominated the public discourse. This distrust was apparent well before Donald Trump arrived on the political scene and decried “fake news.” A large reason for that distrust was the overwhelming failure of the media to report honestly on immigration and its effects on the lives of Americans, and its effort to stigmatize those who voiced support for immigration reductions.

The push-back against Harvard Professor George Borjas, under who Richwine studied, illustrates that point. It isn’t that Professor Borjas, in the words of Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation, is "literally the only economist of any repute who questions the economic benefits of immigration," it is that the corporate media is intent on perpetuating that myth and amplifying criticisms of Borjas’ work as a warning to other economists that they had better not deviate from the party line.

This is why Borjas has been such an important voice in the policy debate. He is willing to stand up and ask “who are you rooting for?” when it comes to the implementation of immigration policies. He, too, makes certain assumptions in his work, but he recognizes that economic outcomes are more important than theoretical exercises. Americans don’t vote based on what economists say, they make decision based on the experience of living their daily lives.

Borjas is far from the only one who questions the economic benefits of immigration, but he is the most prominent and has gained a wide audience as a public intellectual. A well-informed public is the expansionists’ worst nightmare, and so Borjas will continue to draw their ire, and will continue to easily deflect it with his wit and grace, and brilliance.

Given the volume, the viciousness of the accusations, and the exorbitant amount of money that has been spent by corporate media attacking Americans for favoring less immigration, is there any better example of an attempt to manufacture consent then the relentless narrative that American workers can never suffer any ill effect because of immigration?

That unless the United States admits tens of millions more immigrants over the next several decades, the economy will collapse and the government will go broke?

That the only solution to any of the problems we face as a nation is #MoreImmigration?

That’s why the absorption of Big Media by Big Tech is so troubling. Given where the Titans of Silicon Valley stand on immigration, is it any wonder that the confines on the public discourse over immigration continue to narrow as Facebook, Google, and Twitter increasingly decide what Americans need to know, and what they can’t say, about immigration.

Just last week the House of Representatives passed a “pro-growth” immigration bill demanded by the tech industry that was fiercely resisted by American tech workers. That resistance barely registered in the media. That’s no coincidence.

No one is disputing that immigration grows the U.S. economy, and no one is disputing that employers who can reduce their labor costs by hiring foreign workers can enjoy higher profit margins. What Americans are questioning is whether or not our current immigration system broadly benefits us and our fellow citizens, and many have come to the conclusion that it does not.

When it comes to immigration, the phrase “immigration grows the economy” is used by expansionists almost as much as “America is a nation of immigrants,” and it just as meaningless as a defense of current immigration policies. It makes as much sense as saying “The United States of America should hand out one million green cards a year because Kilroy Was Here.”

This is why the debate among economists matters, and why it’s important to have a general understanding of the various arguments. Economists don’t argue about immigration growing the U.S. economy, but they do argue about where within the economy that growth occurs, and how much this growth benefits or costs various subsets of the population.

NumbersUSA recognizes there are great benefits from immigration. We also recognize the great costs to the American people that result from our current immigration system. If those who defend the current system, and those who are constantly pushing for more immigration, would acknowledge the reality of benefits and costs, we could have a productive conversation about how to “fix the broken immigration system.”

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

Updated: Fri, Aug 2nd 2019 @ 12:00am EDT

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