« I Need To Treat My Computer Better | Main | Jane Galt, Defender of Mexicans »

June 22, 2007

Why Do Liberals Support Immigration?

I'm pretty late -- at least in the hyper-accelerated blur that passes for blog time -- to Ross Douthat's post on the animating assumptions behind liberal support for immigration, but it struck me as weird enough that I've spent the last few days determined to return to it. Ross argues that liberals support immigration as a sort of de facto humanitarianism -- though I don't really know what's de facto about it -- and goes on to say, "there’s something slightly perverse about pursuing humanitarian ends through policies that lower the incomes of your poorest citizens and raise the incomes of your richest citizens. If I proposed a new AIDS-in-Africa initiative and advocated funding it through a regressive tax that included a tax credit for families making over $75,000, I doubt that many liberals would line up behind the proposal."

Agreed. What a relief it's an inapt analogy!

It's often taken as gospel fact that immigration harms the wages of downscale workers. George Borjas, the Harvard economist whose figures are most often cited, argues that immigration cuts the wages of unskilled workers by about 7 percent. That's a fairly mild effect, and to turn Ross's argument around, there's something slightly perverse about eradicating the massive gains immigrants bring to both themselves and our economy in order to raise the incomes of our poorest citizens by seven percent. There are far easier, and far more positive-sum, policies that could enhance their incomes.

That said, it's not even clear that immigration does harm unskilled workers. Giovanni Peri, an economist at UC Davis, ran the numbers for California, and came to these conclusions:

• First, there is no evidence that the inflow of immigrants over the period 1960–2004 worsened the employment opportunities of natives with similar education and experience. The study finds no association between the inflow of immigrants and the out-migration of natives within the same education and age group.

• Second, according to our calculations, during 1990–2004, immigration induced a 4 percent real wage increase for the average native worker. This effect ranged from near zero (+0.2%) for wages of native high school dropouts and between 3 and 7 percent for native workers with at least a high school diploma.

Immigrants, it turns out, often act as complementary, rather than substitutive, to native laborers. As Peri puts it:

On first thought, it might seem that the simple economics of supply and demand would answer the question: What is the effect of immigrants on wages? Immigrants increase the supply of labor. Hence, they should decrease the wages of native workers, reduce their employment opportunities, or push them to other states. The question, however, is more subtle than this, because all workers are not the same: They differ by education, skills, and occupation and perform jobs and productive tasks different from and complementary...

In nontechnical terms, the wages of native workers could increase because the increased supply of migrants is likely to put native workers in jobs where they perform supervisory, managerial, training, and in general interactive and coordinating tasks, which makes them more productive. Moreover, the presence of new workers also implies higher demand for consumption, so that immigration might simply increase total production and demand without depressing wages.

All of which is to say, a lot of us don't accept Douthat's read of the economics. Immigrants appear to exert either a very mild downward pressure on unskilled worker wages, or a very mild upward pressure on their wages. Under both sets of assumptions, their overall economic impact is positive. It would be perverse to close off immigration, given the massive benefits it offers to immigrants, in light of these numbers. If we're concerned about directly raising the wages of unskilled workers, we should, uh, do so.

And we're not even getting into more intangible benefits of multiculturalism and diversity. Many liberals are pro-immigration not only because it's good for immigrants, but economically and culturally beneficial for
America. But that's a whole other post, and it's 5 o'clock on Friday.

June 22, 2007 in Immigration | Permalink


Immigration, like most issues, shouldn't be examined in a vaccuum. Liberals support immigration and they oppose the global trading system that makes conditions crappy or crappier in other countries and compels people to come to our country in order to reap the benefits of said global trading system. And even if immigration does marginally hurt low-skilled workers, well, liberals also support a variety of things that would more than offset the harm, like universal health care, jobs programs, tax reform, etc etc etc. In other words, the tears shed for the poor by immigration opponents are very much crocadilian.

And there is also, I'll grant--and maybe this is what Ross was getting at--a feeling among liberals that there is psychic, soul-bettering value to erring on the side of letting people come here, given that 99 percent of us are descendants of immigrants and that the first immigrants slaughtered some 20 millions native Americans, who, come to think of it, had much better reason that we to pass tough immigration laws.

Posted by: david mizner | Jun 22, 2007 5:57:23 PM

Swap the word "immigration" with "free trade" and the post still works!

* Humanitarianism, check.
* Doesn't actually lower wages, check.
* Policies can be used to mitigate possible effects, check.

I just don't get why liberals hate globalization, the most powerful anti-poverty force we possess.

Posted by: Jason | Jun 22, 2007 5:59:34 PM

I dont have time to look over the studies but I will say this about the notion of defacto humanitarianism, I think its true.

Many workers in America have a sincere reason to worry about the adverse effects of immigration. To begin with, even if there is only a 7% decrease in wages on American workers, that's still a significant hit for many who earn very little and can afford even less from weaker purchasing power.

As for the most vulnerable economic cohort of American society, urban Blacks, they too are hurt by immigrants. For example, Roger Waldinger, probably the best of his kind (no he is not an economist, economists often do not engage in the communties they study, only focusing on demographics and numbers--something truly limiting) wrote a book, "Still the Promised City" that sought to debunk the notion that Blacks and immigrants compete for jobs in the new global city. He insisted that blacks and immigrants participate in different niches--blacks in government/municipal jobs and immigrants in labor and enclave economy industries--and blacks tend to have outsized salary wishes. While this holds fairly true, many blacks--especially those disenfranchised like felons and the criminal class--wish to participate in labor, construction and various trades only to see those positions go to the lowest paid worker, often immigrants. This race to the bottom forces them to choose between accepting jobs well below a living wage or look for income elsewhere. Thus there are plenty of abled body individuals willing to perform the "work American do not wish to do." Futhermore, I must say that there is nothing unreasonable about native workers demanding a living wage only to see it pushed to the margins to fit the exigencies of business.

Concerning the humanitarian part of the equation, who benifits from a race to the bottom, native workers? I think not. Its businesses, owners, and the producer class who benifit the most. So suggesting that its a bit absurd that liberal/left supports the fattening of corporate coffers at the expense of native workers and by squeezing the lowly immigrants dry is not inconsistent thinking.

As a result their support is a bit disingenous and breaks down to being a humanitarian, you know, the whole, "nobody is illegal" campaign and so forth. Yes, they are a part of our economy, and a great service, but that does not mean that there is no sense to immigrant opposistion.

I personally support immigration and legalization of immigrants because they are as much a part of this country as I am. But blindly supporting continued immigration without safegaurds for native workers is a bit insincere.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 22, 2007 6:03:19 PM

Hold on a minute, binky. Cutting the wages of low-income workers-- folks who are barely scraping by-- is not a mild effect. Do you understand the anxiety of being poor when any unexpected expense can sink you?

Posted by: Michael Markman | Jun 22, 2007 6:06:31 PM

No, but a worst-case estimate of 7 percent is a mild number. If you want to boost the wages of that group, you'd be a fool to try and do it by closing the border. Expanding the EITC would be far, far easier and more effective, and it wouldn't hurt immigrants, either.

This stuff is not, as currently composed, zero-sum.

Posted by: Ezra | Jun 22, 2007 6:09:00 PM

To the extent that there is a negative effect on wages, it's an effect of the illegality, not the immigration. I think that's what (most) liberals recognize, and that's why we support liberalizing immigration laws.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jun 22, 2007 6:19:46 PM

I thought liberals cared about immigration because they tend to care about people, especially people who need help.

Just because someone was born south of the Rio Grande does not mean that he or she is not a person.

Posted by: Steve H. | Jun 22, 2007 6:25:52 PM

"Just because someone was born south of the Rio Grande does not mean that he or she is not a person."

It does mean however, that the US government should consider them only secondarily to US citizens. I dont see you advocating for the US to cover all the people of Mexico with Social Security, so I think even you agree with that.

We could do that you know. GWB could go to the Mexican president and say "you know our people are rich and you are poor. We're going to give your people access to our Social Security network because we have all this extra money to throw around"

All the liberals who support that idea, raise your hand. Otherwise close your mouths, hypocrites.

Posted by: joe blow | Jun 22, 2007 6:38:39 PM

BTW, farm wages in California are UNCHANGED SINCE 1970.

So dont give me this "7% decrease crap." In fact farm wages are the ONLY SECTOR IN THE ENTIRE CALIFORNIA ECONOMY in which wages are absolutely flat since 1970.

You guys can continue to pretend its not the illegal workforce causing those stagnant wages though. Its funny to see you guys stumbling all over yourselves to explain that away with "lies, damned lies, and statistics"

Posted by: joe blow | Jun 22, 2007 6:40:25 PM

Liberals don't support immigration, Jews do.

Posted by: adrian | Jun 22, 2007 6:43:48 PM

A few problems I have here:

1) The total disregard of the effect of immigration on African Americans. Among the most insincere ways in which this study and other of its ilk do away with this problem is the rather ambiguous treatment of unemployment. While this study does not discuss unemployment, it should be an important part of the immigrant narrative. Unemplyment rates usually consist of only those actively seeking employment. Not those who drop out of the labor force. Therefore, many blacks are neatly unaccounted for accoding to labor statistics. Thus to say "no association between the inflow of immigrants and the out-migration of natives within the same education and age group" is misleading. As a result many immigrant gateway cities may have as many as 40-50% of the African American adult male labor force unemployed/out of the labor market. While these losses were created by deindustrialization, immigrants do not help help alleviate the problem.

2)How does the EITC help the unemployed, Ezra.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 22, 2007 7:05:55 PM

My take is fairly simple: if you're going to have immigration, then: a) run it in a manner that doesn't invite comparisons to Brazil; b) pay for it, even if it's the one bit of government bureaucracy that born-in-the-USAers rarely encounter.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 22, 2007 7:07:55 PM

Free trade for completely free immigration might be a decent trade off. At least at that point labor would be closer to being mobile as capital.

Posted by: Eli | Jun 22, 2007 7:23:34 PM

Also if we had followed an EU model with Canada and Mexico with Nafta we could have have had a real effect on Mexicos living standards. Look at the successes in Europe with Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Posted by: Eli | Jun 22, 2007 7:25:30 PM

Please; Douthat possibly excepted, most immigration hardliners couldn't care less about unskilled workers.

The key, indispensible feature of any "enforcement-first" plan will be that the standard of success, before which a path to citizenship will be opened, will be by design unlikely to be achieved. The only benchmarks they will agree to will be so unrealistic that there is no danger of them ever being met. This is because the highest priority for the anti-immigrant faction is that anyone who emigrates illegally (especially Mexicans) never becomes an American citizen, no matter how long they've been here.

That would be a fair outcome to argue for (inhuman though it might be), if they would argue for it honestly. But they should say "enforcement only", instead of this mealy-mouthed "enforcement first" lie. And they should shut up about the workers already, since the permanent umbrage of millions of undocumented, the inevitable result of the policies they favor, would be a disaster for those workers.

Posted by: kth | Jun 22, 2007 7:30:21 PM

The key, indispensible feature of any "enforcement-first" plan will be that the standard of success, before which a path to citizenship will be opened, will be by design unlikely to be achieved. The only benchmarks they will agree to will be so unrealistic that there is no danger of them ever being met.

Exactly. The prescription, in that case, will be 'more enforcement! Higher walls! Sharks with fricking laser beams!' Because accepting the need for structural bureaucratic reform is quite beyond the loudest voices here. After all, it's only filthy foreigners who care what's going on at USCIS.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 22, 2007 8:01:02 PM

Joe Blow: Got a source on that claim that agricultural wages have been flat in California since 1970? And what do you mean by that? Growing only at the same rate as inflation?

Posted by: Michael B Sullivan | Jun 22, 2007 8:14:46 PM

Immigrant and native members of the working class have the same class interests.

Posted by: matt | Jun 22, 2007 8:55:10 PM

I thought liberals cared about immigration because they tend to care about people, especially people who need help.

Just because someone was born south of the Rio Grande does not mean that he or she is not a person.

Once again, swap "immigration" with "free trade."

Posted by: Jason | Jun 22, 2007 9:11:04 PM

I think the point is that immigration doesn't break down neatly into "liberals: for it; conservatives: against it." I think the current debate has been a terribly reductive one, and as I've said repeatedly, way too focused on Mexico as all our immigration policies need to address. "Liberals" are not in harmony on issues related to immigration, just as - and this seems to me the point of the Ezra/Ross debate - they are not lately in harmony on larger issues about labor in the US. There is, I think, a generalized sense among the "purple" - the urban mix of right and left especially on the coasts - that immigration is good because we like the melting pot, etc. That seems a lot different, and far removed, from the way folks in border states see these things. And I think that's why both the current debate and the current bill are so bad; the real dilemmas here, about the full picture of American immigration policy and how best to make way for people who come here, is being largely left ignored and unexamined. And without delving into it, and seeing that the dichotomies are not simply right/left, we can't really fix what's truly broken.

Posted by: weboy | Jun 22, 2007 9:51:00 PM

Not putting illegal immigrants in concentration camps is de facto humanism. Maybe that's what he means.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jun 23, 2007 8:52:27 AM

Ezra, you might also want to look at a famous paper on the effects of immigration on wages by David Card, "The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market." Card's paper shows results that are similar to Peri's, and has a similar explanation for them.

While I support immigration, a 7% reduction in wages is not a trivial matter, particularly for workers whose wages are so low to begin with. And while it's easy to say we can make up that 7% by increasing the EITC or the minimum wage or something, in practice those kinds of tradeoffs rarely happen. This is a mistake a lot of economists make -- assuming that we can mitigate the negative effect of policies like trade by enacting a Hicksian compensation scheme whereby the winners compensate the losers. That's great in theory, but the politics of it rarely work out that way. In the real world, winners want to hold on to their winnings, are unwilling to share.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Jun 23, 2007 9:18:10 AM

Ezra likes to ignore that that 7% isn't an absolute number, it's a cumulative one. They may reduce wages by 7% over 1 period, but that 7% compunds itself in the next period, and the period after that and so on and so forth until illegal immigration is dealt with. We've had this problem for several decades now, and we've had several decades of seeing real wages decline.

Add to that the iffy proposition of calculating where wages would be without illegal immigrants (something necessary if you're attempting to figure out how much illegal immigrants cost people.) All of you making this argument stand to gain monetarily from it. That automatically puts the honesty of your position into doubt in a way you don't really admit. You're making an argument that stands in the way of the balance of studies on this subject. You're making an argument that flies in the face of supply and demand (and no, lump of labor fallacies don't apply where immigration is not permanent). You're making an argument that does these things AND that you stand to benefit from. you're using "averages" of all workers and applying them to an issue that's strictly about members of the lower classes. Nobody is arguing that NOBODY wins from illegal immigration, we're arguing that the POOREST lose from illegal immigration.

And no Matt, we don't. REAL immigrants and working class people in this country have similar interests Guest workers and working class people in this country have opposing interests. Gues workers are a group of people that can not expand the economy, can not unionize, and can sends a large portion of their money out of our economy. Immigrants can start business, employ people, invest money locally and have access to collective bargaining. What Ezra has long

This is why you can't trust liberals. They are every bit as likely to exploit the lower classes for the gain of the upper classes. They just do so with prettier sounding rhetoric about free trade and employment opportunities for people who aren't there own. That's really the heart of it, Liberals don't understand that a leader has a duty to his own people before all others.

Immigration is good for American Business, not for America. America would be no weaker if we had a slightly smaller GDP. We won't be taken out by an outside force. If the liberal elite keep abandoning their duty to the lower classes, we will eat ourselves from within. They only seem to care about making sure that right women and rich black people have equality, while the poor are left to wallow in the mud regardless of what they look like.

Posted by: soullite | Jun 23, 2007 9:24:59 AM

Its illegal immigration used as a union-busting tool that harms the people in the bottom and middle of the income ladder. Legal immigration combined with strong protection of the right to organize has a lot more prospects for win-win outcomes.

And illegal immigration from Mexico in particular also undermines the political power of the poorest in Mexico, since Mexican citizens in the US with US work rights are far easier to reach and organize for voting in Mexican Presidential elections.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Jun 23, 2007 11:26:38 AM

Hey let's try out Ross Douthat's analogy. How about universal health care funded by an extremely regressive tax ? Why low and behold, (most) liberals are wildly enthusiastic about employer mandates which are just that. It seems liberals want the post tax US income distribution to be more equal but liberals are not monomaniacs. Hmmm how about the reverse Douthat -- would conservatives support a tax increase for the rich to fund, say, a war in Iraq (or more defence spending or incentives to pregnant women to not abort or well anything ?). The question is answered. Conservatives do not accept trade offs. They want everything now. I would not have imagined that an intelligent conservative like Douthat would have chosen to draw attention to this fact.

I would support a big anti aids program funded by a regressive tax with a tax credit for the rich (unless I hoped to get a big anti-aids program financed by a progressive tax). This is exactly the logic of my support for immigration and free trade. I would like to help low wage US workers by increasing the EITC, but, given the choice, I care even more about lower wage non US workers. It's called egalitarianism.

Prof Peri has a conflict of interest, since he is an immigrant. So am I (I immigrated to his native country). I actually tried to get him a job back at home, but he ended up over there anyway.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann | Jun 23, 2007 11:35:05 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.