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Immigration: Here, There, and Everywhere

The Editorial Board
July 5, 2015

But Beware the Big Business Agenda

An Editorial from the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Statue constructionTHERE IS AN EASY PART and a hard part to the immigration question in the United States and worldwide.

The easy part is what to do with those already living in our country without documentation: Embrace them and help them to integrate into the economy and society, while supporting their efforts to maintain their culture. Create a path to citizenship that is relatively quick and inexpensive, and immediately give them all the rights enjoyed by Americans and access to all benefits provided by state and federal social welfare programs. Continue to recognize all children born in the U.S. as citizens. And urge our hemispheric neighbors and developed countries around the world to legalize their own undocumented immigrants and organize themselves to welcome more immigrants.

Embracing immigrants is good for the economy. About five years ago, the mainstream news media gave little notice to a study [PDF] by University of California economist Giovanni Peri, released by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, that uses advanced statistical analysis to measure the short and long-term impact of immigration on jobs, wages, productivity, and business investment in the U.S. over the past few decades. Peri found that immigration does not take jobs away from U.S.-born workers. In fact, the wages of the average U.S. worker actually increase a bit when immigration increases. So does the productivity of the economy. “[O]n net,” Peri concluded, “immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity... [with] no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs” for U.S.-born workers.

Immigration is also an important weapon against the three-headed international monster of climate change, overpopulation, and resource shortages. The U.S. now has an historically low rate of population growth — apart from immigrants — and Russia, Japan, and most of Europe also have shrinking and aging populations. This is a direct cause of economic stagnation. Bringing more people into prosperous regions will help industrialized nations maintain their economies, and may also gradually lower the world population (prosperity generally brings smaller families) and ease the tension that exists between lowering carbon emissions and improving the lot of developing nations.

THE HARD PART of the immigration question is evaluating the scope of legal immigration. When corporate leaders and business associations come out in favor of immigration reform, as they often do these days, their primary interest is to make it easier to hire knowledge workers from other countries. Disney’s recent replacement of 250 technical workers with lower-paid immigrants is a prime example of the strategy: By convincing the U.S. to grant more visas for knowledge workers, companies can drive down the salaries for such occupations, while also making it easier to obtain foreign investors with ready money for new business operations and real estate.

It is humanitarianism and a concern for social justice, rather than big-business interests, that should drive our immigration policies. The highest priority should go to victims of war, famine, revolt, and natural disasters. After that, we should make sure that the mix of professions and incomes we allow in will serve our actual well- being, not just the big business agenda.

THE POSITIVE EFFECTS of embracing immigrants would be maximized by a major rise in the minimum wage, new laws that make it easier to unionize, an end to special tax breaks for capital gains, and much higher in- come-tax rates for those making more than $200,000 a year. All of these measures would combine to create a healthy and more equitable U.S. economy, in which the entrepreneurial and hard-working energies that most immigrants display would help lift all boats.

As for the enforcement question, it basically boils down to “How do we keep more undocumented immigrants from crossing our borders?” The complicating factor is the fear of foreign terrorists slinking in, to which the U.S. has responded with overkill, with calls for a high wall between the United States and Mexico (but not Canada!).

The last twenty years has demonstrated that the level of undocumented immigration is a function of two factors: political unrest, and the relative performance of the U.S. economy compared to those of countries from which people are fleeing. A more open policy for those seeking asylum from war, famine or natural disasters would therefore likely reduce the undocumented flow by at least a small amount, as would efforts to address wealth inequality within and between nations.

At the end of the day, however, making sure that the free movement of people does not result in either worldwide or country-specific economic or social problems will take a global approach. In May, European Union authorities urged member states to accept quotas of Middle Eastern and African immigrants to relieve the burden on the southern EU nations, which have been flooded with refugees. The plan deserves to be globalized to include all the major industrialized countries.