Part 8: Q&A with Harvard's George Borjas

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Part 8: Q&A with Harvard's George Borjas

Click for complete story Monday, 3 September 2001 14:06 (ET)

Part 8: Q&A with Harvard's George Borjas

(Part 8 of UPI's 14-part series on U.S. immigration)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- George F. Borjas, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is a Cuban refugee who grew up in a Miami ghetto, received an Ivy League education and earned a doctorate. In 1999 Borjas published "Heaven's Door," which was sharply critical of U.S. immigration policy. He was interviewed by UPI Editor in Chief John O'Sullivan, Washington Bureau Chief Dan Olmsted, Congressional Bureau Chief Mark Benjamin and Senior White House Correspondent Nicholas Horrock.

Borjas suggests U.S. immigration policy focus on education and skills as well as family reunification, notes the income gap between Mexico and the United States is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world, and says an employer sanction program would help combat illegal immigration.

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Q: Can you give us your assessment of the broad impact of immigration on the United States?

A: Immigration really should be thought of as a redistribution program in the following sense. Immigrants come in, and the workers who are most like them will tend to be hurt by it. In the past 30 years or so, the typical immigrant coming into the United States tended to be somewhat less skilled than average. That means that over the past 30 years or so, the main people harmed by immigration tend to be less-skilled workers.

At the same time, because it is cheaper to hire less-skilled workers, those people who hire them or use their services tend to gain. That is what I mean when I say there is a redistribution going away from less-skilled workers who are already here and toward those who hire less-skilled workers or use their services. That redistribution is actually quite large.

That redistribution will tend to benefit the United States, but it is a very, very small benefit. That gain is really very trivial. The main impact is distributional.

At the same time, there is also a fiscal impact. And because of the type of immigrant we have tended to get over the last 30 years, who are generally less-skilled workers, that means we are now getting people who will tend to qualify for and participate in these types of (welfare and social) programs. There has been a very rapid rise in the fraction of immigrants who participate in welfare for the past 20 or 30 years.

As a result, the fiscal impact on the United States is also diverse.

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Q: If you examine and divide the benefits of immigration between the immigrant and the host community, how does that come out?

A: When I was discussing benefits just now, all I was talking about was the host community. Immigrants clearly benefit from immigration. That gain depends on how much wealth they accumulate in the United States as compared to what they would have done had they stayed behind.

We have very little data on what would have happened had they stayed behind. But the fact that very few immigrants leave tends to suggest that there is a sizable gain that accrues for them.

So, when people talk about how immigrants increase the gross domestic product by, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars, that may well be true. But most of that money goes to them in the flow of salaries and payments. So, yes there is a gain, but when I was talking about the net gain being relatively small, I was referring to the host community.

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Q: You have made a distinction between immigrants who have arrived over the last 30 years and earlier generations. One of the arguments your critics make is that previously immigrants have arrived here as the poor huddled masses and then go on to become university presidents, doctors and so on. Is this happening or is it not?

A: I think it is a very misleading comparison. It may well be true, in fact it is true that many people who arrived here 100 years ago were part of the huddled masses, were less skilled, and so on. But that assimilation experience really has very little bearing over what has happened over the last 30 years.

Just think about the historical circumstances in which that group assimilated 100 years ago.

First of all there was an immigration moratorium in 1924 more or less. It wasn't called a moratorium, but basically the law changed so as not to allow immigrant enclaves to thrive and grow. And that really accelerated assimilation.

There were also two world wars. Just to give you an idea of how important the wars were, in 1915 there were quite a lot of German newspapers in the United States. By 1920, half of those had disappeared, within 5 years. So, in other words, World War I was like a seismic event in encouraging assimilation. The same could be said for World War II for many of these immigrant groups.

In addition, the economy is very different. One hundred years ago, immigrants came and built up the manufacturing sector. Those manufacturing jobs are gone.

Believe it or not, three quarters of the workers at Ford Motor Company in 1920 were foreign born. Well, that is not going to happen today. So, the types of jobs the current economy is developing do not tend to be the types of jobs that low-skilled workers qualify for.

We also have a whole bunch of ... issues on top of all that. The whole ideology that dominated assimilation during much of the 20th century for immigrants is gone .... All of the historical, economic and social circumstances that allowed the group 100 years ago to thrive and assimilate are not present today.

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Q: Speaking of multiculturalism, in a society where one in five families speaks a foreign language at home, explain why in your view that might not be a positive.

A: There is a lot of evidence indicating that one of the best things that an immigrant can do to improve his economic status in the United States is to pick up the English language. Anything that discourages that will tend to retard assimilation.

So, the whole notion of multiculturalism and the ideology that is being taught in public schools today, where differences are sort of encouraged, all those institutional aspects really will retard assimilation.

Let me put it another way. If one were asked to come up with a plan to keep poor immigrants in their place, it is hard to think of a more effective one than not encouraging them to learn the English language.

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Q: Is the multiculturalism you are referring to really current, or has it become passť as well? English is the dominant world language. We are the greatest economic power in the world and you can't really do business with us unless you speak English. Is it possible that recent immigrants are assimilating but that our research data just hasn't kept up?

A: I don't know what the latest data will show because we do not have all of the 2000 census data yet. But there have been newspaper reports based on some of the data showing that the number of immigrant households that do not speak English is at a record high.

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Q: Why is that bad for the country?

A: It is not bad for the country; it is bad for the immigrants themselves. Immigrants could improve a lot in terms of economic status if they were to join the language mainstream.

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Q: The president appears to be thinking about establishing some sort of guest-worker program, but it is unclear whether that will apply only to Mexican immigrants or to immigrants from other countries as well. It is also unclear what happens at the end of that program. For example, we don't know if some of those guest workers might then be allowed to become citizens at the end. What are your thoughts on that?

A: There is a dirty little secret held by most immigration researchers ... that there is nothing more permanent than a guest worker.

Almost every documented case of guest workers all over the world backfired in the sense that the host country wanted to admit people for a while and then somehow be able to get rid of them a few years later, but that never happened.

So, what the president is really doing in a back-door-sort-of-way, is really to reformulate legal immigration ... One way or another, believe me, all of these guest workers will find a way of staying here somehow.

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Q: Short of just arming our border to the hilt, what could we do to retard this illegal flow that comes to us?

A: As far as we know, only about half of the illegal immigrants in the United States are of Mexican origin. That means that half are not, and they are getting in by some other method other than crossing the border. The way they usually get in is by coming with a tourist visa or a student visa and then overstaying the visa. No matter how much border patrol you put in, it will be very hard to capture those people that overstay their visas.

So, to handle the whole problem requires a whole new approach. That approach, I think, at some point will have to depend on a real employer sanction program. In other words, not only is it illegal to hire an illegal alien, but also those who do must actually pay for their lawbreaking. We don't have that penalty right now. The sanction program that we have in the United States is basically a joke. The only people who are affected by it are those people who hope to be in the Cabinet one day. Nobody else is really paying attention to that anymore.

It would take a new kind of program that is enforceable and that provides with really sizable penalties, neither of which do we have right now.

To be completely honest, once you start saying that we need an employer sanction program, there must be a way of employers being able to tell who is illegal and who is not illegal. That is where this thing falters because it raises all sorts of issues.

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Q: One idea is an internal passport. We have never had one. Do you think that is workable?

A: Most countries do it and somehow they manage. We have our credit cards scanned every day. Why can't we have something like that for employers being able to hire somebody?

For example, if you are an immigrant with a green card, why can't an employer scan that green card and tell if it is legal or not. So, at some point, something like that will have to be devised, we just don't have the will right now to do that.

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Q: The net affect would be that if illegal aliens were sighted, they would be deported?

A: That would be the idea, that if it were really hard for them to get jobs, there would be less incentive for them to migrate illegally.

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Q: What about those who are already here? Would there be an active effort to identify and remove them?

A: That is a good question. We already have nearly 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States right now. The question is what to do with them. That is a very hard issue.

I think amnesty, which is what the Bush plan was initially, is a terrible mistake. It is a terrible mistake because it is extremely unfair. Just think about the fact that it is taking now 22 years for a Filipino to migrate legally into the United States. For example, if you were a Filipino and you wanted your brother to come into the country, which you are legally entitled to, it would take 22 years for you to get your brother into the country.

And there are these long queues all over the world for people trying to get into the country legally. Sudden amnesty for 10 million illegals seems to be extremely unfair. It is also unfair to only do this for Mexicans, which is what the Bush plan was going to do. As I said before, half of them are not Mexicans.

I have not, in my own mind, figured out what is the best way of handling those 10 million people.

We already did it once, in 1986, when 3 million people were given amnesty. And that was considered to be a big number back then. Now we have three times as many. Are we going to be doing this every 10 years?

At some point, one has to draw the line.

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Q: Dealing just with Mexico, is there any way to control the movement back and forth like they do in the European Union? Otherwise we are going to have to guard the border forever.

A: The income gaps within the European Union are tiny compared to the income gap between Mexico and the United States. The income gap between Mexico and the United States is the largest income gap between any two contiguous countries in the world.

To give you an idea of what that means, an agricultural worker in Mexico basically increases his wages by 30 times just by crossing the border. Given that kind of income differential, it is very difficult to provide the sort of free-flowing border that people envision.

I think the only way incentives for immigration are reduced is if somehow that income gap narrows.

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Q: Our system of legal immigration seems to stress family reunification quite a bit, is that correct?

A: That is correct. Take the countries that are really big immigrant receivers of the world. Those countries happen to be Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

We are the only country, basically, that for a large portion of its visas looks at nothing but family connections in terms of awarding those visas. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand you look at family connections as well as a whole list of other factors, like education, occupation and language.

I happen to think that from a wholly economic point of view, it would be beneficial for the United States to consider variables other than family in awarding visas. I am not saying that families shouldn't count, but I do think that it should not be the only thing that counts.

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Q: What would you stress?

A: I would stress education. The structure of the U.S. economy has changed so much over the last 20 years. If we have learned anything from that, it is that skills pay a lot in the United States right now. There has been a huge increase in the demand for skilled workers, and the immigration has not really kept up with that.

I would say that we should switch the formula so to include family, as well as education and perhaps even language, in terms of what values we want to consider for awarding visas.

The fact is that there is always going to be more people who want to come to the United States than we are willing to admit. Let me give you a numerical example. The United States now raffles out about 50,000 visas through the so-called diversity lottery. The last time they had the lottery, we had 11 million applications for 50,000 visas.

So, the demand for entry into the United States is there and there is nothing that is going to change that. We are always going to have to choose between the various applicants. All I am saying is, let's use some factors that will provide an economic advantage to the United States as well as family.

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Q: Leaders of the Hispanic community are spending a great deal of time trying to convince Republicans that the Latino vote is "in play" and the GOP could capture more Latino voters from the Democrats. They stress how young the Hispanic population is, and their socially conservative views. Is that vote really in play?

A: I am not a political scientist, but I will tell you what I think.

To label Hispanics as a monolith is completely wrong. Hispanics are Cubans and Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Central Americans and so on and so forth. They are all unique and the only thing that holds them together is the language.

In terms of the bulk of the Hispanics, the Mexicans, I find the argument that the Mexican block is there for the Republicans to take is just wishful thinking. It is very unlikely that the Republican Party will ever attract as one of its constituent groups a block of voters who are one-third on welfare. That is basically what the Mexican-American population is in the United States. One-third receives assistance from the government. I somehow don't see that meshing in with the Republican Party.

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Q: Why do you think this issue has come up at this time?

A: That is a really good question. Why has it? Other than the political issue that was raised, I just find it unbelievable that the Bush administration is pursuing this. So, I don't know.

It all came up with (Mexican President Vicente) Fox proposing an open border, if you think about it, one year ago when he was first elected. And now we are sort of retreating from the open border idea, which is sort of nonsense, to an idea of total amnesty or maybe guest workers. I don't know what is going to happen.

I think that those political pressures and the political dreaming by the Republican Party that somehow the Hispanic vote is in play is what is driving this thing right now.

http://www.vny.com/cf/news/upidetail.cfm?QID=217021

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 07, 2001


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