News ID: 209020
Published: 1100 GMT January 29, 2018

There are no good arguments against high skilled immigrants

There are no good arguments against high skilled immigrants

By Adam Ozimek*

There is a weird path that immigration restrictionists take that I'd like to call attention to. First, they list a whole lot of potential problems they see with low skill immigration.

Many don't speak English, they have lower than average income and therefore are a net fiscal burden, they compete with low skilled natives who need help the most, and they sort into enclaves with problematic cultural features like high crime and low employment. Then they use these arguments to say that we should push our immigration system towards more high skilled, according to

Finally, and here is the weird part, they argue that our new high skilled immigration system should also let in less people. So if we first fix all the problems you have with immigrants, then what's the remaining problem that lower numbers are addressing?

Is there some hypothesized or actual problem that occurs when we have too many doctors from India? Too many programmers from China? Too many MBAs from Nigeria? It's hard to see one. And you certainly wouldn't know it from 99 percent of the arguments you hear from nativists, which focus on skill levels, fiscal contributions, literacy, English speaking, murder rates, and gangs.

The fact is that not only do these arguments against low skilled immigrants fail to explain the problem with high skilled immigrants, but the vast majority of them are arguments for more high skilled immigration.

We should worry about the fiscal contribution of the population? Okay, high skilled immigrants contribute more than the average native. We should worry about the effects on inequality and low skilled natives? Okay, high skilled immigrants mean cheaper services and higher relative wages for low-skilled natives. The IQ of the population is an important determinant of a variety of outcomes? Great, high skilled immigrants will raise the national average IQ.

High skilled immigrants basically turn all the arguments against low skilled immigrants on their head. The vast majority of the nativist arguments, if you believe them, are arguments for greater numbers of high skilled immigrants.

So what then is their problem with high skilled immigrants? It must be reduced to vague cultural concerns. They bring their cultures with them, and this dilutes our culture somehow. And given that high skilled immigrants are likely to have better literacy, higher employment rates, and lower crime rates than the average native, you're left with only a subset of culture about which to be concerned.

Okay let's assume there's something there. Some part of these disparate cultures we are worried about. How important is that compared to the educational, skill, fiscal, and other positives they bring with them?  It's very odd to pivot from the education and skill-mix of the population is so massively important that low-skilled immigrants are killing this country to those facts being secondary to vague concerns about some subset of culture when it comes to high skilled immigrants.

And again, by culture this can't be the usual cultural complains about low-skilled immigrants, but something else. What is this massively important X factor that trumps all the other benefits at current margins?

This doesn't mean we need to open borders to high skilled immigrants. One possible concern is simply stability. If you have too many immigrants flowing in at once, this could flood select local markets and temporarily generate  severe housing market crowding and strain institutions.

We also need to process and screen immigrants, and the governments ability to do that is limited. We can even accept that there are potential vague X factors to worry about even if they aren't clear at current levels.

With stability and vague X factors in mind, the safe bet is to stay well below historical flow rates by simply doubling the current inflow of about a million a year to two million a year. Of course depending on the supply of skilled immigrants, constraints and quotas might not be necessary to stay at reasonable rates.

I can feel the nativists blood pressure rising at the suggestion that we'd raise immigration in the age of Trump, but that's the conclusion if you actually take their arguments against low skilled immigration seriously. 

If instead you simply want to blame racism and xenophobia for nativism and argue that we simply have to bargain with it, then that is an argument to make. But then stop guffawing at the snooty nosed cosmopolitans who ignore problems X,Y, and Z with low skilled immigration, and stop treating nativist complaints about those problems as sincere when they are abandoned conveniently when they justify greater high skilled immigration.


*Adam Ozimek is a senior economist at Moody's Analytics.

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