The case for low-skilled immigration

"Give us ancient lands, only your storied pomp!"

The settling in of the global economic crisis has sparked the predictable triad of reactionary political sentiment: protectionism, nationalism and anti-immigration(ism). Let’s focus on immigration.

The basic argument against immigration goes like this: why should a state liberalize its immigration policy when to do so only increases the stresses on an already slack labor market and an overburdened public services sector? Better to build a fence and hunker down for the winter.

A simple resolution to this would be to have an immigration policy that addresses those sectors of a state’s economy where labor shortages exist and attracts the kind of immigrant less likely to tax government budgets. And though this is largely a correct way to view things, one of the unnecessary consequences of this approach has been the explicit targeting of highly-skilled or exceedingly wealthy potential immigrants. For a bunch of FDI, a state will give permanent residence.*

This is fine. I have no problem with this policy per se. What I do have a problem with is how support of this policy often leads to the repudiation of low-skilled immigration, and by extension poor potential immigrants. “Give me your tired, your poor…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” has become “Actually, just give me your rich and PhDed.”

But why are the two policies (support of high-skilled or support of low-skilled) so often negatively correlated? Doesn’t a state need both engineers and food processors, doctors and maids?

The current case in America is a tight labor marked for low-skilled work in agriculture, food processing and manufacturing. And American workers either take themselves to be above such work (i.e., why am I picking tomatoes with a college degree?) or they find that the remuneration and benefit packages lie beneath their expectations.

What we’re generally talking about when we talk about low-skilled immigration is illegal immigration, which is one possible explanation for the persistent negative correlation referred to above. (Pretty much every politician claims to support legal immigration.) Although it shouldn’t be the case, it indeed is the case that most industrialized countries prioritize, i.e., legalize, highly-skilled immigration. It’s more politically palatable and conforms with the neo-liberal, competitive-state ideal. The idea here being that these immigrants benefit the economy more – they make more money, innovate more and contribute more revenue.

But this approach doesn’t attack the problem of labor shortages.** And too, it neglects to acknowledge the real benefits that immigrants of all types and skill-sets offer an economy. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, you still need to buy things at stores, buy food at markets and do all sorts of other things that help sustain a functioning economy.

I’m really tired of the “we need innovators” argument in support of highly-skilled immigration.*** It’s like, of course states need innovation, and if foreigners want to come over and innovate then a state should let them. (A priority in this regard should be to find ways to create – innovate? – the kinds of jobs college-educated kids actually want to do.) But innovators don’t only come dressed as Einsteins, they also come dressed in the clothes their poor immigrant forebears gave them.

* Interestingly, England, likely due to constraints of the EU’s single market policy, has decided to curb even its highly-skilled immigration policy.

** In fact, because of all the bureaucracy associated with legal immigration, illegal immigration actually targets fluid labor shortages more effectively. Of course the idea, from a policy standpoint, is to make legal immigration, like its illegal cousin, more responsive to economic conditions. This would also address the very real ethical problem of lax labor law and terrible working conditions many illegal immigrants deal with. See this excellent essay by Gordon Hanson from the Council on Foreign Relations.

*** The “innovators” argument is another example of the right setting the terms of the debate (immigration steals jobs) while the left drops fecklessly into their noise-cloud (no it doesn’t, immigration innovates).

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2 Responses to The case for low-skilled immigration

  1. solutions777 says:

    In the United States, there is no labor shortage for low skilled workers. There are plenty of unemployed unskilled workers in the US. The real issue is how to get them in the sectors of the economy that needs them.

    Another factor is not just the low skill worker immigrating to the US and over stressing infrastructure and the public services sector, it is the additional family member that come with the worker.

    Any nation can always use more wealthy and/or highly skilled individuals; no nation really needs more low skilled individuals.

    Censorship is evil.

    • buckcanyon says:

      I agree that the challenge is usually, as you say, to get workers into sectors of the economy that need them. I also agree that there are many additional constraints to an economy due to the additional family members that follow, in this case, low-skilled immigrants. However, I do not agree with your statement: “In the United States, there is no labor shortage for low skilled workers.” It simply isn’t the case. See the articles I’ve linked to in my post. The US supply of low-skilled labor, defined as workers with little schooling, is scarce. As Gordon Hanson writes in another article I link to in the Council on Foreign Relations, “Due to steady increases in high-school completion rates, native-born US workers with low schooling levels are increasingly hard to find.” A higher high-school completion rate is obviously a good thing. The problem is educated workers either don’t want to, or demand more benefits from, the kind of low-skilled labor positions that economies always need to fill.

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