Immigration is Good for America

Tyler Cowen makes the case for immigrants in his New York Times column:

We see the job-creating benefits of trade and immigration every day, even if we don’t always recognize them. As other papers by Professor Peri have shown, low-skilled immigrants usually fill gaps in American labor markets and generally enhance domestic business prospects rather than destroy jobs; this occurs because of an important phenomenon, the presence of what are known as “complementary” workers, namely those who add value to the work of others. An immigrant will often take a job as a construction worker, a drywall installer or a taxi driver, for example, while a native-born worker may end up being promoted to supervisor. And as immigrants succeed here, they help the United States develop strong business and social networks with the rest of the world, making it easier for us to do business with India, Brazil and most other countries, again creating more jobs. […]

The current skepticism has deadlocked prospects for immigration reform, even though no one is particularly happy with the status quo. Against that trend, we should be looking to immigration as a creative force in our economic favor. Allowing in more immigrants, skilled and unskilled, wouldn’t just create jobs. It could increase tax revenue, help finance Social Security, bring new home buyers and improve the business environment.

When a new person joins the economy, you have both complement effects and competition effects. People’s thinking tends to be dominated by the competition effect, but people should be pushed to think harder about this. For the competition effect to dominate an immigrant’s impact on your life, then his or her skill-set needs to be very similar to yours. If you’re a Spanish-speaking construction worker with very poor English, then the entry of an additional Spanish-speaking construction worker with very poor English is probably bad for you. And, again, when a new Ethiopian cook comes to DC that’s mostly competition for existing Ethiopian cooks.

Which is just to say that the people who primarily suffer from competition with immigrants are other immigrants and in the real world this isn’t where the center of gravity of anti-immigration politics is. So while I do think it’s important to keep pressing these economic arguments, I also think it’s important to keep in mind that they really aren’t the core of the concerns people have about immigration. And I don’t say that simply to dismiss those concerns—the practical gains from more immigration would be gigantic, so it’s worth confronting and addressing what bothers people as well as pushing back on the fallacies of anti-foreigner economics.