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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

George Borjas: Are Opponents Of The Immigration Bill Anti-Hispanic?

George Borjas asks what might have motivated opposition to the immigration bill:

Are Opponents Of The Immigration Bill Anti-Hispanic?, by George Borjas: ...The accusation that skeptics of the immigration bill are xenophobic, racist, anti-Hispanic--whatever!--is not new. It is a tried-and-true method of stifling debate. Unfortunately, playing this particular race card often works in the kind of world we live in.

The fact is: different people have different motives for taking positions on contentious social policy issues. Surely some of those skeptics are guilty as accused. But many are not. Moreover, their accusers have their own set of motives and axes to grind. Immigration skeptics do not have a monopoly on bigotry. It all reminds me of the debate over welfare policy eons ago. Because a disproportionately large number of female-headed households on welfare were black, critics of the welfare system were often accused of masking their true racist intentions. In hindsight, it's pretty clear that the welfare critics were right: the welfare system "as we knew it" provided distorted incentives--incentives that encouraged more welfare, less work, more poverty. ...

Most of us who oppose the immigration reform bill are making a similar argument: It too leads to distorted incentives. The amnesty will likely encourage more illegal immigration; the guest worker program will increase profits for employers, but at the cost of a two-tier labor market with an easily exploitable workforce and lower wages for native workers; and the guest workers themselves have a huge economic incentive to become permanent settlers, even if doing so means becoming illegal immigrants.

So there are very good reasons to oppose Bush's immigration proposal. I suspect that it is the common sense intuition behind these arguments that leads the bill's supporters to lash out at those who disagree with them. And since it is difficult for them to argue on the basis of the merits, they choose to stifle debate the only way they can: by playing the race card.

Let me try something. Here are two scenarios:

  1. A farmer hires a guest worker from Mexico to drive a tractor and plow a field.
  2. Using technology, a camera is mounted on the front of the tractor and connected to the internet in a way that allows a worker in Mexico to sit in front of a computer screen and plow the field by steering the tractor remotely.

To make it simple, assume it costs the farmer the same amount either way, and the quality of the work is identical.

In both cases, the effect on the wages of domestic workers is similar - wages would tend to be depressed by the expanded supply of labor available to do the job, though the magnitudes could differ if, say, 2 made more labor available than 1.

There are differences. One is, obviously, where the workers and their families live, go to school, get health care, etc. Another is where they spend (at least part of) their paychecks and who collects the payroll and sales taxes the wages and spending generate.

-- I can imagine people whose primary concern is the effect of immigration or offshoring on domestic labor markets and wages opposing both 1 and 2.

-- It seems people who are "are xenophobic, racist, anti-Hispanic--whatever!" but supportive of globalization in general would oppose 1 but support 2. However, if they use the effect on wages as cover, then they too would oppose both.

-- People who are "cosmopolitan" types, would support both 1 and 2. Winners from immigration and offshoring are also more likely to support both.

-- It's harder to think of why someone might support 1, but oppose 2, except perhaps if they'd rather have as much of the income as possible paid and spent domestically, or if they believe that work conditions in the home country would be deplorable and hence it is better to have the workers come here as guests.

    Posted by on Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Immigration, Policy, Politics, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (59)


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