Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) recently penned an op-ed for the New York Times in which he calls for a large reduction in legal immigration, something he believes will raise American wages. It’s nice when immigration restrictionists are honest about their intention to cut legal immigration, but Senator Cotton would be disappointed if his policy ever came to fruition. Senator Cotton does make some cursory arguments for expanding high-skilled immigration—a positive policy—but I will focus here on his argument to restrict it. I will respond to a few of Senator Cotton’s comments below. His will be in block quotes while my responses will follow.
Higher wages, better benefits and more security for American workers are features, not bugs, of sound immigration reform. For too long, our immigration policy has skewed toward the interests of the wealthy and powerful: Employers get cheaper labor, and professionals get cheaper personal services like housekeeping. We now need an immigration policy that focuses less on the most powerful and more on everyone else.
Senator Cotton argues that skilled native workers are complementary to low-skilled immigrants, meaning that the former’s wages rise rather than fall when more of the latter arrive. This is because low-skilled immigrants and higher skilled workers don’t compete for the same jobs but instead work together, expanding productivity and compensation for both parties. These complementarities do exist, but there is also much evidence that lower-skilled American workers are actually complementary with low-skilled immigrants. Economists Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri found that immigration had a small positive relative effect on the wages of native workers with no high school degree (between +0.6 percent and +1.7 percent) and a small positive effect on average native wages (+0.6%) from 1990 to 2006. Immigrants are complementary to native workers but substitutable for other immigrants who experienced a substantial relative negative effect (−6.7 percent) from immigration. It should not be surprising that new immigrants compete with older immigrants who both share similar skills while native-born American workers benefit overall.