International Economics, Development & Immigration

January 8, 2021 4:09PM

Election Results in Georgia Open Potential Path to Immigration Reform: Here Are Some Ideas

Georgia Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler lost to Democrats Jon Ossof and Raphael Warnock in a tight election. The Senate now has 50 Democrats (including 2 independents who caucus with Democrats) and 50 Republicans. With Kamala Harris as a tie-breaker, Democrats will now have an opportunity to reform the immigration system in 2021 as they will control Congress and the Presidency. President-elect Joe Biden said that he will “introduce” an immigration reform bill

This bodes well for immigration reform becoming law as the median voters in the Senate will be moderates like Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV). Because the median voters in the Senate are moderate and the bill will need some Republican support, any legislation will also be moderate. The riots in the Capitol have also unified the Democrats so they will be able to push more effectively for reform. The House of Representatives will pass better immigration reform bills that the Senate will then water down, but there is a much better chance that they will attempt to pass legislation.

A Senate bill will also have to attract some Republican votes. Fourteen Republican Senators voted for the 2013 immigration reform bill, just over 30 percent of the GOP delegation. There is no way that 30 percent of Republican Senators would vote for a similar immigration reform bill today unless many in the GOP believe that Trumpist nativism is one of the main reasons that they lost the Senate. This is more possible now because both Loeffler and Perdue were anti-immigration. Senator Perdue even cosponsored the RAISE Act, the most anti-legal immigration piece of legislation proposed in a generation. Senator Perdue did sponsor a bill in 2020 to recapture unused green cards and give them to medical professionals, but that did not salvage his reputation.

Convincing 10 Republican Senators to vote for an immigration reform bill requires it to be watered down or split into numerous pieces. Numerous bills with small and attainable goals would be better and may result in some of the positive aspects of immigration reform becoming law, such as legalization for illegal immigrants and (less likely) some expansion of green cards, while avoiding mandatory E-Verify or boosting immigration enforcement. To be clear, moderate reforms are more likely to become law but the chance of those moderate reforms becoming law is a lot higher than a week ago due to the Georgia elections and the riot on Capitol Hill.

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January 8, 2021 1:18PM

Only 44 Percent of Employment‐​Based Green Cards Were Granted to Workers in 2019

In normal operating years, the United States’ immigration system favors family reunification. This favor extends even in the so‐​called employment‐​based green card categories. The family members of immigrant workers must use employment‐​based green cards despite the text of the actual statute and other evidence that strongly suggests that this was not Congress’ intent. This is not unusual as Japan is the only OECD country that has more immigrant workers than immigrant family members, but the difference is larger in the United States than in other countries. Instead of a separate green card category for the spouses and children of workers, those family members get a green card that would otherwise have gone to a skilled worker.

In 2019, 56 percent of employment‐​based green cards went to the family members of workers (Figure 1). The other 44 percent went to the workers themselves. That’s the same percentage of employment‐​based green cards that went to workers in 2018. It’s undoubtedly true that some of those family members who receive employment‐​based green cards are workers and many of them are highly skilled. After all, skilled people tend to marry each other. Family members should be exempted from the employment green card cap altogether or, at a minimum, have a new and separate green card category for themselves.

If family members were exempted from the employment‐​based green card’s numerical cap or if there were a separate green card category for them, an additional 77,927 immigrant workers could have earned a green card in 2019 without increasing the numerical cap. President Biden could order this immediately as there is no law mandating that the family‐​members of principal employment‐​based green card recipients should be counted against the cap.


Reforming the Immigration System: A Brief Outline

With the election of a new president, Congress has the opportunity to correct the two fundamental flaws that plague the current U.S. system. First, the system is too restrictive, and second, the system is too inflexible to adapt to new economic or social conditions, allowing small problems to build into national crises. Here is a compendium of 52 reform proposals, both for enforcing the law, and for a less restrictive and more flexible immigration system.

Read the Reforms  

Over 79 percent of those who received an employment‐​based green card in 2019 were already legally living in the United States (Figure 2). They were able to adjust their immigration status from another type of visa, like an H-1B or an F visa, to an employment‐​based green card. Exempting some or all of those adjustments of status from the employment‐​based green card cap would more than double the number of highly skilled workers who could enter from abroad. More pressingly, this would also empty the wait‐​line imposed by the per country caps that especially affect Indian workers on the H-1B visa without increasing the wait for immigrants from other countries. Exempting adjustments of status, rather than tinkering with the cap, is best for two reasons. First, the system would be more open and flexible. Second, it would avoid the debate over which arbitrary number should be the new employment‐​based green card cap.

Here are some other exemption options for increasing the number of employment‐​based green cards issued annually without raising the overall cap of 140,000:

  • Workers could be exempted from the cap if they have a higher level of education, like a graduate degree or a Ph.D.
  • A certain number of workers who adjust their status could be exempted in the way the H-1B visa exempts 20,000 graduates of American universities from that numerical cap.
  • Workers could be exempted if they show five or more years of legal employment in the United States prior to obtaining their green card.
  • Workers could be exempted based on the occupation they intend to enter. This is a problem because in involves the government choosing which occupations are deserving, but so long as it leads to a general increase in the potential numbers of skilled immigrant workers without decreasing them elsewhere, the benefits will outweigh the costs. Exempting healthcare workers from the cap during COVID-19 would have been a good step, for instance.
  • Workers could be exempted from the cap if they have waited for 5 years and are otherwise eligible.
January 5, 2021 2:31PM

Immigration Restrictionists Are Undermining American Institutions

Benjamin Powell and I wrote our book Wretched Refuse? The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions to address the argument that liberalized immigration will undermine the very American institutions that created economic prosperity that attracted immigrants here in the first place. Immigrants generally come from countries with political, cultural, and economic institutions that are less conducive to economic growth than those in the developed world. The fear is that they’d bring those anti‐​growth institutions with them. Thus, as their argument goes, the estimated enormous economic gains from liberalized immigrants are a deadly mirage and immigrants could actually kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. As we assiduously document, immigrants do not bring those institutions with them and there is even evidence that immigrants improve institutions after they immigrate.

It’s ironic that the immigration restrictionists most worried about immigrants degrading American institutions are attacking those very institutions at every level. After President Trump lost his reelection bid, the most nativistic members of his party have embarked on a quest to reverse the election. A dozen Republican Senators, mostly those supportive of cutting legal immigration, plan to object to the certification of Biden’s win over Trump. Over 100 representatives could join in too. President Trump cut legal immigration more than any other president and he recently threatened Georgia election officials.

Immigration restrictionists have also attacked the institution of private property. The Trump administration has seized or is trying to seize 5,275 acres of privately owned land to build a border wall, most of it in Texas. Trump even diverted Congressionally appropriated funds from the military to build the border wall. Customs and Border Protection even took Congressionally appropriated funds intended to help asylum seekers and spent it on other items like dirt bikes in violation of the law. Florida saddled businesses and employees with an E‐​Verify regulatory mandate that further erodes the freedom to contract. 

Immigration restrictionists have also attacked some important components of our culture, such as respect for honesty. They’ve lied about the family member of a Georgia election official to cast doubt on his handling of the election. Many in Trump’s orbit are also conspiracy theorists or work with them at every opportunity. Making up stories to tarnish your opponents and believing in nutty conspiracy theories both break down trust in institutions, which is exactly what some nativists claim immigration does to the United States.

Some immigration restrictionists have also called for massive infringements on our civil liberties to keep President Trump in office. Retired General Michael Flynn even called for the president to declare martial law and for the U.S. military to re‐​run the 2020 election, which alarmed Army officials enough to prompt them to declare that the military will not do that. They want to curb immigrant civil liberties, especially those of free speech, in order to preserve our institutions … except for free speech.

Many people are worried that immigrants will undermine American political and economic institutions. Our new book argues that they do not undermine economic and political institutions and that, even in some cases, they build them up. But immigration restrictionists continue to insist that immigrants represent a fundamental threat to our political and economic institutions. Like the babysitter in the famous urban legend, we just realized that the call is coming from inside the country. Immigrants are not the threat to our institutions, immigration restrictionists are.

December 31, 2020 3:44PM

Trump Banned Many H-2B Workers But No More U.S. Workers Applied—Now He May Extend the Ban

The H-2B program allows nonagricultural employers to hire foreign workers when they cannot find U.S. workers to perform temporary jobs. Since 2014, employers have repeatedly hit the H-2B cap of 66,000 visas, so Congress has repeatedly authorized the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to permit workers to enter above the cap. DHS refused to allow any additional workers to enter above the cap after the unemployment rate spiked in March.

In June, President Trump went even further by banning many H-2B workers until the end of this year, which caused visas under the cap to be wasted. Now Trump is considering extending the H-2B ban into 2021. This is a bad idea. The ban was supposed to free up jobs for U.S. workers, but government data show that almost no U.S. workers applied for H-2B jobs, despite the spike in unemployment.

As I pointed out at the time, it made no sense to ban H-2B workers because every H-2B job must be offered to U.S. workers first. The Department of Labor (DOL) oversees U.S. worker recruitment under the H-2B program, and it will not certify an employer to hire H-2B workers unless it determines that there “are not sufficient U.S. workers who are qualified and who will be available” for the job.

Starting 90 days prior to the job start date, DOL requires that employers request that State Workforce Agencies refer U.S. workers (including those on unemployment insurance) to them. DOL advertises the job on an online site. All jobs must pay an inflated wage—known as the prevailing wage. Within two weeks of applying, employers must also contact former employees and ask them to return for the job. The employer can only stop accepting applicants 20 days before the date of need—after roughly two months of recruitment.

After 15 days of posting the job offer at the job site—a requirement that DOL changed to 30 days during the pandemic—employers will submit proof in a recruitment report that they fulfilled all the requirements. Despite the increased recruitment requirements, President Trump’s H-2B ban, general COVID-19 travel restrictions, and massive increase in unemployment, very few U.S. workers applied for H-2B jobs.

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December 30, 2020 4:44PM

American Compass Shouldn’t Reject the Economics of Immigration

The American Compass recently published a series of pieces about the economic successes of the Trump administration and whither national conservatism after his defeat by Joe Biden. Several commentators criticized the pieces for arguing that restrictive immigration policies were responsible for wage and employment growth during the Trump administration. Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, responded to that criticism with a piece arguing that lower immigration did result in higher wages and lower unemployment.

Cass wrote that those critics “fascinate me, in the same way an old-timey ‘cabinet of curiosities’ might capture the attention,” and responded with an essay that contemptuously dismisses social science on how immigration affects the labor market in favor of anecdotes from news stories. This blog post is a response to one of Cass’s points that fascinates me. He wrote:

The empirical case for the ‘nothing to see here’ approach to immigration economics is paper thin; one can typically guess where the hyperlinks will point before moving the cursor to them. Academics debate endlessly whether a sudden and massive influx of Cuban refugees in Miami in 1980 did or did not depress local wages, as if this deeply unnatural ‘natural experiment’ answers for all times and places the question of how a national economy’s labor market might be affected by the rate at which a given class of workers flows into it.

It is fascinating when someone so casually dismisses a vast body of knowledge. This blogpost will explain some basics about labor economics, dive into the immigration literature, and hopefully explain why Cass and others who ignore economic research do so at their own peril. 

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December 29, 2020 12:02PM

What Increases Public Support for Immigration? Results from a New Experiment

By Emily Ekins and David Kemp

America has a rich history of immigration—a longstanding tradition most Americans embrace. Earlier this year Gallup found that 77% of Americans say immigration is a “good thing” for the country. This belief crosses partisan lines: majorities of both Republicans (62%) and Democrats (89%) agree. However, despite overwhelming favorability toward immigration, only about a third of Americans want to increase it above current levels. Furthermore, when surveys offer respondents an opportunity to express if they think immigration has both benefits and costs to society, nearly half of Americans take it. A Washington Post/Schar School poll found that while 48% of Americans think that immigration has been “mainly good,” another 40% think it’s been both “equally good and bad” (and 11% said “mostly bad”). This shows that few Americans are outright anti-immigration. Rather, many have mixed emotions about the benefits and costs they associate with it.

Those skeptical of more immigration often raise concerns about jobs and wages, crime, and welfare when explaining their opposition. In response, immigration advocates argue that immigrants do not significantly reduce jobs or wages, increase crime, or disproportionately use welfare.

But can we always trust what people just explicitly tell us concerns them? Social psychology research indicates that we as human beings may often have trouble articulating why we think what we do—especially on emotionally charged topics. We often think up rationalizations for deeply felt gut instincts in real time. But sometimes those rationalizations don’t line up with what’s really motivating us. It’s not that people are being dishonest, but that often these motivations operate at a more subconscious level. When someone asks us to explain our beliefs, we may reach for explanations that ostensibly make sense to us in the moment, but may not be a clear reflection of what drives us.

In his book Whiteshift, political scientist Eric Kaufmann argues that ethnocultural concerns may be at the root of immigration restrictionism. If immigration concerns are more about culture and assimilation, then immigration advocates may find they are talking past people when they cite statistics about economic impact, jobs, crime, and welfare. It may also imply that emphasizing differences between Americans rather than what all Americans have in common, may not be particularly productive either.

Social science experiments can serve as a tool to better understand what’s truly motivating people. For this reason, we set out to conduct a series of experiments to investigate what improves public attitudes toward immigration. Today, we’ll report preliminary results from one new experiment, based on Kaufmann’s research.

We recruited 499 respondents on Amazon mTurk between December 11-27 and randomly assigned them to read one of three different newspaper clips. Afterwards, all respondents answered survey questions. Participants were told the researchers were investigating news recall and that they would be asked what they remembered about the article as well as a few other questions about their opinions. One treatment emphasized immigration and difference, the second one instead emphasized immigration and cultural assimilation, and the third (control) group was about…gardening!

We selected real news articles from the Washington Post and New York Times, shortened them, and then combined them with Kaufmann’s original treatments (that he fielded in the context of Brexit). (Full treatment text can be found in the Appendix below.)

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December 27, 2020 12:21PM

Interior Immigration Enforcement Has Collapsed Under Trump, Lowest Level Since George W. Bush Administration

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a report detailing deportations (henceforth “removals”) conducted during fiscal year 2020. This blog post presents data on removals in historical context combined with the estimated number of illegal immigrants. The number of removals in the final year of the Trump administration is the lowest number since 2005 and the rate of removals is the lowest since Congress created ICE in 2003.

The DHS report divides removals into two categories based on the arresting agency: those removed from the interior of the United States and those removed from the border. Interior removals are initially apprehended by ICE and then subsequently removed. Border removals are individuals initially apprehended by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer (which includes Border Patrol) while they attempted to illegally enter the United States. Unlawful immigrants initially apprehended by CBP are still called removals because they are turned over to ICE who subsequently removes them.

To a large degree and in most years, border apprehensions are independent of a president’s immigration enforcement policies because factors outside of the United States influence whether people decide to come in large numbers. This is somewhat different during COVID-19 as CBP expulsions of illegal immigrants under Title 42 mean that illegal immigrants are turned back over the border almost immediately rather than transferred to ICE for removal, which incentivizes more illegal immigration by lowering the costs of crossing the border. In most normal years, interior immigration enforcement is much more under the president’s control. Thus, it is important to separate border removals and interior removals when gauging the extent and effectiveness of interior immigration enforcement.

In 2020, ICE deported 62,739 illegal immigrants from the interior of the United States, down 27 percent from 85,958 in 2019 (Figure 1). Annual removals from the interior of the United States peaked at 237,941 in 2011 during the Obama administration. The Trump administration failed to increase removals to the level under Obama because local law enforcement agencies do not cooperate with President Trump’s ICE as much as they did with President Obama’s ICE. Beginning in 2012, border removals have outnumbered those from the interior of the United States and that continued even during COVID-19.

Figure 1 includes numbers for interior and border removals going back to 2003. The government didn’t start separating border and interior removals in official statistics until 2008, so it has always been difficult to compare immigration enforcement in earlier eras to 2008 and after. Since the difference between a border removal and an interior removal is the arresting agency, I used TRAC data to backout the number of border and interior removals by year going back to 2003 when CBP and ICE were created. For years where ICE data and TRAC data overlap, the difference is usually less than 1 percent. Interior removals and border removals began to increase in 2007 and continued to remain high through 2011, falling thereafter.

The Obama administration removed 1,242,486 from the interior of the United States during its full eight years, averaging 155,311 removals per year. George W. Bush’s administration removed 819,964 illegal immigrants from the interior of the United States during the last 6 years of his administration, equal to 136,661 per year. If the percent of the illegal immigrant population deported annually during 2003–2006, before the big increase in 2007, held in 2001 and 2002, George W. Bush’s administration would have deported 1,000,653 from the interior of the United States with an annual average of 125,082.

In comparison, the Trump administration has only managed to remove 325,660 people from the interior of the United States during his entire term in office – less than 100,000 more than President Obama did in 2009 or President Bush did in 2008. On average, the Trump administration has only removed an average of 81,415 unlawful immigrants per year. By any measure, the Trump administration failed to meaningfully increase immigration enforcement in the interior of the United States.

The percentage of all illegal immigrants removed from the United States is a better measure of the intensity of interior enforcement than the total number removed. Based on estimates of the total size of the illegal immigrant population from Pew for the years 2003–2007 and estimated according to the Gunadi method from 2008 to 2019 (the 2019 year estimates are repeated for 2020 because the latter year’s data are not yet available), ICE removed about 0.59 percent of the illegal immigrant resident population from the interior of the United States in 2020, down from 0.79 percent in 2019. Interior removals as a percent of the illegal immigrant population peaked at 1.96 percent in 2009.

ICE under President Obama’s administration removed an average of 1.3 percent of the interior illegal immigrant population per year of his presidency. The Obama administration’s interior removal statistics show a downward trend beginning in 2012 and continued until the end of his administration. ICE under President Trump has only managed to deport an average of 0.74 percent of the illegal immigrant population each year. The annual average for the George W. Bush administration was 1.21 percent deported annually for the six years for which we have data.

The Obama administration also focused immigration enforcement on criminal offenders (not all illegal immigrants are criminals and many of the criminal offenders merely committed immigration crimes). During the Obama administration, 52.6 percent of all illegal immigrants removed were convicted criminals, including those convicted of immigration crimes. During the years of the George W. Bush administration for which we have data, about 41.3 percent of all removed illegal immigrants were criminals. About 57.9 percent of those deported during the Trump are convicted criminals so far (Figure 3). Compared to the last year of the Obama administration, criminal removals are up down about 19,720 or about 14.2 percent while non‐​criminal removals are down 34,651 or about 34.1 percent.

The Trump administration floundered in its efforts to increase removals. President Trump did not enforce immigration laws nearly as harshly as his two recent predecessors did.