Why Illegal Immigration Alone Doesn't Matter

By Steven Malanga
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Thursday, November 15, 2007; 12:00 AM

Hillary Clinton helped to elevate immigration to a central position in the Presidential election when she waffled on the question of whether she favored drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants. Yet much of the public discussion that has followed Clinton's confrontation with questioner Tim Russert has focused only on illegal immigrants. We still know very little about what the candidates would do to reform our broken system of legal immigration.

Our current system results from changes begun in the mid-1960s, when the country scrapped its old immigration policy, based on quotas determined by a person's national origin, in favor of broader hemispheric quotas and visa preferences for family members of those already here. The framers of this new system claimed that they were merely tinkering with policy. "Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants," Sen. Edward Kennedy said.

But not only did legal immigration soar by 60 percent in the first 10 years after the reform legislation; the origins of immigration shifted to poorer countries around the world, and many new immigrants arrived with low levels of education and little job training, stranding them in low-paying jobs and slowing their economic mobility. A recent study by Harvard economists George Boras and Lawrence Katz of Mexican immigrants who came here in the 1970s found that after 20 years in the American workforce these workers were still earning about 40 percent less than American-born workers -- a sharp contrast with earlier generations of immigrants, who after several decades here tended to be virtually at par with American workers. The economists also estimated that recently arriving young Mexican workers (and Mexicans make up the largest category of legal immigrants to the U.S.) were starting off with an even bigger wage disadvantage relative to American workers than their predecessors did in the 1970s.

As a result of findings like this, many economists who study immigration don't even distinguish between legals and illegals. Instead, the line of demarcation for them is between low-skill immigrants with little education and better educated, better trained immigrants.

Other modern, industrialized countries that are, like the United States, magnets for immigrants, have reshaped their immigration policy in the last 20 years to favor the better trained immigrant. But there are important policy differences among those countries.

Australia, for instance, has among the most detailed systems, which relies on employment surveys to identify hundreds of job categories where workers are needed -- from blue collar trades to highly technical jobs. Today, 70 percent of Australia's immigration is skills based.

Canada has opted for a less complicated, broader approach, favoring immigrants with higher levels of education but not giving preferences to specific trades or job categories.

In a different vein, Ireland, whose economy has boomed since the early 1990s, allows employers to drive much of the legal immigration system by requesting visas for certain types of workers, with one very important qualifier: In order to prevent employers from pushing down wages by importing workers in category where domestic labor is already ample, Ireland creates lists of industries and jobs where it won't grant visas for workers.

Our Congress made a stab at changing our legal system to one that was broadly skills-based in the reform legislation proposed last summer. But other provisions of that bill, especially amnesty for illegals and guest worker programs, were so controversial that we never got around to debating the right legal system. For instance, do we want a very specific system like Australia's, where studies have shown that immigrants are doing very well, or a less complicated, broader system like Canada's, where government plays less of role, but the results are not as impressive economically as in Australia?

It's almost impossible to tell what the presidential candidates think is right for us. Clinton and Barack Obama make vague statements in their campaign materials about preserving the family preferences system, which amounts to little reform. Mitt Romney has talked about the advantages that well educated immigrants bring to our high-tech industries, but a well-rounded immigration policy should be about more than just importing workers for Silicon Valley.

What the next president thinks is vitally important. Today, our immigration system allows up to 1 million people to come here legally every year. That tells us that the debate should be about more than what to do with our illegal population.

The author is the senior editor of City Journal and co-author of The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today's, which was published in November by Ivan R. Dee.

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