In 1965, the United States drastically altered its immigration policy. For most of the twentieth century, immigrants had been admitted on the basis of a quota permitted from each nation, with a heavy bias in favor of those coming from northern and Western Europe. Legislation adopted in 1965 did away with national quotas, replacing them with a system of preferences. Family reunification became the first preference; those who had close family members in the United States were most likely to be allowed to enter.
Political figures who supported the 1965 change argued that the new legislation would eliminate an unfair and discriminatory system. They also argued that the change would not lead to major changes in the number or national origin of immigrants. These last two points both proved to be wrong. While most immigrants to the United States before 1965 were Europeans, the majority of immigrants since then have been from Asia and Latin America. The number of immigrants grew so steadily that by the 1990’s a greater number of new arrivals was settling in the United States than at any point previously in United States history.
The late-twentieth century wave of immigration has provoked emotional debate. Some critics of United States’ immigration policy have claimed that the number of people arriving legally and illegally is too great for effective assimilation and that national unity is therefore being undermined. Others have maintained that the entry of unprecedented numbers of Asians and Latinos is changing the ethnic and cultural composition of the United States without the agreement of the majority of American people. Still others have argued that “new” immigrants are lowering wages for “established” immigrants. Defenders of immigration have responded by insisting that increasing cultural and ethnic diversity is desirable for American society. Further, according to supporters of post-1965 immigration policy, migrants tend to be hardworking individuals who often do jobs that native Americans do not want to do.
George J. Borjas, Pforzheimer Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, is one of the widely respected authorities on immigration economics. In Heaven’s Door, Borjas, who migrated to the United States from Cuba, attempts to identify the fundamental questions in the emotional debate over immigration policy and to carefully examine the evidence related to these questions. The basic questions of immigration policy, he suggests, are “How many immigrants do we want?” and “Which immigrants should they be?”
Given these basic questions, Borjas identifies ten facts, or “symptoms,” in his terms, that should serve as a framework for the immigration debate. First, it should be recognized that the number of immigrants entering the United States is, indeed, at a record level, even though immigrants constitute a somewhat smaller percentage of the American population in the late twentieth century than they did in the early twentieth century. Second, Borjas cites reliable evidence that the relative skills and economic performance of immigrants has declined since the 1960’s. Third, he suggests that trends indicate the earnings of immigrants will continue to lag behind those of native Americans. Fourth, while increasing the cultural diversity of the American population may be desirable for moral reasons, national origin does matter economically because there is a close relationship between immigrants’ country of origin and their education and skills.
The fifth point, or symptom, is probably the most crucial economic issue. In the author’s view, the evidence indicates that immigration has harmed the economic opportunities of the least-skilled natives. In looking at this point in depth, Borjas finds that immigrants do contribute to the American economy. However, since they are predominantly low-wage workers, their contribution primarily benefits employers and the relatively well- paid users of the goods and services they produce. At the same time, they provide a low-skilled workforce that will labor for low wages by American standards, competing with low-skilled people born in the United States. Thus, although immigrants make the American economy larger, they also tend to make it more unequal.
Borjas cites evidence for a sixth symptom: Immigration has most severely affected the states that have received the most immigrants. Prior to the post-1965 wave, immigrants were less likely than the native-born to receive public assistance. Since then, however, immigrants have become somewhat more likely to receive public assistance; thus, states (especially California) that have the largest...
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