Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352
George J. Borjas addresses late twentieth-century US immigration trends, beginning with policy changes enacted in 1965. He concentrates on the impact of a shift from national quotas to the preference system, especially the emphasis on family reunification. These decades also showed a change from Europe to Asia and Latin America as the immigrants’ areas of origin. Borjas, himself an immigrant from Cuba, is especially concerned with the economic impact of low-skilled immigrants, especially from Latin America, whom he believes disproportionately create a burden on social services. He argues for an emphasis on skills and other desirable characteristics over sheer numbers of people admitted to the United States.
According to Borjas, there are ten symptoms that critically affected US immigration during the period he considers. One is the overall small percentage of people in terms of numbers of immigrants who enter the country. A second factor is the declining skill level. Third comes their related declining earnings. A fourth topic of consideration is the relationship between these skills and specific national origin.
The fifth point concerns recent immigrants’ negative economic impact. Not only does this negative impact exist, he maintains, but it has a greater impact on low-income, low-skilled US citizens. Much of the evidence he presents supports these two ideas. Closely related is his sixth point: the disproportionate effect on particular states within the union—those that already had large populations of immigrant-descended legal residents and citizens. This phenomenon means that some states pay a larger share of the related expenses; an example is public education, such as bilingual instruction.
Seventh is the relationship between benefits to society, especially in economic terms, compared to the costs. Borjas insists that low-skilled immigrants create a drain on the economy, leading him to see their overall effect as negative. The eighth factor relates to the generational continuance of low-income status; Borjas aims to show that second-generation descendants perpetuate the inequality their parents experienced.
The ninth factor is the segregation, which he sees as voluntary, of immigrants and descendants into neighborhoods with the same national characteristics. Tenth comes the related ghettoization, which accentuates divisions in US society.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1907
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 number of new arrivals face the additional tax burden of supporting more people on public assistance. Moreover, since the children of the foreign-born require more intensive educational services, particularly in the form of English classes or bilingual education, public expenditures on education and related governmental programs tend to be greater in these states.
Although immigration does contribute to the American economy, in this book’s examination of the evidence, the net contribution tends to be relatively small. (Borjas defines “net contribution” as the contribution of immigrants after their costs have been taken into consideration.) This seventh symptom raises the question of whether the economic growth caused by low- skilled immigrants is worth the additional inequality they tend to create in American economy and society.
A reader could argue that while the first-generation immigrants may be low-skilled, their children, having enjoyed access to the American educational system, will experience upward mobility. According to Borjas, though, ethnic differences in skills persist across at least three generations, meaning that the inequalities produced by immigration are likely to persist. This eighth symptom of immigration means that the economic effects should be seen as long-term and therefore likely to shape the nation’s future.
Borjas points out that people do not migrate simply as individuals or as members of families but as members of ethnic groups. They tend to settle in geographic regions occupied by other group members and to associate with those of the same ethnic background. Children growing up in immigrant ethnic groups, therefore, are affected by the general level of education and skills in their groups and not simply by the background of their parents. Immigrant minority groups, then, create pockets of systematically underskilled and disadvantaged people within American society.
This last point is logically connected to the tenth symptom of immigration identified by Borjas: The clustering of people from the same ethnic groups produces ethnic ghettos. Immigration, then, tends to accentuate the cultural and economic differences among ethnic groups in American society.
These ten points are supported and investigated with a great wealth of statistical information drawn from a variety of governmental and academic sources. Reworking some of his articles previously published in academic journals, Borjas presents some fairly sophisticated statistical analyses in a way that is intelligible to nonspecialists. He manages to recast a heated emotional debate into a reasoned examination of the consequences of policy. He does not argue that Americans should ignore humanitarian goals in deciding who will be allowed to settle in the United States. Instead, he suggests that to promote the national and economic interests of the United States as a legitimate objective of immigration policy, the United States needs to look dispassionately at the evidence to see whether policy serves that objective.
There are those, such as employers seeking inexpensive labor, who would find that post-1965 immigration policy largely serves their interests. Based on his findings that immigration does not serve what he and many others would regard as the general interests of the United States, however, Borjas maintains that American legislators should consider some fundamental changes. He argues against the present system of awarding the first slots to people who have family members in the United States and argues in favor of one that places job skills first. Canada, he believes, serves as a good model. The northern neighbor of the United States awards priority for entry based on a point system: Potential immigrants receive points for being in their peak working years, for having university degrees, for being able to speak English well, and for being in occupations that are in demand and serve the national interest. Although well-educated, professionally employed natives would have to compete with immigrants under such a system, a shift of the national wealth to lower-paid Americans could possibly occur, thereby decreasing economic inequality in the United States.
Borjas acknowledges that changing the skill composition of immigrants would also change their ethnic makeup. Since education is closely tied to country of origin, the number of immigrants admitted from Latin American countries, in particular, would drop drastically. He suggests, though, that the evidence indicates that such a shift might ultimately be in the interest of native minorities because they would not have to compete with members of newly arrived minority groups. In addition to changing the composition of immigrant groups, Borjas advocates lowering their numbers. About 500,000 legal immigrants per year should be allowed into the United States, in his view.
Perhaps the greatest weakness in this examination of the consequences of immigration policy is that it concentrates heavily on legal migration even though some of the problems it discusses are closely connected to illegal migration. If unskilled immigrant labor is the source of the major negative economic consequences of the movement of labor across national boundaries, then the most serious difficulties concern the estimated 300,000 people annually who enter the United States illegally and who tend to have the fewest job skills. Controlling this movement of people is not a matter of policy, but of policing, since illegal immigration is already contrary to policy by definition.
Efforts to slow the flow of illegal immigrants have met with relatively little success because demand for low-wage workers continues. If labor demand frustrates the policing of the borders, it also greatly complicates policy changes such as those suggested by Borjas. The movement of labor across national boundaries is only part of an economy that has become more international in character. Low-wage jobs can be located in other countries, or workers can move to where the jobs are. The type of labor protectionism advocated by Borjas could well lead to an accelerated movement of economic activity out of the country.
The discussion of the chances for mobility of the children and grandchildren of immigrants is, as Borjas admits, speculative, since the newest wave is too new to have produced large groups of second- and third-generation adults. Among many Asian groups, in particular, a preponderance of immigrants has arrived only since 1980. Borjas presents historical data as evidence that the social mobility of the children and grandchildren of these newcomers will be limited. Research findings on the academic achievement of children of immigrants who have migrated since 1980 raises doubts about this conclusion, however. Researchers have consistently found that children of immigrants from Latin America do better in school than children of Latinos who are natives, and that children of Asian immigrants tend to do better than children of all other groups. Given that education has become the primary avenue to upward mobility, it seems entirely possible that the second and third generations of immigrants who arrived in the 1980’s will experience much more rapid economic improvement than children of earlier immigrant groups.
While Heaven’s Door is not the final statement on United States immigration policy, it is certainly one of the most closely reasoned and well-supported examinations of the issue. It is a book that should be read carefully by all those concerned about immigration policy, whether they support an opening of the borders to new population groups or a closing of the door.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (October 1, 1999): 311.
Commentary 108 (September, 1999): 58.
Foreign Affairs 78 (November-December, 1999): 139.
Library Journal 124 (August, 1999): 108.
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