William W. Chip writes:
In “The Ethics of Immigration,” a debate in last month’s issue of First Things , Michael Scaperlanda and I exchanged views on the question of religious believers’ response to immigration. Scaperlanda was not convinced by my arguments or supporting data that “the flow of foreign workers into the United States threatens the public treasury as well as the economic security of those on the lowest rungs of American society.” He offers to readers of First Things a “wealth of data” that purportedly refutes the data cited in my own submission.
In fact, there is no wealth of data on the economic impact of immigration. Scaperlanda comes closer to the mark when he observes that “disentangling” the impact of immigration from other factors that influence our immensely large and complex economy is “difficult.”
Only a few academic economists have tried to do so, and they have hedged their conclusions with multiple qualifications. Immigration is heavily concentrated in particular sectors and geographies, and its economic impact can reliably be measured only through local, sectoral studies, such as the study of Los Angeles janitors, which confirmed the massive displacement of
unionized African Americans by nonunionized Mexican immigrants. Scaperlanda reports a “dynamic turnaround” in that situation, with a “reunionized” janitorial workforce employing almost as many African Americans as before. He does not report, however, the finding of Cornell economics professor Vernon Briggs that these “reunionized” janitors were paid less than 50 percent of what their pay two decades earlier.
Macroeconomic studies will move no one, including me, to favor or oppose mass economic migration from Latin America. Such studies serve only to indicate whether the adverse economic consequences of such migrations have been balanced or outweighed by adjustments elsewhere in the economy. For example, native Californians displaced by Mexican immigrants may preserve their standard of living by moving to Nevada or Arizona (and millions have), the daughters of immigrant dishwashers may join the next generation of doctors and scientists (and some surely have), and an immigration-induced reduction in the wages of American farmworkers may also reduce food prices for all Americans.
For those consequences, Scaperlanda relies primarily on a publication from the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. This document (the council itself was too embarrassed to call it a report) was a tendentious, six-page summary of cherry-picked findings from earlier economic studies that was released in the middle of last year’s Senate debate on legislation, supported by the president, to legalize undocumented migrant workers and admit millions more through a “guest worker” program. Most of the findings were, in fact, extrapolations from a 1997 report from the National Research Council, which was itself based on a 1995 study by the Harvard economics professor George Borjas (whom Scaperlanda himself cites).
Shortly after the White House released the document from the Council of Economic Advisors, Borjas published a rebuttal. He first noted that the alleged $30
billion benefit realized by having twenty million immigrant workers in the workforce amounted to less than a third of 1 percent of the gross national product. Moreover, this minuscule benefit came after a “staggering” $35
0 billion reduction in the wages of workers who competed with immigrants. The National Research Council study had concluded that, in any event, the net economic benefit from immigration was more than outweighed by the increased taxes needed to provide essential government services to the migrant workers.
Although the Council of Economic Advisors does state, as Scaperlanda claims, that immigration may have a positive fiscal impact over the long term”based on the 1997 study, which had to extrapolate three hundred years into the future to arrive at a positive fiscal result, a time frame that the council itself admitted was “absurd.” If Congress were to enact even a single part of Scaperlanda’s “six-part plan,” offering a “path to citizenship” for most of the undocumented population, “the net retirement costs to government (benefits minus taxes) could be over $2.5 trillion,” according to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation.
As Scaperlanda himself cautions, the Council of Economic Advisors document covers legal as well as illegal immigrants. Consequently, most of its findings relating to crime, fiscal impact, and economic assimilation are useless in evaluating the migration policies favored by the American Catholic bishops’ Committee on Migration. The statistics in the Council of Economic Advisors’ document cover tens of millions of immigrants who arrived before 1965 and who were admitted primarily on the basis of economic criteria. Time-line studies showing that the grand children of Italian stonemasons and Hungarian schoolteachers have advanced beyond their ancestors in educational attainment may disguise, but will not abolish, the frightening reality that nearly half of the sons of today’s economic migrants are dropping out of high school and nearly half of their daughters are giving birth outside wedlock. All the studies that show a negative wage impact from immigration also conclude that the most severely affected workers are earlier waves of immigrants. No wonder the offspring of today’s immigrants are falling behind.
Statistics at the national level are misleading indicators of where the policies advocated by Scaperlanda and the bishops are taking the country. Immigrants tend to concentrate in certain communities, and it is the outcomes in those communities that suggest the future for the rest of us. No community has been more changed by the sort of migration favored by Scaperlanda than Southern California. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, from 1969 to 1997 the real wages of the bottom 25 percent of California workers dropped by 40 percent, even as the wages of those at the top increased by 13 percent.
The visible result of this cavernous wage gap, accompanied by a mass exodus of native-born workers, is a state increasingly divided between a mostly white class of haves and a mostly brown class of have-nots. The reality of Los Angeles, and not the dreamy extrapolations of the Council of Economic Advisors, is the best evidence of the road where Scaperlanda’s immigration policies will eventually lead the rest of the country.
We already have bitter experience from our own long history of how the coincidence of racial identity and economic inequality can tear apart the fabric of even a wealthy, modern society. I agree with Scaperlanda and with the bishops that American Christians should do more to relieve foreign poverty, but this is the wrong way.
Michael A. Scaperlanda writes:
William Chip accepts the Catechism ‘s teaching that “the more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome” immigrants in search of economic security. Unlike the Catholic bishops, however, he doesn’t believe that the United States has the resources to welcome those who currently reside here illegally or those who would enter on a guest-worker program.
Chip recognizes that “any Christian who opposes their admission ought to have good reasons.” In other words, he correctly assigns himself the burden of proof. In our exchange last month, and again in this issue, Chip presents his case with a combination of data and anecdote to try to justify his position and persuade others to that position. My task, as I see it, is not to refute Chip’s argument point by point but rather to argue that he hasn’t made his case”he hasn’t offered good reasons for rejecting the bishops’ call for immigration reform.
Although Chip refers to the Council of Economic Advisors’ report as a “political document,” he doesn’t refute its findings, just the interpretations to be drawn from those findings.There is a wealth of data on the economic effects”or potential effects”of immigration. Both sides of the immigration debate have mined this data, exploiting it for their cause. Since Chip has conceded the point and now says that “macroeconomic studies will not move” him to favor or oppose Hispanic immigration, I won’t belabor it. He now focuses on immigration’s impact in “certain communities,” especially Southern California. There are at least two problems with his argument. First, he fails to show that immigration is the cause of California’s woes. Second, when it comes to immigration, California is like the boy who cried wolf one too many times.
First, as to cause and effect, Chip curiously returns to the Los Angeles janitors’ example. As he now recognizes, the General Accounting Office, like others reporting on the economic impact of immigration, “hedged their conclusions with multiple qualifications.” A later study concluded that “it would be misleading to suggest a casual link” between immigration and worsening conditions for janitors in Los Angeles. If California suffers from economic, cultural, and social malaise, are Hispanic immigrants to blame? Chip does not seem to have made the case.
Second, California has a well-worn history of anti-immigrant”even xenophobic”fervor. A couple of examples will suffice. As the Supreme Court recounted in the infamous Chinese Exclusion Case , the California constitutional convention, in 1878, implored Congress to limit Chinese immigration, concluding “that the presence of Chinese laborers had a baneful effect upon the material interests of the state, and upon public morals; that their immigration was in numbers approaching the character of an Oriental invasion, . . . that they retained the habits and customs of their own country, and in fact constituted a Chinese settlement within the state, without any interest in our country or its institutions.”
According to the court, part of the problem was that the Chinese “were generally industrious and frugal. Not being accompanied by families, except in rare instances, their expenses were small; and they were content with the simplest fare, such as would not suffice for our laborers and artisans. The competition between them and our people was for this reason altogether in their favor, and the consequent irritation, proportionately deep and bitter, was followed, in many cases, by open conflicts, to the great disturbance of the public peace. The differences of race added greatly to the difficulties of the situation.”
The Japanese fared no better, with many of the same complaints lodged against them in a fifty-year struggle leading up to internment during World War II. In 1905, for instance, dozens of organizations met in San Francisco to form the Asiatic Exclusion League (later the Japanese Exclusion League), which worked tirelessly to marginalize Japanese immigrants and their American offspring. Answering charges from a religious organization in 1920, a leader of the Exclusion League denied that it was appealing to racial prejudice among white voters. The league’s positions find support, he opined, in “incontrovertible and startling facts,” including the economic advantages possessed by the Japanese, their failure to assimilate, and the dislocation of Americans.
In the 1930s, California turned its attention to indigent migrants seeking refuge from the Dust Bowl. After noting California’s general openness to migrants, California attorney general Earl Warren unsuccessfully argued to the Supreme Court that the state ought to be allowed to take measures to inhibit the inflow of migrants when concerns for economic and fiscal health of the state reach crisis proportions.
Like the Chinese, Japanese, and Oklahomans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have found an unwelcome mat at various times in California’s history, beginning shortly after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago in 1848 and the discovery of gold. The 1911 Report of the Dillingham Commission, which was created by Congress four years earlier, found that “the Mexican being without ambition and thrift and being content with the wage relation and a dependent position, his progress, unlike that of the Japanese, has been slow.” Similarly, the commission found that Mexican children in Los Angeles schools performed at a below-average level and “leave school early.”
Given its poor record, I don’t think California has earned the right to lead the nation in the development of immigration policy. A century ago, the state worried about the invasion of “little brown men” (Japanese); today the worry concerns the “mostly brown class of have-nots” (Hispanics).
A review of our nation’s immigration history reveals that the same arguments resurface time and time again. A century ago, the Dillingham Commission, examining particular locales, reported that the influx of Italians and other Southern and Eastern European immigrants “seriously retarded the advance of wages,” driving the natives out of certain low-paying jobs. The United States culture and economy proved to be dynamic enough to accommodate massive immigration then, and I believe”along with the bishops”that we remain vibrant enough to accommodate those who, at great risk to themselves, have left tragic circumstances for a better life here.
William W. Chip, an international attorney practicing in Washington, D.C., is an adviser to several national organizations for immigration reform. Michael A. Scaperlanda holds the Gene and Elaine Edwards Family Chair in Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.