Sunday, April 02, 2006


An ec 10 student emails me this question:

"Over the break I've been watching some CNN and I noticed that the issue of illegal immigrants has been a hot topic in the news. What's your opinion of Bush's proposed guest worker program? Do you think it is a viable long term solution to the problem?"

I am not an expert on this topic, so I am not qualified to offer opinions about the nuances of the specific proposal or of immigration policy more broadly. But in the immigration debate, I usually favor the side wanting more rather than less open borders. In the current debate, that is the side that President Bush is on.

I think there are several reasons why I tend to favor more open borders. As an economist, I am skeptical of the government prohibiting trades between consenting adults, and that is in essence what immigration restrictions do. This is why economists, as a group, tend to be pro-immigration.

But I am sure that my views on this go beyond the economics of the matter and are deeply personal. When I see unskilled Mexican workers coming into the United States to find better jobs, I cannot see any difference between them and four Ukrainian immigrants I know who came into the United States almost a century ago to find better lives. Those four Ukrainians were my grandparents. So to me, taking a hard line on immigration feels a lot like slamming a door in the face of my grandmother.

I know that the immigration issue raises some thorny policy questions. I tried to highlight some of those in a previous post. The hard issues tend to revolve around the immigration of unskilled workers, who are more likely to drain resources from the social safety net and increase U.S. income inequality by pushing down wages at the bottom of the wage distribution.

Immigration of skilled workers is another matter. A skilled worker coming into the United States will likely pay more in taxes than he or she gets in social benefits. Moreover, an increased supply of skilled labor will tend to reduce income inequality. A strong case can be made that any worker with significant skills (such as a college degree) should be admitted without restriction.

For example, if Harvard and other universities want to hire academics from abroad to teach in the United States, I cannot see any reason for the government to stop them. It may depress the wages of American-born professors like me, but it would mean lower tuition and higher living standards for most Americans. The anti-immigrant people say I should resent Alberto Alesina (Italian immigrant), Andrei Shleifer (Russian immigrant), and Oliver Hart (British immigrant) for taking good jobs at Harvard that could be going to American-born economists. But I don't. I think we are a better country for their presence.