The Wall Street Journal (April 26, 1996)
Heritage, Prominent Economist Backs Immigration Cut
(Born in Cuba, George Borjas Says His Census Research, Not His Past, Guides Ideas; Why Congress Is Listening)
Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. America's
leading immigration economist says immigrants these days are less skilled, less
educated and more likely to go on welfare than natives, and are a drain on the
national economy. He would sharply curtail immigration.
The economist is George J. Borjas, a
Harvard University professor, an influential figure in the national debate on
immigration -- and a refugee from Cuba who came to the U.S. with his mother in
1962. In his mind, Mr. Borjas puts aside the conflict between the results of his
research and the saga of his own family, which likely would have been barred
from the U.S. under his proposed policies.
"I'm not a Cuban when I do
economics" he says.
The 45-year-old economist's
prominence and research have had a broad impact in the current political
climate. An immigration bill influenced by his studies recently passed the
House; a similar bill is now being debated in the Senate. Mr. Borjas's tale also
underscores national debate over immigration and the difficulty of trying to
apply scholarly research to such a delicate subject.
Immigration foes cite Mr. Borjas's
work -- and his background -- as a way to insulate themselves from charges of
anti Hispanic bias. Immigration supporters rebuff his work by accusing him of
callousness, "Borjas thinks the last good boat of immigrants is the one he
came in on," Barry Chiswick tells colleagues. Mr. Chiswick, a professor at
the University of Illinois at Chicago, has jousted for years with Mr. Borjas. In
response, Mr. Borjas calls the remark "false, ludicrous and
The acrimony is understandable. More
than any other scholar, Mr. Borjas has undermined the view U.S. the U.S. draws
great strength from open immigration. His studies of decades of census data show
that recent waves of immigrants have fewer skills than natives and less
education and are more likely than natives to go on welfare and stay there. The
political implications are obvious, he says: Reduce immigration by the
"huddled masses" in favor of entry by the more skilled.
Yet Mr. Borjas's personal story might
seem to make the opposite point. After arriving broke from Cuba with his high
school educated mother, Edita, he went on to win a college scholarship and
eventually become a celebrated economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government. While his head says that immigration harms the U.S., his heart says
that immigration helps. "Personally
I would prefer the data went another way," he says. "But that doesn't
mean I'm going to write a paper twisting the data."
Huddled at the Radio
Mr. Borjas's interest in immigration
began about 37 years ago, as his family in Havana huddled around the radio,
waiting for news that Fidel Castro would march into the city and take power. The
Borjas clan was prospering. His grandparents ran a pants factory in a building
attached to their house where his mother worked. His father, who was ill for
years, died in 1961.
The new regime seized the family
business. After the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion, the youngster's elite Catholic
school was closed, and he spent seventh grade under the watchful eye of a
Communist functionary who taught at the local "revolutionary" school.
The Borjas families applied to
emigrate to the U.S., taking advantage of a Kennedy-era policy of accepting
Cubans regardless of immigration quotas or the skills of the refugees. Two of
Mr. Borjas's aunts preceded him to Miami and sent airline tickets to 12-year-old
Jorge -- his given name -- and his mother. In October 1962, a week before the
Cuban missile crisis, the small plane carrying Jorge and Edita Borjas touched
down in Miami.
The family soon moved to an Italian
and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Hoboken, N.J., where Edita Borjas found work as
a seamstress in a coat factory. Jorge Borjas quickly assimilated. He dropped
Jorge for George, became a naturalized citizen, collected Beatles albums and
went to Madison Square Garden to hoot at professional wrestling matches.
But the immigrant experience shaped
his career. In college, he surveyed his mother's friends for a research project
to determine how much newcomers to the U.S. depend on family financial support.
(Answer: a lot.) Around 1978, after receiving a doctorate in economics, he
attended a lecture by Mr. Chiswick, the University of Illinois economist, who
was among the first to examine the impact of immigration since a study in 1919
by Paul Douglas, economist and future Illinois senator.
Mr. Chiswick's research couldn't have
been cheerier. Although immigrants start off earning less than natives. They
catch up after only 10 or 15 years in the U.S., he reported. Immigrants
"may have more innate ability and are more highly motivated" than
native-born workers, he concluded in a scholarly paper detailing his work. But
Mr. Borjas found the research troubling. He knew that Cubans who immigrated
before the missile crisis, like he did, were mostly from the island's elite and
would probably advance much more quickly than those who came later. The Chiswick
analysis, based on a single census from 1970, couldn't track the different
groups over time.
Some years later, Mr. Borjas was able
to compare the 1980 and 1970 census and confirm his hunch. Immigrants who came
prior to 1965 did catch up, as Mr. Chiswick predicted. Those who came afterward
didn't. The reason: Changes in U.S. immigration policy in 1965 encouraged the
migration of the poor and unskilled, especially from Mexico, who couldn't
compete as well in America. The
changes also made some of the benefits used by the Borjas family and other
Cubans available to all immigrants. Siblings could petition to bring in adult
family members just as the Borjas sisters brought their relatives from Havana.
Overall, though, the result was a
decline in immigrant "quality," Mr. Borjas concluded -- choosing a
phrase regularly used in economic literature, but that has incendiary political
implications. (He says he now often uses -- "skills" instead of
"quality" because "people conjure up stuff I didn't mean.")
His basic findings have been accepted
by many economists, although not by Mr. Chiswick, who accuses his rival of
"misrepresenting my contributions in order to build himself up." Mr.
Borjas retorts that, early on, Mr. Chiswick tried to trash his work. Each man
scoffs at the other's charges.
When both attended a conference in
Australia some years back, they ended up in shouting matches. "It was like:
'Guys, go up to the room and punch each other out,' " says Harvard
economist Richard Freeman, who accompanied the pair.
Mr. Borjas has since made his
academic reputation as a debunker of immigration "myths." Working on a
desktop computer loaded with census records dating to 1900, he divides
immigrants by nationality, age, income and year they arrived in this country. He
finds that families whose relatives emigrated from eastern and southern Europe
took four generations to catch up
with natives' earnings -- not one or two as commonly believed. More recent
immigrants are hobbled by what he calls "ethnic capital" -- meaning
that the poor performance by one generation is passed on to the next. Welfare
use by immigrants actually increases over time, compared with natives, as
newcomers learn the ropes. "Assimilating into the welfare system," Mr.
Borjas calls the trend.
In another study, he calculates that
native workers lose $133 billion a year in lower salaries because of immigrant
competition; employers pocket the money, and then some, as reduced expenses.
Unskilled natives suffer the most. More than one-third of the widening wage gap
between high-school dropouts and more-educated workers is because of competition
from immigration, he estimates. According to the Borjas view, immigration is
akin to busing: a grand social experiment whose costs are borne by working-class
families who don't find the experiment so grand.
"No one who works in this area
can ignore his work," says Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist who served as
the Clinton Labor Department's chief economist. "People don't have to love
him or hate him, but they have to deal with him "
Call From the Governor
Politicians started phoning for
advice. In early 1993, Mr. Borjas, who was teaching at the University of
California at San Diego, joined the state's council of economic advisers and
became Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's adviser on immigration issues. Facing a
tough re-election campaign, Mr. Wilson was pushing his support for Proposition
187, which would bar illegal immigrants from schools and other government
services. (The ballot initiative passed by a wide margin but has been held up by
a court challenge.) The governor and his aides turned to Mr. Borjas for the
intellectual ammunition to justify immigration restrictions, and for ethnic
"He wasn't an Anglo talking
about these numbers." says Lee Grissom, a senior economic aide to Mr.
Wilson. Mr. Borjas also helped the governor lay out the argument that
immigration was costing California economically. Gov. Wilson knew he would be
challenged, Mr. Grissom adds; "How could you defend yourself without being
a racist?" So the governor's office would refer reporters to Mr. Borjas for
an expert's views on immigration. The serious, earnest Mr. Borjas, who speaks
English with a hint of an accent, was a hit.
Cecilia Munoz, deputy vice president
of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic lobbying group, says Mr. Borjas
compromised his academic integrity by working for the California governor.
"Anybody with an interest in sound policy should be careful working for
someone who's shamelessly politicked on this issue," she says. "That's
more true for a Latino, who is in a position to be used."
Mr. Borjas, who calls himself a
conservative Republican, strenuously objects. He generally agrees with Mr.
Wilson on immigration and other issues, he says, so why shouldn't he help him?
"I provide data and facts he can use," the economist says.
Mr. Borjas draws fire from many sides
of the political spectrum. He spars in policy debates with the libertarian Cato
institute and the liberal Urban institute. On welfare, for instance, an Urban
institute study that is widely cited by others, including the Cato institute,
finds that a mere 5% of immigrants receive welfare, about the same rate as
But Mr. Borjas points out that the
study is based on census data that omits people younger than 15 -- even though
welfare benefits often go to children. Look
instead at data on households, he advises, which include children. Then, the
immigrant welfare rate is considerably higher than that of U.S. natives,
especially if such programs as Medicaid and housing assistance are included.
That's because immigrant families are poorer than natives, and have more
Pushing for Skills
Denying immigration's costs will
eventually undermine political support for any immigration, he fears, and push
the U.S. to seal off the border, Pat Buchanan-style. Mr. Borjas urges the U.S.
to admit a larger share of skilled immigrants, who don't use welfare as much as
natives and who will eventually catch up to them in earnings. (Of the 720,000
legal immigrants who entered the U.S. during the year ended Sept. 30, 1995, only
about 10% were admitted for their skills.)
Who would be hurt most under a
Borjas-style immigration plan? Unskilled immigrants - those who look and sound
like the Borjas family of 35 years ago. Alejandro Portes, a Johns Hopkins
University sociologist who left Cuba as a youth in 1960, accuses Mr. Borjas of
being "rather ungenerous to immigrants facing more difficult
circumstances" than those faced by early Cuban refugees. "If we Cubans
had been received like Haitians are now, neither George nor I would have turned
out to be university professors," Mr. Portes says.
Mr. Borjas says he is anguished by
the irony, but wouldn't change his recommendations. "Should the fact I
would get hurt under different circumstances be the thing that drives
policy?" he asks. "It would be wrong to set policy on basis of an
egotistical attachment to a particular group. You have to look to the concerns
of the nation as a whole."