In July, The New York Times Magazine ran a story about immigration.
All of the photos, including the cover, were of people in shadow, their faces obscured. There was Norma M., a housecleaner from Mexico, and Salvador C., a construction worker, also from Mexico. The writer said he talked with these immigrants, and other real people, assuming his piece would be framed around their stories, as pieces about immigration often are. “But the trouble is,” he wrote, “all these people only see their own little piece of what is a giant national economy.”
Which is exactly what Kennedy School Professor George Borjas, who was featured in the article, has been trying to avoid since he initially started working on immigration in the 1980s. An immigrant whose family fled from Cuba during the country’s first exodus after Fidel Castro took control in 1959, Borjas could easily use his story — his own little piece of the debate — to influence public policy on the issue, one way or the other. But he is, after all, an economist. And when it comes to their work, what matters most to economists is simple: it’s the data, stupid.
“I'M A TYPICAL ECONOMIST. I really truly enjoy sitting in front of the computer and grinding numbers. That’s what I do for a living,” Borjas says. “For me, finding interesting results and seeing patterns is what I like to do and then once I see the pattern, I think about what it all means.”
It’s not the process that most Americans take when it comes to thinking through the emotional issue of immigration, a debate so polarizing these days that thousands of people from around the country marched and held both pro- and anti-immigration rallies following the passage of a House bill in December 2005 that stepped up border security and criminalized undocumented immigrants and anyone hiring them or even offering assistance.
Borjas told the Bulletin in 2000 that the “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” myth “is so entwined with what it means to be an American that it is very difficult for most people to look at this issue rationally.”
As an economist, he says he has to put the myth aside.
“Economics is a science,” he says. “It’s not opinions or ideology.”
And the science — the data — tells him that the United States attracts more people than it can let in, so choices have to be made.
During typical years in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States let in more than 1 million immigrants and refugees annually, Borjas writes. From 1980 to 2004, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics, 27.3 million people (16.8 million legally, 10.5 million illegally) moved to the United States from other countries.
“Suppose we decide to have open migration with only one country. Pick China for the sake of argument,” Borjas says. “China’s a big country, a billion people. Like with Mexico, not everyone would choose to come here. What if only 20 percent came? That’s not a big number, but that’s 200 million people. We’re going to add 200 million Chinese people to the United States. There’s nothing wrong with Chinese people, but is that the kind of country we want to live in? It would be a very different United States than we live in now.
“This cultural thing I don’t really address in my work, but a lot of people worry about it,” he says. “If you open the country up, the whole notion of what the United States is about will change.”
“What my work focuses on is the economic aspect of all of this. If you let everyone come who wants to come, there are going to be economic consequences. The most obvious is the welfare consequence,” he says. “The United States is not a generous country by European standards, but it’s pretty generous by most of the world’s standards. The United States cannot afford to give welfare to the millions of people who qualify to receive it if we have an open-door policy.”
Borjas says there are also labor-market consequences to not limiting
“More labor, more workers in the millions, is going to have a huge impact
on the United States labor market,” he says, especially for lower-income Americans, who most feel the competition for jobs and whose wages drop because of immigrants.
“The question becomes: ‘Who should the United States government protect? Whose well-being should the U.S. government be responsible for?’” he says. “That’s the question that is really at the heart of whether we should put in restrictions or not. To the extent that we care about the economic well-being of people who are already here, then you would think that would imply there has to be some kind of restriction.”
In 2000, following the release of his book on immigration, Heaven’s Door, Borjas told the Bulletin that “an immigration policy that favors less-skilled workers is not really such a good idea.”
“At the beginning of the twentieth century,” he added “we had a huge influx of unskilled immigrants who played a tremendous role in building up our manufacturing sector. But comparing what happened then to what is happening now is like comparing apples and oranges. The economic structure has changed in the last hundred years.”
The current policy for granting green cards went into effect in 1965. It favors family ties when deciding who gets permanent residency and who doesn’t. (For years prior to 1965, applicants from certain countries, particularly Western European, were favored over others.) In 2005, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics, of the more than 1.1 million people granted green cards, three-fifths were based on a family relationship.
The problem, Borjas says, is that we’re still admitting people who would be better suited to the early days — workers without the advanced skills needed in a computer-driven economy. One study found, for instance, that the number of 18- to 55-year-old immigrants not in school and with less than a high-school diploma increased from 2.8 million in 1980 to 4.5 million just a decade later. A whopping 63 percent of Mexican-born males are dropouts, according to a paper that Borjas wrote in 2005 — that’s significant because Mexico is the leading source country for illegal immigrants (nearly 6 million of the 10.5 million in 2005).
One way to mitigate this, Borjas has maintained over the years, is for the country to create a “point system” to decide who gets in and who doesn’t, similar to ones used in other countries, like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
In Heaven’s Door, Borjas creates a hypothetical person (who has his real attributes) who is trying to get into Canada. The person is 48 years old (Borjas’s age at the time), an economist with a PhD who is fluent in English and doesn’t have any relatives in Canada.
“After all is said and done, this hypothetical person would get 67 points,” writes Borjas — three points shy of the 70 needed to get in. “It turns out that if I had been a social worker instead of a social scientist, I would have obtained a total of 71 points and passed the test.”
Borjas writes that although the point system might seem arbitrary and has imperfections — it relies primarily on easily measured characteristics like age and education, but misses other factors like motivation — it “performs a useful function: it selects those immigrants who the Canadian authorities decided were most beneficial for the country. By restricting the entry of persons who are ‘too old’ or ‘too unskilled’ or ‘doing the wrong kind of job,’ the point system attempts to match immigrant skills with labor-market needs and reduces the fiscal burden that immigration would place on Canada’s generous system of public assistance.”
In some ways, Borjas has said, the United States already has an unofficial point system: if you have a family member here, you get all the points. Instead, if it implemented a structured point system based on criteria that rewarded whatever socioeconomic traits it felt were needed at the time, it would increase the skill level of its immigrant population.
OVER THE YEARS , Borjas has taken some heat for his belief in the point system, a system that would most likely have prevented his family from entering the country. They were prosperous in Cuba — his grandmother owned a clothing factory in Marianao, a suburb of Havana, which the family helped run — and one day Castro’s regime arrived at the factory in a truck and carted the contents away. His father died, and the family decided to leave the island, in batches. Two aunts went first to Miami. When he was 12 years old, he and his mother followed with virtually nothing.
“We left on October 17, 1962. It happens to be the day John Kennedy was told about missiles in Cuba. A week later, all the flights were closed down. Literally the whole island was shut down and people were not able to leave for several years after that,” Borjas says. “If I hadn’t left that day, I probably would never have been able to leave. I would have been of military age.”
Eventually he and his mother, who found work in a factory, moved from Miami to New Jersey because “she could never make money. There were a lot of Cuban immigrants at the time, competing for the same jobs,” he says. “To say we were poor was an understatement. We had no money whatsoever. She couldn’t make a living. She was on her own, and I was just a kid.”
Borjas’s critics say that his family’s plight, and their chance to start over, should make him more empathetic toward unskilled immigrants who want a better life.
But, as he told the Bulletin after Heaven’s Door came out: “I am extremely grateful to the United States for letting my family in. We were refugees in the early 1960s. But I’m not writing a book about immigration policy that benefits me. I am writing a book about an immigration policy that benefits the country. My interest is not necessarily the national interest…. My preferences shouldn’t drive immigration policy, just as they shouldn’t drive any policy.”
As he once told The Wall Street Journal, “Personally I would prefer the data went another way. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to write a paper twisting the data.”
In fact, his story, which he says he’s passed on to his three children, wasn’t the reason why he became an economist (he hated law, his initial choice, but loved math) or why he even started focusing on immigration.
“The fact that I work in immigration is a predisposition, but it doesn’t direct what I want to say or what I get at the computer. This was not my dissertation topic. The real reason, deep down, that I began to work on this was because I was living in California at the time. California was actually changing overnight,” he says. “This was in the early 1980s. Immigration was not a topic on any radar screen when it came to economics. It wasn’t something people even cared about. As a junior faculty member, it was virgin territory.
“My first contribution really had to do with technical details, which to this day, fascinate me. I’m still very motivated by technical details as opposed to the big policy issues. It wasn’t like I said: ‘What should immigration policy be for the country?’ It was things like: ‘What does economic policy have to say about which kinds of people choose to move and choose to stay?’ My background really had nothing to do with it — my economics training did.”
BORJAS'S INTEREST dates back to the 1980s, but the country’s goes back much further. Within the country’s two major waves of immigration — the first began around 1880 and ended in 1924, the second began at the end of 1960s and is still going strong — there have been mini waves of interest.
Today’s wave picked up energy last fall, when Congress began looking at various bills that would tighten borders and clamp down on illegal immigrants.
Borjas says there are a few reasons why immigration is again a white-hot topic.
“First you have 9/11, which clearly raised the awareness of how the borders are being controlled. All the 9/11 people were immigrants of one type or another, so there’s a notion that one should be much more aware of this, from an international security standpoint,” he says. “We also have the fact that we have many more people. The U.S. now has many, many more illegal immigrants pressing within its borders than we’ve ever had. Back in the 1980s, we had a big debate over illegal immigration. We gave amnesty to about 3 million immigrants. That number at the time was immense. Now we’re talking about 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants. Just the magnitude of the problem is something that has finally sunk into the popular consciousness.”
The third factor is one he couldn’t really explain: President Bush started talking about immigration again.
“He basically wanted to address this issue before 9/11 happened and put it in the back drawer, then the whole thing was resurrected again last year. Why he resurrected it, I have no idea,” Borjas says. “It doesn’t make any kind of political sense because, clearly, it isn’t something that’s going to go through without a lot of political trauma.”
Migration is also playing a role, Borjas says.
“Ten years ago, most immigrants lived in very few places: New York, California, Florida. It’s only in the last 10 years that we begin to see a diffusion of immigrants over the country,” he says.
“All of these things combined were like a tidal wave. It became the hottest thing on the planet, politically speaking,” he says. “It’s really quite remarkable.”
Borjas admits that no matter how the current wave plays out, the data — his contribution to the debate — can’t tell the whole story.
“Immigration policy should definitely not be made solely on the basis of what the evidence of the economic impact is,” he says. “The policy should be the political outcome of a debate that stresses the economic issues as well as social issues, cultural issues, political issues, humanitarian issues, etcetera. I’m not even convinced that economic factors should be the factors that matter most.”
The country first and foremost has to decide what it wants immigration to accomplish, he says.
“There are many millions more people who want to come here than the United States would ever be willing to admit.” Borjas has said. “Very few people in this country are willing to open up the doors completely.”