Archive for the 'Immigration' Category

Sep 09 2010

Updated: Immigration – NOT and economic debate…

Because if it were, there would be no debate at all. Immigration, from an economic standpoint, is simply the flow of labor from one geographic region to another. I’m not talking about the kinds of immigrants who arrive in America or Switzerland or the UK as refugees fleeing political, religious, gender or racial persecution. Such asylum seekers have motives that are entirely non-economic for fleeing their homelands. I’m talking about the millions of people every year pack up their homes and seek a new life in a new country for economic reasons.

America has been called the “land of opportunity”, and for nearly five centuries now the opportunities the New World has had to offer have attracted immigrants from all corners of the globe. First it was the Spanish and the Portuguese who came in conquest in search of gold and silver. Later came the pilgrims seeking religious freedom, and after that the Irish, Italian, Germans, Russians and countless other Europeans seeking the economic opportunities offered by the construction of railroads, homesteads on the Great Plains and gold in the mountains of the West. Chinese arrived by the millions from the 1850’s through the turn of the 20th century, and over the past hundred years America’s racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural fabric has been enriched by the arrival of millions upon millions of people seeking the economic opportunities America has had to offer. The opportunities of the 21st century no longer involve the hope of striking gold or working on the railroad, rather they exist in industries such as software engineering, medicine, scientific research, finance and, yes, agriculture and construction.

It is interesting to me that in the United States today, American citizens and politicians seem to be as angry as ever about the seemingly endless flow of “illegals” flooding across the American border, bringing with them crime and contributing to unemployment among American workers already struggling to find jobs during the country’s deepest recession in decades. If you believe politicians like the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, this “invasion” of illegals from south of the US border is simply tearing apart the fabric of American society. Her state has even gone so far as to pass a law requiring police officers to require anyone who they suspect of being “illegal” to present proof of their legal status upon the officer’s request. Other attempts by states to crack down on illegal immigration include laws forbidding landlords from renting apartments to illegal immigrants and on a national level there is a major push to change the US constitution, in which the 14th Amendment states that any child born in the United States is automatically a US citizen. Imigration opponents claim that millions of Latinos enter the US illegally to have babies, which they call “anchor babies”, who become US citizens and then, supposedly, later in life, help their parents become legal US residents.

The protest against illegal immigration has dominated the right wing agenda in America lately, and has brought angry Americans to the street for rallies across the country aimed at sending illegals “back to where they came from”.

The irony of the whole situation is that today, in the midst of the Great Recession, immigration rates are falling rapidly. The number of immigrants entering the United States illegally has actually fallen by 67% in the last few years, from 850,000 per year between 2000 and 2005 to under 300,000 in 2009. Even more ironically, the number of illegals leaving the United States now actually exceeds the number entering the US, meaning that the total number of illegal immigrants (around 11 million in 2009) is decreasing and is lower now than it has been for much of the last decade. The Washington Post presents the facts:

From an economic perspective, the backlash against illegal immigration to the United Sates right now is perplexing and frustrating. Americans currently find themselves in a dire economic situation in which over 8 million people have lost their jobs, the unemployment rate is stuck at a historic high of nearly 10%, and discouraged workers have dropped out of the labor force at alarming rates, meaning that almost one in five Americans is either unable to find work or has given up the search. Clearly there is much to be upset about.

But all the facts above send a clear message to potential illegal immigrants to America, as well as to those who are already here! The message is, “DON’T COME!” (or for those who are already here, “maybe this is a good time to leave!”). Some of the decrease in the flow of illegal immigrants can probably be attributed to tougher border security and increased enforcement of the existing immigration law. But it’s more likely that the decrease in the illegal population is an economic phenomenon. Here’s why:

America purportedly practices a system of economics known as a free market. The fundamental characteristic of the free market system is that resources are allocated efficiently when they are allowed to flow from markets in which they are in low demand to markets in which they are in high demand. Price is the signal that tells resource owners where their resources are demanded the most. When we are talking about immigration, the resource that is flowing from market to market is labor. In a free market economy, there should be no government controls over the free flow of labor from one market to another. When the price of labor in one market (say the apple industry in Washington State or the construction sector in Arizona) is higher than in another market (say the corn industry in Mexico or the retail sector in Guatemala), the signal sent by this imbalance of wages is that more labor is demanded in Washington and Arizona and less is needed in Mexico and Guatemala.

The imbalance of wages between the US and its closest neighbors leads to a natural inflow of labor from low-wage countries to the higher wage industries in the United States. It’s a form of osmosis, which according to Wikipedia is “the movement of water across a partially permeable membrane from an area of high water concentration to an area of low water concentration… which tends to reduce the difference in concentrations”. Instead of water, immigration is osmosis of labor. Labor is more abundant in Mexico and Latin America than it is in the United States. The flow of labor across America’s “semi-permeable” border with Mexico simply “reduces the differences in concentration” of labor between the US and its southerly neighbors.

Making it harder for immigrants to come into the United States does little to protect American jobs. One thing I teach my students is that in a world where labor is not able to be imported (i.e. one where immigration is stemmed or slowed down), we should expect to see capital exported. A higher border fence with Mexico or more immigration police or a repeal of the 14th Amendment may reduce the number of people coming to the United States to find work, but these barriers to immigration will do nothing to stop the flow of capital to Mexico and the rest of the low-wage world. If Americans want more jobs to be done in America, then they should embrace those who are willing to do them, otherwise those jobs can be exported to where the wages are lower and people are willing to do them. If labor is immobile, capital will grow legs!

The immigration debate is not an economic debate. It is a political one. From a purely economic perspective, with the efficiency of free markets as a guiding principle, the free flow of labor across national borders improves overall efficiency of both the countries from which the immigrants come and the country in which they arrive. American workers are only marginally affected by the presence of illegal immigrants in the United States. Several studies have shown that while employment among certain Americans is affected slightly, there is no evidence that illegal immigration puts downward pressure on American wage rates. Jobs that might not even exist in America without immigrant workers willing to work for low wages do get done thanks to immigration, and the American economy is stronger and healthier because of this.  Without immigration, those jobs will still get done, just not in America! Or, if the jobs can’t be exported, they’ll get done but at a much higher cost, raising prices for American households and reducing the real income of the American people.

In economic terms, increased immigration allows the United States to have a comparative advantage in the production of a broader range of goods and services than it would have without immigration. Since in a global economy, what a nation’s economy produces is determined by what it can produce at the lowest opportunity cost, the more low-wage labor America has to employ, the larger it can expect its economy to be and the greater number of exports it can expect to sell to the rest of the world.  Immigration is overwhelmingly positive for the American economy, even illegal immigration. If it weren’t illegal, it would happen anyway, just more of it, which again would only make the US economy stronger and its output greater.

Again, these are all mute points in the current American debate over immigration, because the fact is that the net flow of illegal immigrants is actually negative right now. NPR reports,

Signs are pointing to stabilization on the border… as a still-sputtering U.S. economy and high unemployment continue to contribute to the over-the-border slowdown. Estimates suggest that the U.S. economy has lost 8 million jobs in the downturn, including 4 million manufacturing and construction jobs over the past three years.

The free market offers the perfect solution to the illegal immigration debate in the United States. Let it be! If America doesn’t need more labor, then labor will not come to America, and some of that which is already here will leave. But once the US economy begins to recover and the demand for labor begins to grow once more, let it be! Instead of building higher fences and hiring more border police, find ways to make it easier for workers to enter the country and fill the jobs for which they are demanded. America will be stronger for it! After all, if we don’t embrace the inflow of labor, we better be prepared for an outflow of capital. And as even my first year IB Econ students can tell you, a decrease in the labor force and the amount of capital in a nation is a recipe for economic contraction, recession and declining standard of living among that nation’s people.

Is that the America we want to see in the future? Would America be the land of freedom and opportunity today if it had kept out immigrants throughout its history instead of embracing them and incorporating them into American society and the US economy? I doubt it. So, America,  end the debate… because from an economist’s perspective, it was over before it even began!

Update:

Several people have left comments on my Facebook page about this post. Here are a couple of those comments:

From reader #1:

Good post! I’m curious since you didn’t specifically mention the main argument I’ve seen: Illegal immigration results in immigrants who consume more value in public services than they return to the public funds. What’s your take on that angle?

And from reader #2:

Very good and well thought out post. However, I disagree that it isnot an economic issue. In fact the major problem is that it IS an economic issue. Over 80 percent of their wages go back home – out of the country – and I’m not just talking about Mexicans. Additionally they go to the emergency room for most of their medical issues, even the common cold. They can have a $10,000 visit and never pay a penny – we have to pay for it. They get welfare, food stamps and much more – and we have to pay for it. Most of them have false IDs and Social Security cards so they pay no taxes.

Granted some of them do the jobs that most Americans won’t do – agriculture, sweat shops, etc. – but they cost us much more than they provide. 60 percent of the criminals in California jails are illegal and we have to support tham at an average cost of $30,000 per year each. Their families also collect welfare. Thousands of car accidents are caused by illegals each year who have no insurance – driving our insurance rates sky high.

Illegals are DEFINITELY an economical issue. By the way what is the first word in ILLEGAL alien – their very existance here is illegal. Also they are not illegal immigrants. An immigrant is one who goes through the proper channels and supports this country. The illegals do not do that. They protest that they are mistreated and insist that they be treated as citizens. Try to enter their home countries illegally and see how you are treated. America is heaven to ‘our’ illegals compared to virtually any other country in the world.

So, I felt obliged to reply to these comments, so here is my response!

Reader number #2, you have some fair concerns, but it should be pointed out that the industries immigrant workers support do pay taxes, and the revenues these businesses generate for the US economy using low wage immigrant labor is taxable income. Without the availability of cheap labor, many of these industries would fall to foreign competition or would simply pack up and move their operations to foreign countries. Without the income generated by these industries, the US tax base would shrink and there would be less to spend on all sorts of public goods for US citizens.

While you’re right that illegals do not pay income taxes and therefore are “free-riding” in a sense, it must be recognized that if they were here legally, they also would not pay income taxes, and in fact would be eligible for billions of dollars in federal tax subsidies and other transfer payments due to their low income (minimum wage?!) that they are not able to take advantage of due to their status as illegals. So couldn’t you argue that they’re costing American taxpayers LESS because they are here illegally?

And I don’t understand your argument that since they make up 60% of California’s prison population they are somehow taking advantage of the American taxpayer. If those spots were not occupied by “illegals”, are you suggesting there would be 60% fewer prisoners? Last I heard California was shortening sentences to make room for the long line of convicts who there is simply not room for in the state’s prison system! Wouldn’t taxpayers have to pay $30,000 a year for any prisoner, regardless of his nationality? I mean, if they were Americans they’d also cost $30,000 a year to support, right?

Reader #1, with regards to the lack of contribution to public funds, you must remember that most Americans earning below $40,000 per year effectively pay no income tax, and depending on the number of children they have and other factors may even be eligible for an earned income tax credit of thousands of dollars. Illegal immigrant workers earning minimum wage (or close to it), if they were to become legal taxpaying workers, would instantly add millions of low income workers to the tax system and thus add billions of dollars to government expenditures on EICs and other tranfer payments, as opposed to contributing positively to the country’s public funds like you suggest they might. I mean, sure, an immigrant working in Silicon Valley is a valuable contributor to the tax base, but one working for minimum wage on a farm will add nothing to the tax coffers, legal or not!

In addition to the earned income tax credit, as legal American workers they’d be eligible for welfare benefits, unemployment benefits, Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized school lunches and countless other transfer payments that would place a larger burden on the American middle and upper class tax payers.

Reader #2, illegal immigrants are not the only people in America who take advantage of the emergency room. Poor white Americans, not to mention the 49 million of us who are without health insurance, can walk into an emergency room just like the few million illegal immigrants can and walk out without ever paying a bill. Do you also want to kick the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans out of the country because they might take advantage of the Emergency room? Is a poor illegal immigrant any more likely to drive without car insurance than a poor American citizen? I don’t know, but I’d be interested to see some data on that.

Public schools are paid for by property taxes in most states. Immigrant workers supporting a family on minimum wage are never going to contribute much to property taxes, just as low income American households who rent their homes or own homes of low value will not pay much in property taxes. Yet their children still receive an education, don’t they? Should we deny all Americans who do not pay much in property tax access to public education? Besides, if a family or an individual pays rent, whether they’re citizens or illegal immigrants, their landlord is paying property taxes which go towards supporting public schools. Therefore anyone, legal or illegal, who pays rent is indirectly supporting public schools… so what difference does it make whether the renter is an American citizen or not?

Reader #2, one of the only reasons that 80% of illegal’s wages are sent home is because the US makes it so difficult for them to bring their families into the country with them. I think you misunderstood the whole point of my blog post. I did not intend to present an argument for more ILLEGAL immigration, rather I intended to present an economic argument for more LEGAL immigration. I think immigration reform that makes it easier for labor to flow across borders between the US and its immediate neighbors would alleviate much of the anti-immigration concerns of citizens like yourself. Yes, illegal immigration is ILLEGAL, so let’s make it easier for immigrants to come here legally, then we’ll have fewer criminals on our hands, and more valuable human capital to contribute to the strength of and increase the growth potential of the American economy.

I’m approaching this issue from a purely economic standpoint here, and from an economic perspective the benefits of more flexible international labor markets overwhelmingly outweigh the costs. Look at the EU and the 27 member countries which allow labor to move easily and efficiently across national borders. If immigrant labor was really as harmful as America claims it to be, then why has Europe embraced open borders and its economy has grown to exceed the size of the United States in the last decade? Sure, many Brits hate having Eastern Europeans in their cities “taking their jobs” and corrupting their culture. But the British economy (and those of Eastern Europe) are better off because of it.

Anyway, thanks for reading the article!

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Sep 24 2009

China, the land of opportunity, attracts America’s tired, poor, huddled masses

Young Americans Going To China For Jobs – the Huffington Post

I remember my 9th grade history class, when we learned about how so many thousands of Chinese immigrated to the American west to build the railroads. My textbook had a picture that looked like this:

Well, that was 130 years ago. Today, the world is a very different place. America, once the land of opportunity, has shed hundreds of thousands of jobs a month for 18 months straight. Unemployment, near 10%, has driven the economy into its deepest recession since the 1930s, trade is grossly imbalanced, as are federal budgets, and national debt has inched ever closer to 100% of GDP. All in all, things are pretty gloomy.

Someday, ninth grade history students may look in their textbooks and read a different story about the early 21st Century. In the future, they may see pictures like this in their history books:

That’s right, today the land of opportunity is China, and hundreds of thousands of foreigners, including thousands of Americans, are packing their bags for the “Middle Kingdom” in search of work.

Young foreigners… are coming to China to look for work in its unfamiliar but less bleak economy, driven by the worst job markets in decades in the United States, Europe and some Asian countries.

Many do basic work such as teaching English, a service in demand from Chinese businesspeople and students. But a growing number are arriving with skills and experience in computers, finance and other fields.

“China is really the land of opportunity now, compared to their home countries,” said Chris Watkins, manager for China and Hong Kong of MRI China Group, a headhunting firm. “This includes college graduates as well as maybe more established businesspeople, entrepreneurs and executives from companies around the world.”

Some 217,000 foreigners held work permits at the end of 2008, up from 210,000 a year earlier, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Thousands more use temporary business visas and go abroad regularly to renew them.

Some foreigners see China not just as a refuge but as a source of opportunities they might not get at home.

Konstantin Schamber, a 27-year-old German, passed up possible jobs at home to become business manager for a Beijing law firm, where he is the only foreign employee.

“I believe China is the same place as the United States used to be in the 1930s that attracts a lot of people who’d like to have either money or career opportunities,” Schamber said.

There’s a lot of talk in America today, on the news, on the radio, in the papers, about whether the US economy will ever return to “normal”. Unemployment is nearly 10%, and some economists think it may take years for it to fall below 10% once more.

I guess the good news is, if Americans start heading to China in ever larger numbers to find work, the number of people looking for work in the US will fall, leading to lower unemployment. Of course, that’s not how the US wants to bring down unemployment, nor is it good for the nation’s long-run growth potential if high skilled workers go abroad to find jobs. But it does raise a very important question: Will America be the land of opportunity in the future? Or will its tired, huddled masses become the “boat people” of the 21st Century, seeking employment on distant shores.

Full disclosure here: I myself have only worked as a teacher abroad, including in China! And to be honest, it is because the demand for my skills is clearly greater overseas than it is at home! My income is far higher abroad than I could earn in an American public school, and my services and skills are valued much greater in the international setting, particularly in Asia!

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Feb 26 2009

An Asian Exodus?

FT.com / China / Economy & Trade – Downturn drives expat exodus from Shanghai

Having recently moved from Shanghai to Zurich myself, I was interested to see this headline in today’s Financial Times.

Korean companies are shipping workers home, cutting off school fees and repatriating wives and children without their menfolk to cut costs. They are the first large wave of expatriates to have begun leaving China’s financial capital as a result of the global economic crisis but their departure raises the prospect of a broader exodus of foreigners who may take investment, skills and job creation opportunities with them.

The press officer of the Korean consulate in Shanghai could not answer questions about the exodus of her countrymen – because her post had just been abolished and she was being sent back to Korea…

Japanese relocation companies, meanwhile, say there has been a marked rise in Japanese families returning home from Shanghai compared with last year and they expect the pace to pick up further during the traditional peak relocation months of March and April.

As Korean and Japanese families pack up and leave Shanghai, the impact is likely to be felt at international schools catering to the expat community in Eastern China. Koreans made up around 15% of the students at Shanghai American School, while other schools in the city had even larger numbers of Japanese and Korean students. In Beijing the exodus is also underway:

The pain has not been limited to Shanghai. A parent with children enrolled in an expensive Beijing international school says most of her daughters’ Korean classmates have left the school almost overnight.

This story reminds me of my own experience as an international school student in the late 1990’s, when the Asian financial crisis plunged Korea’s economy into deep recession. At the time, 30% of my school in Malaysia were Korean students, and in one semester over half of them packed up and moved back to Korea. In one year enrollment at the International School of Kuala Lumpur’s high school fell from 600 students to 420!

One reason the Korean and Japanese economies are struggling is that they are heavily dependent on exports to the rest of the world. With incomes falling and unemployment rising among their trading partners, the effect is amplified in Japan and Korea by significant falls in aggregate demand and GDP due to lower net exports, investment and consumption in the Japanese economy.

According to this article in the FT, the current fall in exports in Japan is the worst in 50 years.

Japanese exports fell 45.7 per cent in January, eclipsing a 35 per cent drop in December and big declines last month for Taiwan and South Korea.

The slide in exports was the steepest since 1957 and highlighted the severe impact of the global slowdown on demand for Japanese products ranging from cars to heavy machinery and electronics. Exports to the US fell 52.9 per cent and those to China were down 45.1 per cent .

Falling demand has forced manufacturers such as Toyota and Sony to cut production and jobs. It has reinforced concerns the economy will suffer another quarter of falling output. Gross domestic product shrank 3.3 per cent in the last three months of 2008, the largest fall in 35 years.

The diagram below provides a graphical representation of the impact of falling exports on Japan’s economy.

Discussion questions:

  1. Some economists believe that recessions are a crisis of confidence. What do they mean by that and how does the situation in Japan seen above reflect this theory?
  2. What is the multiplier effect and how does the fall spending on Japanese exports by the rest of the world result in an even greater fall in Japan’s GDP?
  3. If you were the manager of a Japanese firm facing falling demand from international customers and you had to cut costs, what costs would  you cut in the short-run to remain competitive? What about in the long-run, assuming demand for your products remained weak?

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Apr 03 2008

Unforseen consequences of weaker dollar – fewer immigrants!

FT.com / World – American dream hit by dollar’s decline

Ever wonder if there was a connection between the strength of a country’s currency and the flow of immigrants into that country? No? Me neither… but interestingly it appears that there is a direct relationship between these variables. The weaker a country’s currency, the fewer immigrants cross its borders to find work. Here’s why:

Migrant workers are choosing to move to Europe, Australia or Canada instead of the US in order to protect the purchasing power of the money they send home to their families, according to one of the world’s leading experts on remittances.

The shift is a result of sharp falls in the value of the US dollar against other international currencies, many of which have been boosted by the rise in commodity prices.

This news may make some American’s happy, since it could mean more opportunities for the American workers who may have lost their jobs during the current recession. This, however, may not be the case. It turns out that much of the decline in immigrant workers is in high skilled fields for which demand for workers in the US remains high even in times of recession. According to the article, “the trend was especially notable among skilled workers, such as doctors, nurses and information technology specialists”.

A decline in the inflow of high skilled workers may actually make Americans worse off. I have blogged about the shortage of American workers in fields such as engineering, software design, and natural gas rig technicians,and I don’t think many Americans would argue that health care in America is already too cheap, so I suspect that more doctors and nurses would be desired.

A weak dollar has many effects on America. In some ways, it makes the country better off. As I have blogged about here, a weak dollar should lead to more balanced trade, a boom for US manufacturers, and an increase in exports, all related, of course, to the relative decline in prices of US goods to foreign consumers. But a weak dollar may in fact do more harm than good, one reason for which is explained here: skilled foreign workers whose talents are in strong demand in the US are moving more and more to European markets to find work.

Anti-immigration hawks may be cheering, but American consumers may start rearing as high-skilled labor shortages drive up wages and prices in the markets Americans most depend on today: health care, energy and technology.

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Dec 09 2007

Immigration and American labor markets – opposing views

Irrational choices | Free exchange | Economist.com

The debate over the impact of immigration on American wages is a hot one. As seen in the video below of immigration opponent Lou Dobbs, many in America view the free-market, open boarders ideas of certain economists with outright disdain and hatred. Among these “anti-immigration hawks” is economist George Borjas:

“(Anti-) immigration hawks like George Borjas have estimated that wage competition from immigrant labour may reduce native, unskilled worker earnings by something like 7 percent.”

Among economists, however, such views are rare:

“Other researchers dispute such figures, arguing that immigrant impact on native, unskilled workers wages is minimal and is strongly positive for skilled labour. In either case, it’s clear that the gains enjoyed by the migrants themselves significantly exceed domestic worker losses.”

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