Why Are Immigration Advocates So Quick to Play the Race Card?

Reihan Salam, National Review, July 1, 2016

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My guess is that if immigration policy were not viewed through a racial lens, opposition to immigration would in fact increase substantially. Many people who would otherwise be skeptical of the virtues of mass immigration can’t stand the thought of being racist. So when influential voices insist that opposition to immigration is racist, they find plenty of citizens who take those claims at face value.

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If racism played a large role in driving opposition to immigration, non-Hispanic whites would, one assumes, be more favorably disposed toward immigrants of European origin than toward immigrants of Mexican origin. The political scientists Morris Levy and Matthew Wright suggest otherwise in a new paper that they’ve ably summarized in the Washington Post. Levy and Wright conducted an online poll of non-Hispanic whites in California in June 2015. All respondents were read a short vignette about a hypothetical program that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants, and then they were asked whether a hypothetical immigrant ought to be included in the program. One-third were asked about a Mexican immigrant (“Juan”), another third were asked about a Chinese immigrant (“Yuan”), and the final third were asked about a German immigrant (“Johan”). In every case, respondents were told that the immigrant in question had lived in the U.S. for two years. But in only half of them, they were also told that he spoke English and had held a steady job for the duration of his time in the U.S.

Levy and Wright posit that if anti-Hispanic bias were at work, respondents would discount the positive information in the case of Juan while taking account of it in the case of Yuan or Johan. The results were revealing. In the absence of information about English-language fluency or work history, respondents were seven to eight percentage points less likely to believe that Juan should be granted legal status. This clearly suggests some degree of bias. When the positive information was included, however, this gap disappeared. Essentially, Levy and Wright’s respondents were operating under the assumption that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. tend to be less educated than German and Chinese immigrants to the U.S., and so, lacking additional evidence, they assumed that Juan would be needier than Yuan or Johan. Once they knew that Juan spoke English and had been working steadily, they were as inclined to help him as to help his fictional counterparts.

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Why might the non-Hispanic whites surveyed by Levy and Wright be more inclined to assume that a Mexican immigrant relies on safety-net benefits than does a German or Chinese immigrant?

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In this case, the belief that households headed by Mexican immigrants have lower incomes than those headed by Chinese and German immigrants is correct. In 2014, the median household income for households headed by Mexican immigrants was $37,390, well below the median for all immigrant-headed ($49,487) and native-headed households ($54,565). For households headed by Chinese immigrants, the median household income in 2014 was $57,000. For households headed by French, Swedish, and Danish immigrants, median household incomes were $81,000, $79,000, and $76,000 respectively, and the number for European immigrants overall was $60,000. As in most affluent market democracies, the U.S. safety net is designed–albeit imperfectly–to transfer resources to households with below-average incomes. So it should come as no surprise that immigrant-headed households with low incomes really are more reliant on safety-net benefits than are those with high incomes.

Drawing on data from the Census Bureau’s Survey on Income and Program Participation, the Center for Immigration Studies has found that while 73 percent of households headed by an immigrant from Central America and Mexico are enrolled in at least one safety-net program, the same is true of 32 percent of households headed by East Asian immigrants, and of 26 percent of European immigrants.

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Why do we see such pronounced differences in immigrants from different countries? One driver is domestic inequality in the countries that send immigrants to the U.S., as George Borjas of the Harvard Kennedy School has found. One striking pattern he has identified is that immigrants originating from low-inequality societies tend to earn higher entry wages than do immigrants originating from high-inequality societies. This is true even when we compare countries that are at similar stages of development. To explain this pattern, Borjas posits that, when the payoff to acquiring skills is relatively high, as it is in high-inequality societies, emigration is a less attractive option to skilled professionals than when the payoff to acquiring skills is relatively low, as in low-inequality societies.

Although a moderately skilled worker might have better economic prospects in egalitarian South Korea than in the U.S., living in a highly egalitarian society could be more frustrating for an ambitious skilled professional who knows she could command a much higher wage in the U.S. The situation is reversed in an inegalitarian society, such as Mexico’s, where skilled professionals can lead lives that are in many respects more comfortable than the lives they would lead in the U.S., whereas middle-income workers can greatly improve their circumstances when they move north of the border. Moreover, if it is extremely difficult for people of modest means to acquire valuable skills, as is often the case in inegalitarian societies, emigration might be the most attractive option for less-skilled people from poor families looking to climb the economic ladder. Mexican immigrants are not “worse” than European and East Asian immigrants in some moral sense. Rather, they are more likely to be drawn from the ranks of the relatively poor in their native country than are their European and East Asian counterparts, and so they are more likely to suffer from disadvantages that limit their upward social mobility in the U.S.

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Given the widely held preference among Americans for educated immigrants over less-educated immigrants, and for immigrants working in high-status occupations over those working in low-status occupations, it should come as no surprise that many Americans favor reducing immigration levels. If more Americans knew about the composition of the immigrant influx–if they knew about the number of less-skilled immigrants we admit relative to skilled immigrants–it seems likely that more Americans would favor a reduction in immigration levels, or at the very least a concerted effort to change the composition of the immigrant influx. For example, we might welcome more Latino immigrants with post-graduate degrees and fewer with a high-school education or less. The evidence we have to date suggests that Americans would greatly prefer this approach, even if it did not change the ethnic character of immigration to the U.S.

Far from being rooted in racism, opposition to immigration in the U.S. seems to be rooted in concerns about the ability of less-skilled immigrants to support themselves without Medicaid, SNAP, the earned-income tax credit, and various other supports. The voters I have in mind might not have a sophisticated grasp of public finance, but they intuitively understand that low-wage workers generally need more public assistance than high-wage workers, hence their apparent preference for a more selective immigration policy. One suspects that these concerns will grow more pronounced as more low-wage jobs grow susceptible to automation and offshoring, and as increases in the minimum wage lead employers to substitute skilled workers for less-skilled workers.

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