I never thought I would praise a Paul Krugman New York Times column, but today’s piece makes a good point:
About the economics [of immigration]: the crucial divide isn’t between legal and illegal immigration; it’s between high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants. High-skilled immigrants — say, software engineers from South Asia — are, by any criterion I can think of, good for America. But the effects of low-skilled immigration are mixed at best.
True, there are large benefits for the low-skilled migrants, who may find even a minimum-wage U.S. job a big step up. Immigration also raises the total income of native-born Americans, although reasonable estimates suggest that these gains amount to no more than a fraction of 1 percent.
But low-skilled immigration depresses the wages of less-skilled native-born Americans. And immigrants increase the demand for public services, including health care and education. Estimates indicate that low-skilled immigrants don’t pay enough in taxes to cover the cost of providing these services.
All of these effects, except for the gains for the immigrants themselves, are fairly small. Some of my friends say that’s the point I should stress: immigration is a wonderful thing for the immigrants, and claims that immigrants are undermining American workers and taxpayers are hugely overblown — end of story.
But it’s important to be intellectually honest, even when it hurts. Moreover, what really worries me isn’t the narrow economics — it’s the political economy, the effects of having a disenfranchised labor force.
Imagine, for a moment, a future in which America becomes like Kuwait or Dubai, a country where a large fraction of the work force consists of illegal immigrants or foreigners on temporary visas — and neither group has the right to vote. Surely this would be a betrayal of our democratic ideals, of government of the people, by the people. Moreover, a political system in which many workers don’t count is likely to ignore workers’ interests: it’s likely to have a weak social safety net and to spend too little on services like health care and education.
…Of course, America isn’t Dubai. But we’re moving in that direction. As of 2002, according to the Urban Institute, 14 percent of U.S. workers, and 20 percent of low-wage workers, were immigrants. Only a third of these immigrant workers were naturalized citizens. So we already have a large disenfranchised work force, and it’s growing rapidly. The goal of immigration reform should be to reverse that trend.
… I’m puzzled by the plan to create a permanent guest-worker program, one that would admit 400,000 more workers a year (and you know that business interests would immediately start lobbying for an increase in that number). Isn’t institutionalizing a disenfranchised work force a big step away from democracy?