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Republished by on August 29, 2003

National Review, Dec 11, 1995  v47 n23 p20(2)

THE billowing dust of congressional battle joined now obscures the progress of immigration-reform legislation. The House bill introduced by Lamar Smith (R., Tex.), having survived a misguided attempt to split off its illegal-immigration provisions (NR, Nov. 27), awaits a Gingrich/Armey decision to bring it to the floor. Betting: maybe after Christmas. The Senate bill introduced by Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.) is still struggling through mark-up—and it's ominously weak already.

NR believes that next year this dust will be abruptly dispelled by a rude electoral wind. Immigration will be an issue in the presidential race, not least because of the likely presence on the Florida ballot of a measure even stronger than California's Proposition 187, which attacked the manifest absurdity of taxpayer subsidies to illegal immigrants (and so has naturally been overturned by a federal judge).

Meanwhile, immigration enthusiasts Left and Right continue to add to the confusion. Their role reminds us of the tag-line from the Erich Segal romance Love Story: "Being in love means never having to say you're sorry." Being an immigration enthusiast means never having to acknowledge contrary facts, analyses, or arguments. Moral self-regard conquers all.

In the Washington Post (November 4), [Pay archive] Stuart Anderson of the Cato Institute rebukes Rep. Smith for citing economist George Borjas to the effect that immigration has negative consequences for American wage rates and employment. "Perhaps Smith did not see Borjas's article in the Spring '95 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives," Anderson sneers. He then quotes a passage apparently saying the opposite.

Problem: this passage nowhere appears in Borjas's article. And Borjas in fact concludes that negative consequences can be detected when the national labor market, rather than specific metropolitan areas, is studied. The whole point of his Journal of Economic Perspectives [PDF] article was that only when immigration drives down wage rates does it generate a measurable benefit (still nugatory) for native-born Americans overall.

In Time magazine's attempted exorcism of immigration critic and Republican presidential specter Pat Buchanan (November 6), Robert Wright cites the much-misquoted Borjas as estimating that unskilled immigration accounts for "one-fifth of the widening of the wage gap between workers with different levels of schooling." But Wright then triumphantly announces that "these differences in educational level account for less than a third of the overall growth in wage inequality. And one-fifth of one-third is one-fifteenth."

Problem: Borjas's estimate is actually that one-third of the increase in the "wage gap" between skilled and unskilled workers is caused by immigration.

And anyway, this "wage gap" is a completely different phenomenon from "wage inequality," which is the term of art used by economists to describe aggregate income differences among all workers, regardless of skill levels. Education does account for about a third of this aggregate difference. But the balance is caused by other factors, such as worker experience. And immigration may well contribute to the differing impact of these other factors too. As usual with this taboo subject, no economist has dared to ask.

In Reason magazine (November), amplified by the Wall Street Journal's Notable and Quotable echo-chamber (October 18), editor Virginia Postrel claims that "even in the nativist 1920s . . . the U.S. did not close its Southern border. Until 1965, there was no numerical limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere . . . the border was essentially open."

Problem: it wasn't. Although the Western Hemisphere did not have an absolute numerical limit, immigrants were required to meet various criteria including, as a practical matter, a job offer. This choked off Western Hemisphere immigration during the 1924—1965 Great Lull. Only some 299,000 Mexicans immigrated legally during the entire decade of the 1950s. About the same number now enter every year.

Journal editor Robert Bartley presumably knows this, because NR senior editor Peter Brimelow pointed it out in contesting Bartley's objection to the NR cover story that led to Brimelow's Alien Nation (June 22, 1992; February 1, 1993). Maybe Bartley was attending a Dow Jones executive seminar on managing diversity when Miss Postrel's Quote was Noted.

Still, although Miss Postrel got her facts wrong, we applaud her attempt to introduce them into the rarefied theoretical atmosphere of Reason. For libertarians, discussions of how many immigrants might dance on a national identity card in principle have replaced any serious consideration of Washington's highly interventionist immigration policy in practice. Now that Miss Postrel has noticed the 1924 Immigration Act, perhaps Reason will address the workings of the disastrous 1965 Act—sometime around 2036.

While we're on the subject, immigration enthusiasts continue to claim that immigrant welfare and education levels are not troublesome, citing the Urban Institute's 1994 report Immigration and Immigrants by Michael Fix and Jeffrey Passel. But NR has shown without contravention, not once (August 29, 1994) but twice (April 17, 1995), that Fix and Passel had eliminated the immigration problem by the ingenious expedient of eliminating problem immigrants. For example, all Mexicans were excluded from its education calculations because many are illegal. But Mexico is also the largest source of legal immigrants.

Yo, Urban Institute (fax: 202-452-1840)! What about setting this record straight? You have nothing to lose but your moral self-regard. And those Ford Foundation grants.

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