The Immigration Equation - New York Times
1 of 12
1/15/2008 11:30 AM
July 9, 2006
The Immigration Equation
By ROGER LOWENSTEIN
The day I met George Borjas,cloistered in his office at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
while graduate students from Russia, India, China and maybe Mexico mingled in the school cafe, sipping
coffee and chattering away in all their tongues, the United States Senate was hotly debating what to do about
the country's immigration policy. Borjas professed to be unfazed by the goings-on in Washington. A
soft-spoken man, he stressed repeatedly that his concern was not to make policy but to derive the truth. To
Borjas, a Cuban immigrant and the pre-eminent scholar in his field, the truth is pretty obvious: immigrants
hurt the economic prospects of the Americans they compete with. And now that the biggest contingent of
immigrants are poorly educated Mexicans, they hurt poorer Americans, especially African-Americans, the
Borjas has been making this case -- which is based on the familiar concept of supply and demand -- for more
than a decade. But the more elegantly he has made it, it seems, the less his colleagues concur. ''I think I have
proved it,'' he eventually told me, admitting his frustration. ''What I don't understand is why people don't agree
It turns out that Borjas's seemingly self-evident premise -- that more job seekers from abroad mean fewer
opportunities, or lower wages, for native workers -- is one of the most controversial ideas in labor economics.
It lies at the heart of a national debate, which has been encapsulated (if not articulated) by two very different
immigration bills: one, passed by the House of Representatives, which would toughen laws against
undocumented workers and probably force many of them to leave the country; and one in the Senate, a
measure that would let most of them stay.
You can find economists to substantiate the position of either chamber, but the consensus of most is that, on
balance, immigration is good for the country. Immigrants provide scarce labor, which lowers prices in much
the same way global trade does. And overall, the newcomers modestly raise Americans' per capita income.
But the impact is unevenly distributed; people with means pay less for taxi rides and household help while the
less-affluent command lower wages and probably pay more for rent.
The debate among economists is whether low-income workers are hurt a lot or just a little -- and over what
the answer implies for U.S. policy. If you believe Borjas, the answer is troubling. A policy designed with only
Americans' economic well-being in mind would admit far fewer Mexicans, who now account for about 3 in
10 immigrants. Borjas, who emigrated from Cuba in 1962, when he was 12 (and not long after soldiers burst
into his family's home and ordered them at gunpoint to stand against a wall), has asserted that the issue,
indeed, is ''Whom should the United States let in?''
Such a bald approach carries an overtone of the ethnic selectivity that was a staple of the immigration debates