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Biden's Immigration Reforms Won't Address Critical Needs

biden wearing a face mask and holding up a piece of paper
President Joe Biden (AP)

By Friday, 12 March 2021 08:12 AM Current | Bio | Archive

America needs immigrants to make its economy run but also needs systemic reforms to address the number and composition of new arrivals. Unfortunately, President Joe Biden's recent executive orders and proposed legislation don't get to the root of those problems.
In recent decades, U.S. productivity and population growth have fallen. Those are the principal reasons Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump struggled to boost annual economic growth above 2%. Without more skilled immigrants, conditions could get worse.
Don't train enough
U.S. universities and technical training programs prepare too few native-born Americans to meet the needs of the digital, life science and emerging green industries — and that limits innovation and growth. Foreign students who obtain visas upon completing their training help somewhat, but the current system hardly grants enough skills-based visas overall.
At the other end of the spectrum, observe most construction sites, fast-food restaurants or domestic cleaning services, and it is obvious immigrants fill low-paying jobs native-born Americans have been unavailable — at least until COVID — to take.
About 45 million U.S. residents are foreign born and of those, about 11 million are in the country illegally. The distribution is bimodal — about 28% have less than a high school education, and 32% hold a college degree or more.
Immigrants tend to be older than the native population, and 63% are estimated to qualify for means-tested programs, as compared to 35% for the native population.
Boost GDP, but lower wages
A National Academy of Sciences study concluded immigrants boost GDP overall and push down the wages of less-skilled workers but that wage effect has not been large. In a post-COVID economy with fewer commuters, less demand for office space and business travel curtailed by Zooming, the wage effect could increase and perhaps enough to significantly exacerbate cultural alienation in native-born, working-class communities.
These conditions pit well-educated, highly paid Americans in prosperous cities, who are comfortable with immigrants as colleagues and neighbors, against poorer native-born Americans squeezed out of manufacturing and into lower paying service employment by globalization, robots and artificial intelligence.
In an effort to gain favor with progressives, most of Biden's reforms would worsen those tensions.
About 1.1 million immigrants are legally admitted each year — 44% are close relatives of green-card holders or citizens, 20% are distant relatives, 17% are on refugee and asylum status, and 4% entered through the diversity lottery. Only about 13% are admitted based on the skills and other needs of the economy.
Biden's reforms would create a path to citizenship and effectively grant amnesty to most illegal immigrants in the country prior to Jan. 1, enable more family reunification arrivals, increase the diversity lottery from 55,000 to 80,000, and permit more asylum seekers to enter the country while awaiting hearings on their claims. The latter can then slip into the general population and become part of the illegal cohort if they have doubts about the validity of their claims.
All of this will inspire even more Latin Americans to cross the border, encourage smugglers, and greatly increase the pool of unskilled workers at a time of deteriorating employment prospects for lower-paid Americans.
Biden says he will stem illegal arrivals by promoting Central American economic development and political reform, but we have been up and down that path before. From President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress through the Obama administration, U.S. efforts have failed, because the region bears huge cultural and geographic disadvantages that Biden's $4 billion in aid are unlikely to overcome.
Been there, done that
The president also wants greater use of technology to tighten border enforcement but as Yogi Berra would say, "It's deja vu all over again." In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping reform law that granted amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, beefed up enforcement and was sold as a crackdown.
Canada, Australia and New Zealand face challenges similar to ours — falling birth rates, skill shortages and societies defined by waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia — but award more than 60% of their combined visas based on skills.
Moving toward such a point system based on employers' needs would accelerate economic growth, raise R&D spending, increase wages for lower-skilled Americans, lessen inequality, and ease, rather than exacerbate, social tensions.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1

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Peter-Morici
America needs immigrants to make its economy run but also needs systemic reforms to address the number and composition of new arrivals.
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Friday, 12 March 2021 08:12 AM
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