Excelente analisis acerca de la inmigración en Estados Unidos
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agosto 24, 2004 a las 3:26 pm #289481
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Tired, Poor, Homeless masses
A recent front-page story in the New York Times highlights the plight of
immigrants from the tiny island of Montserrat, where a volcanic eruption on
their tiny Caribbean enclave has forced 7,000 people to flee to neighboring
islands, Great Britain, and the United States. Granted “temporary protection
status” by the U.S. Government, the 292 immigrants from Montserrat were
recently dismayed by an announcement from the Department of Homeland
Security ordering their departure by the end of February. This most recent
twist exposes a large change in immigration policy, possibly setting the
stage for further reform.
In the December 2000 issue of TAE, Steven Camarota details the growing immigration quagmire in “Our New Immigration Problem.”
Our New Immigration Predicament
By Steven Camarota
As a result of reforms in immigration law in the 1960s, the United States is currently experiencing the largest sustained wave of immigration in its history. Approximately 800,000 legal immigrants enter the country annually, a dramatic increase from the 1960s when about 300,000 immigrants entered each year. Additionally, several hundred thousand illegal aliens are estimated to settle permanently in the country annually. This influx has caused an enormous growth in the immigrant population, from fewer than 10 million in 1970 (5 percent of the population) to 28 million today (10 percent of all Americans).
In addition to a huge increase in the number of immigrants, the composition of our immigrants has changed significantly. Whereas once immigrants arrived largely from Europe, today 85 percent are non-European. More significantly, there has been a sharp and unhealthy decline in the educational level of new immigrants, relative to the level of natives.
In 1999, about one-third of new immigrants were high school dropouts—compared to only 10 percent of natives. This is important because the lack of a high school diploma is one of the best predictors of poverty, welfare use, and low socio-economic status. It’s also important because immigrants with few years of schooling tend to have higher fertility than more educated immigrants or natives, increasing the poverty rate among the next generation of American children.
At the same time that the educational training and skill levels of new immigrants have fallen, schooling has become more important to success in the United States. With immigrants both far more numerous and much less educated compared to the rest of the population, today’s immigration is exerting a dual downward pressure on U.S. proficiency and societal success. We may also be laying the foundations for a new Hispanic underclass.
We know many things about immigrants today that we didn’t know in the past, simply because in 1994 the Census Bureau started asking all respondents to its Current Population Surveys about their origins. This data set, covering more than 14,000 immigrants, has become an invaluable source of information on the nation’s newcomers. And the overall picture of immigrants that has emerged is quite troubling, especially when compared to older census data.
For one thing, three decades of accepting many immigrants lacking formal education has resulted in a huge growth in the number of unskilled workers in the U.S. One-third of all high school dropouts are now immigrants.
Forty-three percent of our immigrants are employed in low-skill jobs such as farm worker, maid, and construction laborer. Not surprisingly, immigrants are concentrated at the bottom of the wage distribution. One result: An astonishing 62 percent of the minor children of our post-1970 immigrants live in or near poverty (more than double the rate for the children of natives).
Almost one-third of the children of post-1970 immigrants do not have health insurance—also double native rates. This despite the fact immigrants and their children are more likely to be on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor. Even after the 1996 welfare reform reduced eligibility for some legal immigrants, immigrant households continue to use every major welfare program at rates higher than natives.
It was not always so. As Harvard economist George Borjas and others have pointed out, immigrants once had higher average incomes and lower rates of poverty and welfare use than natives. The decline in immigrant skills since the landmark 1965 federal immigration reform has completely reversed this situation.
The lagging educational levels and job skills of immigrants have also reduced their economic value in another critical area: entrepreneurship. The popular perception is that immigrants are significantly more likely to start and run their own businesses. This used to be true. But today, self-employment is no longer a distinguishing characteristic of immigrants to the U.S.
The lower economic status and educational levels of immigrants shouldn’t be overstated. For while we are accepting large numbers of immigrants with poor educations and few skills, we are also receiving significant numbers of new arrivals with school and training levels at the top end of the spectrum. As a result, the proportion of immigrants with a college degree is only slightly lower than among natives, and immigrants are actually a little more likely than natives to have graduate degrees. Our immigrant spectrum looks a little like a lopsided barbell, with a large bulge at the bottom of the educational scale and a smaller bulge at the top.
Immigrants from South Asia, Canada, China, Korea, Western Europe, and the Middle East are particularly likely to be college graduates and to have higher incomes and lower rates of poverty and welfare use than even natives. However, immigrants from these regions represent only about 25 percent of our post-1970 flow. Their numbers are dwarfed by immigrants from the Caribbean, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America, who account for more than half of post-1970 arrivals, and who are much less educated than natives.
Low-skill immigrants have contributed significantly to a number of contemporary American social problems. For example, my own research indicates that immigration accounted for 60 percent of the growth in the population lacking health insurance since 1993. A large uninsured population means that other Americans have to pay higher premiums to cover the costs of treating non-paying patients. Taxpayers, too, are affected as federal, state, and local governments struggle to provide care to the uninsured.
Likewise, a good deal of ink has been devoted to ruing the fact that, despite our robust post-1982 expansion, roughly 9 million more Americans live in poverty today than in the late 1970s. If it were not for the 7.5 million immigrants and their young children who are poor, though, this anomaly would not glare at us. Our persistently high rates of child poverty, and numerous other problems, are directly linked to an immigration policy that imports hundreds of thousands of poor people each year.
The low skill level of many immigrants does have certain benefits. A study for the National Research Council (NRC) prepared by top economists and demographers concluded that the primary benefit to the U.S. from immigration comes from a significant increase in the pool of unskilled labor. By increasing our supply of labor, immigration holds down wages at the bottom of the labor market. This allows higher wages for more skilled workers, and better returns on investment for owners of capital. The estimated gain to employers and skilled workers exceeds the loss to the unskilled by roughly $5 billion, for a net gain of around one-tenth of one percent in our $8 trillion economy. The overall economic gain is so small because unskilled workers account for only a small share of our economic output.
The NRC study also estimated that the overall fiscal burden of immigrant households—the government expenditures they require minus the tax revenues they pay—was between $11 billion and $20 billion a year. In other words, their net drain on public finances is actually larger than their estimated private-sector economic benefits. Not surprisingly, the study found that unskilled immigrants are almost always a net fiscal burden, while skilled immigrants are almost always a net fiscal benefit.
The NRC study also found that if today’s immigrants and their descendants use services and pay taxes over the course of their lifetimes in a manner similar to immigrants and their descendants in the past (a very big assumption), then the average immigrant who enters today and his children will begin to have a positive effect on public coffers only after he has been in the country for 22 years. It will take an additional 18 years for the average immigrant and his descendants to pay back the burden they imposed for the first 22 years.
When the NRC study projected out the fiscal effects of average immigrants and their descendants into the distant future, it found the total fiscal impact was a positive $80,000. Many advocates of current immigration cite this figure as evidence that immigrants have a positive fiscal effect. What the advocates never mention is that the $80,000 figure is based on a 300-year projection! The study explicitly states it would be “absurd” to argue that this figure represents an actual benefit to public coffers. Meanwhile, the report indicates that present immigrants are a net fiscal drain and that this drain lasts for several decades.
Defenders of current immigration policy generally have three responses when the problem of low-skill immigrants is pointed out. First, many advocates argue that new immigrants have always started out poor, and that eventually they will catch up. No doubt many immigrants entering today will eventually join the American middle class, but they have much more ground to make up than immigrants of the past. In 1970, 39 percent of immigrants who had arrived in the previous ten years lived in or near poverty, compared to 35 percent of natives. By 1999, in contrast, 54 percent of new immigrants lived in or near poverty, compared to 29 percent of natives. Immigrants now entering the country are clearly starting out much poorer than their past counterparts.
More important than their initial income is how immigrants fare over time. In 1970, immigrants who had been in the country ten to 20 years actually had much lower rates of poverty or near poverty than natives. By 1999, this was completely reversed: Immigrants who had been in the country ten to 20 years were much more likely to live in or near poverty than natives.
Despite our strong economy, many of the million or so permanent newcomers arriving in the U.S. each year now will find it very difficult to achieve middle-class status. In a society that has moved from the industrial age to the information age in one generation, it should come as no surprise that unskilled immigrants are finding it increasingly difficult to join the economic mainstream.
A second response to the skills problem made by advocates of current immigration policy is to concede that, yes, there is a problem, but it is really only associated with illegal immigrants. Illegals, who show up in the data collected by the Census Bureau, are certainly less educated than legal immigrants. But fully 80 percent of the immigrants in the troubling data I’ve been citing are legal residents.
While the Immigration and Naturalization Service does not collect information on the educational levels of legal immigrants, a small survey of new legal immigrants in 1996 showed that one-third lacked a high school diploma. In the same year, the Census Bureau’s CPS data showed that about one-third of all new immigrants (illegals included) also lacked a high school education. So the problem of low immigrant quality is clearly not confined to illegals.
In my own research I have tried to identify likely illegal aliens in Census Bureau data based on their demographic characteristics. I find that excluding illegals does sometimes improve the overall statistics for immigrants, yet in areas like poverty and lack of health insurance coverage, huge gaps remain between legal immigrants and natives.
On the other hand, excluding illegals sometimes makes the data look worse and not better. Although they can receive benefits for their native-born children, most illegal aliens do not use welfare, for instance. So the high rates of welfare use and resulting fiscal drains I’ve described are primarily problems associated with legal, not illegal, immigrants.
Finally, legal immigration is often a major cause of illegal immigration. Research shows that one of the primary factors influencing an alien’s decision to emigrate is whether a family member or person from the home community is already in United States. By providing entry to America, communities of recent legal immigrants serve as magnets for illegal immigration. Evaluations of immigration policy must therefore look at the characteristics of all immigrants, legal and illegal, as reflective of the nation’s immigration rules in their totality.
A third argument made by defenders of current immigration patterns is to blame problems stemming from low immigrant skills on American politics. On the left, advocates argue that if only America had more income redistribution, nationalized health care, and other governmental programs to benefit the poor, immigrants would no longer be a problem. On the right, immigration advocates argue that if only we would dramatically cut back on the size and scope of government— especially welfare programs—then the burdens created by current immigration would not exist.
In reality, neither the left-wing nor right-wing solution is likely to be enacted any time soon. Meanwhile inappropriate immigration is causing social friction and economic loss.
Rather than changing our society to adapt to existing immigration, it would seem to make more sense to change the immigrant stream to fit our society. This would require significantly reducing the number of immigrants permitted to enter without regard to their skills and their ability to compete in and contribute to American society. Doing a great deal more to control illegal immigration will necessarily be part of this. More carefully choosing higher quality legal immigrants will also be vital.
An odd but formidable coalition of interest groups— including ethnic advocates, some business interests, immigration lawyers, libertarian intellectuals, and the left wing of the Democratic Party—has essentially closed down immigration debate over the last few years. A perceived Hispanic backlash against limitations pushed by Governor Pete Wilson and others in California has terrified Republicans. So for political reasons, changes in immigration policy that might better serve the interests of the country as a whole have been utterly foreclosed.
There is, however, a way to break the logjam. Immigration policy—which is concerned with who may come permanently to America and in what numbers—is different from policy toward immigrants (how we treat legal arrivals already living in the U.S.). Barring legal immigrants from using some welfare programs, as Congress attempted in 1996, is an example of a change in policy toward immigrants that is politically difficult to sustain, of questionable fairness, and useless in addressing our real problem—low immigrant skills.
Yet polls find a majority of Americans, including Hispanics, willing to consider cuts in both legal and illegal immigration. One possible course of action that could be politically popular as well as very helpful to our economy and society would be to, first, embrace a pro-immigrant policy that would seek to better incorporate new immigrants into the United States. Then reduce total numbers of immigrants so as to ease current assimilation strains. And, finally establish a system for picking higher-quality immigrants in the future.
There is no doubt that immigration is a fundamental part of our nation’s history. But emotional assessments of the topic have come to dominate today’s debate, trumping more practical, dispassionate judgments. With 11 million new immigrants expected to settle in the United States in just the next decade, it would be a good idea to fix our immigration rules sooner rather than later.
Economist Steven Camarota is director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.
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