Why immigration policy is so elusive

Four countries were expressly founded on the necessity of immigration – The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Immigration was essential into the cultures and economics of these countries from the start. Gary P. Freeman of the University of Texas wrote in 2010 that no single piece of postwar legislation, with the possible exception of the Medicare Act, has had a more profound effect on the United States than the 1965 immigration law.

In 1995, he explained why immigration policy in the U.S. is both elusive and expansionist. (“Modes of Immigration Polities in Liberal Democratic States”.) First, migration takes time to develop, starting small and isolated, and grows without the native born population grasping what is going on.

Then, the direct benefits of immigration go to few while the costs are diffused. In the 2010 article Freeman lists the primary beneficiaries: immigration lawyers, ethnic groups, high tech employers, universities, religious institutions, hospitals, nursing homes, the hospitality industry, construction, and labor intensive sectors like meat packing, chicken processing, textiles, agriculture, and low-skilled services such as housekeeping and landscaping. (“Can Comprehensive Immigration Reform Be Both Liberal and Democratic?”)

Immigration politics is heavily client-oriented, largely out of view and with without extensive public debate. An example is Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who per his website “committed to immigration reform that serves the national interest – not the special interests – and that curbs the unprecedented flow of immigration that is sapping the wages and job prospects of those living and working here today.” A subcommittee he shares has denied the Dept. of Labor power to better enforce prevailing wage standards for H-1B temporary worker applicants.

Further, In liberal democracies, nativist talk about immigrants is viewed as disreputable. Strong anti-immigration politicians are usually roundly criticized. Popular opinion is generally more restrictionist than organized political party positions. Per Freeman, the national political positions are ineffective and contradictory, seeking to accommodate as many as possible without forcing the issues. Thus, per Freeman, liberal democracies have an expansionist bias.

A case study of mechanization and lower demand for immigrant workers

Dairy farming is a microcosm of the country’s historical dependence on low wage immigrant workers. These farms are cutting hired workers in half by mechanization, in order to reduce dependence on uncertain labor supply and boost higher productivity per cow. This mechanization story has played out in other farming sectors. Here we look at the several hundred Vermont dairy farms. We see how reduction of undocumented workers is taking place, worksite by worksite, driven by several forces.


Farms in American employ about one million hired workers on top of family owner workers. According to one study, the share of native-born hired crop farmworkers fell from about 40% in 1989-91 to a low of about 18% in 1998-2000, while the share born in Mexico rose from 54% to 79%. Since then, Mexican share fell to about 68% with other Hispanic countries account for up to 6%. Most are estimated to be undocumented. (Go here.)

Dairy farming depends almost entirely on Hispanic workers. One study found that 75% of Hispanic dairy workers in New York State were from Mexico, 25% were from Guatemala and Honduras.

Nordic Farms goes robotic

Robots are transforming the dairy industry: higher productivity, fewer workers. Go here and here.

According to the Burlington, Vermont, Free Press, a dairy farm in Charlotte, Vermont invested in five robots at $200,000 each to milk 260 cows, three times a day. Here is a video of dairy robotics. Through the use of special ear tags, lasers, and mechanical arms that find and milk the utters, mile production has gone up by 10% and cows are systematically weighed and inspected for infection. At least two other farms bought robots.

Vermont dairy farms are being pressured by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to hire only authorized workers. In addition, the supply of native born workers in Vermont has declined from outmigration and the spread of prescribed opioids and heroin. Opioid misuse is concentrated in rural areas, due to easy supply, outmigration of upwardly mobile persons, kinship and social networks, and increasing deprivation (go here).


An intoxicating error

January 22nd, 1980, eighteen-year-old Willie Ramirez was out with a friend in Florida when he experienced a headache.

He arrived via ambulance at a South Florida hospital in a comatose state. He became quadriplegic as a result of a misdiagnosed intracerebellar hemorrhage that continued to bleed for more than two days as he lay unconscious in the hospital. Non neuro consult was ordered because the clinicians decided Willie was suffering from a drug overdose, a common diagnosis in emergency medicine.

The mis-diagnosis resulted in part due to a mis-understanding of a word, which in Cuban Spanish means something wrong because of what one drank or ate. On the day Willie’s intracerebellar bleed began, he had lunch at a fast food restaurant, the newly opened Wendy’s. His mother and his girlfriend’s mother assumed that the severe headache he experienced that night was related to eating a bad hamburger at Wendy’s – that Willie was “intoxicado.”

Willie’s mother told Gail Price-Wise, who researched the incident, “I say him, doctor the amburger intoxiCAted him. I asplain him no alcol, no droogs.”

Willie was sent to the ICU with a diagnosis of “probable intentional drug overdose.”

Ironically, one of the physicians present was from Bolivia, where the Cuban meaning of “intoxicated” in unknown.

After two days in the ICU, a doctor noticed signs that Willie was suffering from neurological disorder. It was too late to prevent permanent damage. Willie’s family and the healthcare provider settled for $71 million, to pay for a lifetime of 24-hour care.

This case is cited widely as an example of a intercultural mis-understanding. Gail Price-Wise did the research to tell the story accurately here. She runs the Center for Cultural Competency and has written a book about the incident, An Intoxicating Error. I relied heavily on her research and writing for this posting.




Do foreign-born health workers compete with native-born workers or reduce labor shortages?

We see foreign-born nurses, doctors, personal health aides, and medical scientists all the time. Do you think they take jobs away from native-born workers or primarily help to reduce labor shortages? It’s not that simple, given the growth of the healthcare sector and trends to streamline physician care.

A June 2016 study reported that:

• 42% of the researchers at the top seven cancer research centers are foreign-born.
• 23% of personal care aides are foreign-born with more than 45% in California and New York. A fifth of these foreign-born workers are estimated to be undocumented.
• 15% of registered nurses are foreign-born; the most important countries of origin are Philippines (33%), India (6%), Jamaica (5%), Canada (4%) and Nigeria (4%).
• 27% of MDs are foreign-born persons who obtained their medical degree outside the U.S. They generally have to participate in additional medical training in the U.S.  with a J-1 visa. (The visa program is described here.)

The American Medical Association created a section for International Medical Graduates (IMG) in 1997. These physicians comprise about 8% of AMA membership.

The AMA reports that the IMG population represents 37% of total physicians in internal medicine; 28% anesthesiology; 32% in psychiatry; and 28% in pediatrics. 20% of IMGs are from India.

Is there a doctor shortage that foreign-born physicians can help to ameliorate ? Here is a report that says no if doctors organize their practices better and delegate work to other health professionals. The Health Affairs article by Linda Green on which the report is based is here.


Trump’s limited options in immigration

Donald Trump is likely to amplify his simple, emotional messaging about immigration. A more nuanced approach might look paralyzed.

The NY Times reports that Trump is delaying into next week a speech on immigration, a topic which he frames almost entirely in the context of law enforcement against violators, especially border control. The majority of Americans per polls does not believe that the federal government effectively controls who comes in and who stays.

He calls for mass deportation of the 11 million-plus undocumented residents. At a practical level, mass deportation is frustrated by a web of legal protections for undocumented residents. These protections arose out of federal civil rights advances since the mid 20th Century. In an era of increasing civil rights it’s inconceivable that mass deportation would happen.

His plan is also problematic because it is easy to characterize mass deportation as intensely cruel. Many undocumented people are married to American citizens. There are about 4.5 million children born in the U.S. under the age of 18 at least one of whose parents is undocumented. Some 1.6 million of these children are under the age of five.

There are four basic ways to control illegal immigration: border control, employer sanctions, guest worker programs, and legalization. America has the largest illegal immigrant population in the world, and any effective plan for immigration control must use all four approaches. It’s hard to see how Trump or Clinton would want to discuss this.

Column: Serious Debate About Immigration Is Needed

My column published by the Valley News, Lebanon, New Hampshire, August 20, 2016

On Monday August 15, Donald Trump presented a version of his views about foreigners coming to the United States. He disrupts what popular debate over immigration exists by building an immigration policy exclusively on what to many is a secondary issue — the risk of terrorist acts carried out by foreigners.

But his disruption may turn out to be beneficial, if Congress addresses immigration reform in 2017. It’s beneficial as there has not been a real debate about immigration worthy of the term debate for a very long time, maybe not in the lifetime of today’s retirees. By smashing up the current fake debate, he may induce politicians to talk more thoughtfully.

In a “nation of immigrants,” politicians have been unable to articulate in a public forum a succinct rationale for immigration, and a vision that provides a context for immigration policy. Laws on immigration are, after the tax code, the longest segment in the entire body of federal laws, yet a concise statement of national purpose is hard to find. For the most part, public discussion about immigration begins with picking apart one aspect of the issue and ends there. This includes the topics of illegal immigration, economic gains or losses from immigration, and the imagined infiltration of Sharia law advocates.

The United States has made a huge bet that immigrants — a lot of them — will benefit the country.

Since Congress passed in 1965 a permissive reform to the very restrictive and overtly racist 1924 act, the foreign-born population has soared, especially since about 1980. The foreign-born share of residents has doubled to about 13 percent today. Foreigners are much more likely today to live outside the historical aggregations of immigrants, such as New York and Chicago.

Demographically, they can be said to be driving the bus. They are younger on average. Relatively few new foreign-born entrants (5 percent) are over the age of 65. They are more likely to work, hence 16 percent of the workforce is foreign-born. Those with higher education degrees (about 28 percent) on average earn more than native-born college graduates. They have a higher fertility rate. Hence, 30 percent of children in America (under the age of 18) are either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born — that is, second-generation.

While native-born Americans are experiencing what some call a “demographic winter,” the foreign-born and their offspring are incrementally more and more of the productive force in the country. The highly respected Pew Research Center forecasts that 93 percent of the growth of the nation’s working-age population between now and 2050 will be accounted for by immigrants and their U.S.-born children.

The last time Washington talked coherently about immigration was probably during the 1990s, when the Commission on Immigration Reform (known as the Jordan Commission, for its chairwoman, Barbara Jordan, a former Democratic congresswoman from Texas) issued a series of reports drawing upon its research and made a concerted and largely successful attempt by commission members to speak with one voice.

The commission examined and made recommendations on virtually every aspect of the immigration system: family reunification, employment-based immigration, enforcement measures to stem unauthorized immigration, and numerical limits on all classes of immigrants, non-immigrants, and asylees.

Between 1994 and 1997, it issued four reports. In the last report, “Becoming An American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy,” the commission defined a vision in 90 words:

“Properly-regulated immigration and immigrant policy serves the national interest by ensuring the entry of those who will contribute most to our society and helping lawful newcomers adjust to life in the United States. It must give due consideration to shifting economic realities. A well-regulated system sets priorities for admission; facilitates nuclear family reunification; gives employers access to a global labor market while protecting U.S. workers; helps to generate jobs and economic growth; and fulfills our commitment to resettle refugees as one of several elements of humanitarian protection of the persecuted.”

The commission recommended that permanent residency (“green card”) numbers go down by about a third from the prevailing annual level of about 600,000 then. Today, about one million green cards are issued annually.

Having followed immigration issues for many years, I’ve seen how some issues, such as competition for jobs between immigrant and native-born workers, are discussed out of the context of other issues. I’ve seen how rarely people think of immigration as a long, multigenerational process, and demand quick results.

And, as a person inclined on the whole toward a permissive approach, I have seen how my own thinking improves when I listen to or read a thoughtful argument for a restrictive approach. I hope that Trump’s riotous proposals drive politicians to think and talk more coherently about this vital aspect of American life

Breitbart and Trump’s immigration ideas

With the arrival of a key Breitbart executive to the top ranks of the Trump campaign, count on a high-decibel nativist assault on immigrants and immigration by Trump. A large part of the Breitbart publication’s content is devoted to immigration topics such as “the refugee resettlement industry.”

A typical article, published on August 16, starts with:

The politically powerful refugee resettlement industry is accelerating its propaganda campaign to significantly increase the number of Muslim refugees allowed into the United States with a rally in Washington, D.C., on August 28. “You have got to hand it to them (to the likes of George Soros and big progressive funders like the Tides Foundation), they know how to promote a propaganda campaign,” Ann Corcoran of Refugee Resettlement Watch says of the August 28 event.

The financial backers of the rally include most of the big political players in the lucrative refugee resettlement industry, where government funded “voluntary agencies” [VOLAGs] receive more than $1 billion from taxpayers annually to resettle on average 70,000 refugees each year in the United States.

Among those rally sponsors on the VOLAG federal gravy train are the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (whose local affiliate is currently embroiled in the Twin Falls, Idaho refugee rape controversy), Church World Service, the International Rescue Committee, World Relief, HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the Episcopal Church, and the Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc…….

Community colleges and immigrants

Community college is the favored pathway of immigrants into high education. In 2009, the median income within all racial groups for adults with an associate’s degree was nearly twice that of persons who did not complete high school and nearly 40% greater than that of persons with only a high school degree.

A study found that in 2003–04, about a quarter of the nation’s 6.5 million degree seeking community college students came from an immigrant background. Among Latinos, Asians and Blacks, immigrants were more likely to attend community college than their native born peers. A study of the freshman class at the City University of New York (CUNY) system in 1997 found that 59.9% of the foreign-born students began in an associate’s degree program.

Financial aid: The proportion of immigrants who were low-income and therefore eligible for Pell grants (the largest federal program that subsidizes college costs for low-income students) was similar to the proportion of low-income native-born students.

Difficulty of completion: More than half of immigrants in college are over the age of twenty-four, one-third have dependents, and three-quarters work either part or full time while attending college as part-time students—all characteristics that are risk factors for dropping out of college.

Remediation: less than 25% of students who began community college in remedial courses completed a degree or certificate within eight years, compared with 40% of community college students who did not enroll in any remedial courses as first-time freshmen. In a study of a single urban community college, 85% of immigrants required remediation as first-time freshmen, often as a result of deficient English-language skills, compared with 55% of native-born students.

Percent of Latinos with higher ed who use community colleges is about 50% compared to 30% for whites…go here.

Source: Immigrants in community colleges, by Robert T. Teranishi, Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. Spring 2011 issue of The Future of Children

Stemming demographic winter: Immigrants slow population decline in many counties

The Pew Research Center has determined that if current immigration trends and birth rates continue, by 2050 virtually all (93%) of the nation’s working age population growth will come from immigrants and their U.S.-born children. The absolute decline of native born workers is an element in the Demographic Winter. Immigrants bring with them the Spring.

Pew has published an overview of immigrant/native born demographic shifts by county, metro area and state. Its summary:

Over the past 25 years, the total immigrant population has increased and spread across the country. In 1990, the foreign-born population was 19.7 million or 7.9% of the U.S. total, with nearly 3 out of 4 immigrants (73%) living in either California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, or Texas. By 2010, approximately 40 million immigrants made up 13% of the overall population, and the proportion of immigrants residing in the six leading states dropped to 65%.

This brief illustrates how, in some places, an influx of foreign-born individuals slowed overall population loss and even reversed it. This is consistent with past research that has found that immigration continues to shape the country’s demography, particularly in newer immigrant destinations. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has shown that immigration has mitigated population loss in the Midwest at the state level and in metropolitan areas. This brief updates and expands on previous research by providing a county-level analysis of the entire nation over two decades and presenting the demographic context for future research on the impact of immigration on state and local economies and budgets.

We find four key trends.

Immigrants have moved beyond traditional gateways.

Native-born population has declined in Middle America.

Immigration has driven population growth in the Sun Belt, Pacific Northwest, and Mountain States. Increases in the number of immigrants have driven overall growth in many counties, particularly in the South and West.

Immigration has slowed population declines in Middle America.

The median age of the total U.S. population is rising, and the ratio of seniors (ages 65+) to working age people (ages 25-64) is increasing. Immigration mitigates these trends by adding working age adults to the U.S. population. Nearly half of immigrants admitted between 2003 and 2012 were between the ages of 20 and 40, while only 5% were ages 65 or older.

Why have immigration? David Miller on immigration policy

Miller’s “Strangers in Our Midst” (2015) is the Oxford University professor’s latest work on immigration policy from the perspective of political philosophy. He says that immigration policy is more than “weighing up economic gains and losses or protecting human rights, it also raises difficult questions about the way we understand ourselves as members of political communities with long histories and rich cultures.”

I’m going to try to summarize how Miller thinks immigration policy should be designed – that is, primarily as an expression of political values. He says that for a liberal democracy, immigration policy should by guided by four values (pg. 157):

Cosmopolitanism: should we consider all the world’s people as fundamentally equal, with equal rights of movement, residence and social and political rights? Miller says in contrast with universal equality, members of a society have obligations to each other that need to be recognized and fulfilled otherwise the nation state can’t be preserved. He calls these “associative obligations.” He calls this “weak cosmopolitanism.”

National self-determination: the democratic nation state must provide immigrants substantially equal rights and protections of native-born citizens, including access to citizenship, but can limit immigration in order to preserve internal mutual trust and true self-determination. Separate and exclusive cultural identities can erode self-determination in is view.

Fairness: He seems to say that a democratic nation state must adhere unconditionally to its principles of distributive justice and reciprocity of obligations between the state and individuals, regardless of citizenship status (or even legal right to be in the country).

Social integration: Miller’s fourth value is to me an attribute of national self-determination.

He thinks of refugees as a unique class. States have a “remedial obligation” to admit them because their states do not ensure human rights (pg. 92). States have a duty of care to make sure they do not have to return to their country of origin (pg. 78).