It should come as no surprise that the leading immigration economist in the U.S. is an immigrant. As a boy of 12, George J. Borjas came to the U.S. in 1962, part of the first wave of refugees from Castro's Cuba. And he fondly remembers growing up in Hoboken, N.J., in a neighborhood of Italian immigrants.
But unexpectedly, Borjas, an economist at the University of California at San Diego, is also one of the most influential voices calling for a tighter immigration policy. When he first started working on the economics of immigration in 1980, he recalls, "I believed in free trade and open borders." But since then, Borjas has become concerned that the U.S. is allowing in too many immigrants with little education at a time when the economy demands ever-higher levels of skills and training.
NEW UNDERCLASS. Moreover, Borjas worries that the low-skilled immigrants entering the country now are laying the foundation for a new underclass that could create economic and social problems well into the next century. He examined the Great Migration of the late 1800s and early 1900s and found that skill and wage deficits persisted for several generations. That is, if an immigrant ethnic group had a lower-than-average education when they arrived, their descendants also were likely to be less educated and have lower wage rates. "Ethnic skill differentials disappear very slowly," says Borjas. "It might take four generations, or roughly 100 years."
A refugee himself, Borjas is especially concerned about high welfare usage among the latest wave of refugees. In such groups as Cambodian and Laotian immigrants, nearly 50% of all households are on welfare. "We've made a major mistake," says Borjas. "The special efforts to help refugees have really backfired. We introduce people to these programs, and then they stay on them."
NO ADVOCACY. Although Borjas has become convinced that immigration policy needs to be reformed, he has resisted becoming too closely associated with anti-immigration groups. "I made a conscious decision to stay away from the advocacy role," says Borjas. "That's not my job. I do research for a living."
Still, Borjas is taking an increasingly visible public-policy role. He is on California Governor Pete Wilson's economic advisory council, and he has argued that the country needs to do a better job upgrading the quality of the immigrants that it gets. That includes enforcing the laws against illegal immigration, reducing the social benefits offered to refugees, and making it harder for unskilled immigrants to enter the country. Says Borjas: "The more I study immigration, the more concerned I get."