The ingredients in the U.S. national dish.

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Best Immigration Policy Is More Immigration

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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In my family, we have a cooking technique that is especially useful for making stews and other mixed-ingredient dishes. If there is ever doubt as to whether or not to add more of an ingredient -- onions,  olive oil, Cholula sauce -- we err on the side of adding more.  This approach has long been my default attitude toward immigration -- more is better.

Economist and blogger Tyler Cowen echoes my own attitude in an excellent column in the New York Times:               

 Developed countries that can absorb new immigrants at a modest cost should have relatively bright futures. They will help enable a rebalancing of population that will help the entire planet. In contrast, developed countries with relatively inflexible notions of national identity, and thus with strict immigration policies, may shrink in population and lose influence...

Ensuring a growing American population will probably require immigration reform...And while American leaders rarely talk openly about it, they may have geopolitical reasons for not wanting this country to be too much smaller, population-wise, than China.

Cowen doesn’t even mention the entrepreneurial nature of immigrants, or the benefits of agglomeration economies (i.e. companies’ desire to locate close to large customer bases). These only add to the case.

Cowen is fairly libertarian, and is the chairman of the Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank at George Mason University. So one would hope that his call for more immigrants will eventually make its way into the thinking of the new Republican-dominated Congress.

But the intellectual right has always been divided on the topic of immigration. Reihan Salam, the new executive editor of the National Review, has been calling for an immigration “pause.” In a recent article in Slate, he worries that a sustained inflow of immigrants is stopping the American melting pot from working its vaunted magic:

                 I think the melting and fusing of different ethnic groups is essential to building a more cohesive and humane society, and that slowing down immigration would help this process along...

                There is a way to help poor members of our foreign-born population form the social connections they will need to move from the margins of American society to the mainstream. What we need to do is limit the future influx of less-skilled immigrants...

                [E]thnic replenishment will tend to limit assimilation and intermarriage, as most people prefer to marry and socialize with members of their own group...we need to recognize that a continual stream of immigration tends to keep minority ethnic groups culturally isolated, which is yet another reason to slow things down....it will give us the time we need to knit America's newcomers into our national community.

 Would an immigration “pause” really increase the rate of assimilation? Actually, it depends on math. If the chance that someone assimilates is simply a fixed percentage chance (a Poisson process), then adding more immigrants will simply leave the rate of assimilation unchanged. If immigrants assimilate at slower rates when there are more of their co-ethnics around -- the “ethnic replenishment” hypothesis -- then adding more immigrants will indeed slow the melting pot, and may even increase the fraction of unassimilated people as time goes on. Or it could even be that a higher rate of immigration forces more people out of ethnic enclaves, by decreasing the opportunities available within those enclaves -- in this case, more immigration would mean a faster rate of assimilation.

These are simple models. But without hard data, it’s impossible to tell whether Salam’s thesis is right or wrong. Unfortunately, I can’t track down such data. This seems like an important avenue of research for sociologists.

But in the meantime, we have lots of measures that indicate that Hispanics -- our biggest immigrant ethnic group, by far -- are assimilating at rapid rates, whether measured by language, college enrollment, intermarriage and even racial identity. There seems to be no reason to believe that Asians -- whose immigration rate now exceeds that of Hispanics by more than 38 percent --- will be any different.

So I side with Cowen over Salam in this debate. The Smith family cooking approach -- “More!” -- seems to be working in modern America.

Salam does make a very good point, though, when he notes that the type of immigration matters a lot. As he documents in an earlier piece for National Review, unskilled immigrants assimilate more slowly than highly skilled ones, and often lack opportunities for many generations. This drives inequality, in addition to the simple economic fact that importing unskilled labor puts downward pressure on the wages of lower-income Americans while pushing up the earnings of wealthy Americans.

So it would seem to be a good idea for us to tilt our immigration policy toward more skills-based immigration. When it comes to the “More!” cooking technique, high-skilled immigrants are the ingredient that goes well with any dish.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net