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It Isn't Just Asian Immigrants Who Thrive in the U.S.

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 a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof dared to ask the “awkward question” of why Asian-Americans have been so economically successful in the U.S. The most important reasons, he says, are hard work and a reverence for education: 

The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, notes that Asian-American immigrants in recent decades have started with one advantage: They are highly educated...Lee and Zhou note that kids of working-class Asian-Americans often also thrive, showing remarkable upward mobility...

 I’m pretty sure that one factor is East Asia’s long Confucian emphasis on education...Immigrant East Asians often [make]  sacrifices for children’s education, such as giving prime space in the home to kids to study.

Kristof notes research showing that even when IQ scores are equally matched, East Asian kids tend to get ahead by working harder. He also cites experiments indicating that the stereotype of high intelligence and strong academic potential may be self-fulfilling -- a positive version of “stereotype threat.” 

Kristof’s article is good, and you should read the whole thing. But the focus on East Asians, and “Confucian” culture, seems misplaced to me because the kind of education-intensive culture he describes is common to all high-skilled immigrant groups.

Perhaps most surprising is that, by many measures, the most-educated immigrant group in the U.S. isn't East Asians. It’s Africans.

According to Census data, more than 43 percent of African immigrants hold a bachelor’s degree or higher -- slightly more than immigrants from East Asia. Nigerian immigrants are especially educated, with almost two-thirds holding college degrees -- a significantly higher percentage even than Chinese or South Korean immigrants. African immigrants are also very likely to hold advanced degrees, many of which are earned at U.S. universities. By many measures, African immigrants are as far ahead of American whites in the educational achievement as whites are ahead of African-Americans.

That education translates into higher household income. Nigerian-Americans, for instance, have a median household income well above the American average, and above the average of many white and Asian groups, such as those of Dutch or Korean descent.

This isn't the power of Confucius. It’s the magic of high-skilled immigration. When a country selects immigrants for their educational background and technical skills, it doesn’t just get smart people -- it gets families committed to education, hard work and future-oriented life planning. Every society has its own version of what Kristof calls Confucian values. They are universal. And skilled immigration brings the families with those values to the U.S. from every corner of the globe.

That’s one reason why the U.S. should shift its immigration system to be more like Canada’s. Canada famously awards prospective immigrants with “points,” based on education and other skill-based qualifications.

The U.S. obviously attracts lots of high-skilled immigrants too, especially because of its world-beating university system -- though the country doesn't allow enough of them to stay. Still, switching to a Canada-style points system would allow the U.S. to take even bigger gulps from the rivers of talent flowing around the globe.

This isn't to ignore the contribution of low-skilled immigrants, who work hard, pay taxes and commit relatively few crimes, despite what some conservative politicians now claim. There is nothing at all wrong with low-skilled immigrants, and they have enriched the U.S. enormously. But unless the U.S. adopts “open borders” and lets in all immigrants -- which is vanishingly unlikely -- it should tip the scales toward the high-skilled.

One additional reason the U.S. should do this is to foster economic equality. Low-skilled immigrants compete with native-born Americans who do jobs like fixing houses, landscaping yards, cleaning buildings and staffing cash registers. That holds down the wages of less-educated Americans. If the U.S. switched to a Canada-style system, it would ease up the pressure on working-class Americans.

Nor should the U.S. worry about inflicting harm on the source countries. Some immigration opponents claim that accepting skilled workers causes “brain drain” across the rest of the world. But studies show that when skilled people move to the U.S., they end up helping their ancestral nations. They send money to overseas family members, invest in businesses back in their old homes and free up educational spots for other people in those countries to move up. Brain drain isn't a problem.

So instead of singing the praises of Confucian culture, the U.S. should be harnessing the power of its immigration system to recruit scholastic stars from all over the globe. An economy with more smart, dedicated, ambitious people -- no matter where they come from -- is good for everyone, but especially for the working class. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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