Clinton Heads the Wrong Way on Immigration

It's a mistake to protect well-educated workers while exposing the middle class and poor to more competition from unskilled newcomers.

This guy could use a challenge.

Photographer: Andy Buchanan/afp/getty images

One of Adolf Hitler’s many blunders was to kick smart people out of his country. His hatred of Jews led him to expel a large number of Germany's most accomplished scientists, many of whom went to the U.S. What was a bane to Hitler’s reich was a boon to the U.S. Economists Petra Moser, Alessandra Voena, and Fabian Waldinger estimate that patenting increased by an average of 31 percent in scientific fields dominated by Jewish refugees. And of course everyone knows the story of how Jewish scientists were crucial to the U.S. atomic-bomb program.

Of course, the U.S. received this unexpected reward because its leaders were smart enough not to turn it away. Unfortunately, the U.S. may have lost its wisdom in the years since. In a recent interview with Vox, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton indicated her strong opposition to an increase in high-skilled immigration.
QuickTake Skilled Immigrants

In the interview, Clinton gives every indication that her position is explicitly intended not simply as a political bargaining tactic -- withholding action on high-skilled immigration until Republicans agree on a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Rather, it represents a real desire to protect the jobs of educated workers:

The many stories of people training their replacements from some foreign country are heartbreaking, and it is obviously a cost-cutting measure to be able to pay people less than you would pay an American worker. I think it’s also a very unfair and sad commentary that we don’t want to invest in training American workers because that’s just "time-consuming." And it’s a cost — so even if they could do what we’re wanting them to do, it’s just easier to get someone who will be largely compliant because they want to stay in the country. And that’s just wrong.

So there’s work we have to do on all sides of the immigration debate, and I want to see companies have to do more to employ already qualified Americans.

Meanwhile, Clinton still supports low-skilled immigration, especially measures to make it easier for undocumented workers to remain in the country.

The double standard here is remarkable. Clinton explicitly states that she wants to protect software engineers, lawyers and product managers from foreign competition. But she has no such desire to protect low-skilled laborers. If Clinton believes that immigrants reduce native-born wages, why is she OK with reducing the pay of the native-born poor and middle class? Why does she only want to protect workers who already make high salaries?

One possibility is that a large chunk of Clinton’s support comes from highly paid professionals, the upper-middle class knowledge workers of America. Many of these prosperous folks would be happy to pay low prices for landscaping work, roof repair or babysitting services done by unskilled immigrants. But if someone suggests letting in more highly trained immigrants so those landscapers, roofers and babysitters can pay lower prices for iPhones and legal services, the upper-middle classes might begin to balk. By pledging to restrict high-skilled immigration but not its low-skilled counterpart, Clinton seems to be pandering to her privileged support base.

It’s also possible that Clinton still believes in the 1990s-vintage idea that the U.S. can build a broad-based middle class by turning most of the working class into highly educated knowledge workers. But as progressives such as Matt Bruenig have documented, increasing education levels have failed to restore a thriving middle class. So maybe Clinton is clinging to this outdated vision.

Whatever Clinton’s motivation, her policy is unlikely to have the protective effects she desires. Well-educated immigrants do compete with native workers, but they also employ them. Skilled immigrants are much more entrepreneurial than U.S.-born workers; if you’re a software engineer or a product manager, a university-trained immigrant is likely to create your next job instead of taking it away from you. Immigration restriction is not a great way of protecting working-class wages, but it’s even worse as a policy to help the educated.

So Clinton’s attempt at protecting America’s knowledge workers is just as likely to hurt them. In the meantime, the people who will definitely be hurt are the country’s working class and poor, who will have fewer high-earning people to buy their services, and who will have to pay higher prices for the things that skilled workers produce.

Clinton’s whole immigration approach is a bad sign for the U.S.’s ability to implement smart policy. It stands in stark contrast to Canada, the U.S.'s neighbor to the north, which focuses on admitting skilled immigrants. The U.S. ought to be trying to emulate Canada’s approach -- instead, assuming Clinton wins the presidency in November, U.S. policy seems poised to go in the exact opposite direction. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Clinton’s opponent, Donald Trump, a staunch foe of immigration in general, would be any better. To the degree that we know his real policy positions at all, it seems like he’d be much worse. There is now every reason to be pessimistic that the U.S. will get immigration policy right anytime soon.

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

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