Immigration

Trump Targets the Wrong Kind of Immigrants

The U.S. is the world leader in tech, research and education. That's at risk without high-skilled foreign workers.

A real American.

Photographer: Jill Brady/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

President Donald Trump seems intent on tackling immigration early in his administration. Vox.com obtained leaked drafts of four executive orders that give us some idea of what the president is planning.

Three of the draft orders focus on long-time Republican priorities of reducing illegal immigration, keeping out supposedly dangerous refugees and reducing welfare payments to legal immigrants. These orders will undoubtedly be controversial, and probably won’t do much good for the country -- refugees tend not to be dangerous, illegal immigration has already gone into reverse, and legal immigrants tend not to use many welfare benefits.

But it’s the last order that has me worried the most. Trump plans to curtail several programs for high-skilled legal immigration. Currently, H-1B holders -- skilled workers who are sponsored by companies, and often end up becoming permanent residents -- are allowed work visas for their spouses. Trump’s draft would reverse that, making it much harder for skilled workers to maintain a good standard of living in the U.S. The order would also make it harder for foreign students to work while in the U.S., and make it somewhat harder for H-1B workers to get green cards.
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The H-1B program certainly needs reform. Because foreign guest workers using this visa could be forced to leave if they lose their jobs, they are tied to their employers. That reduces their bargaining power, which holds down their wages. Since American workers have to compete with those guest workers, these visas also probably reduce wages for high-skilled Americans. That’s why labor groups have long opposed the program.

Let’s hope Trump’s limits on H-1Bs are only a prelude to an overhauled system that gives lots of green cards to high-skilled immigrants, much as Canada and Australia do. Green cards would allow high-skilled immigrants to switch between employers, taking the pressure off native-born skilled workers. In fact, Trump has promised to implement a Canada-style immigration policy before, and the draft order does include some encouraging language on this front. It calls for the establishment of a committee or commission to “recommend changes to the immigration laws to move toward a merit-based system.”

But besides that one very encouraging line, the order is shot through with rhetoric about the need to protect American workers by limiting the activities of guest workers. It orders the secretary of the Labor Department to “initiate an investigation of the extent of any injury to U.S. workers caused by the employment in the United States of foreign workers” using H-1Bs or similar visas. Similar language is repeated several times throughout the draft.

In principle this is fine. We should want to protect the wages and jobs of American workers. And because the limitations of the H-1B program could theoretically cause harm to the native-born, the program should be reexamined and amended. But in general, the real danger to U.S. workers from these programs is slight. Most economic research shows that high-skilled guest workers don’t harm American wages that much, and in some cases may even raise U.S. workers’ pay. The latter could happen if H-1B workers complement American employees more than they compete with them.

The danger here is that Trump’s team will latch onto less reputable research showing that guest workers have large negative effects. In economics, as in any social science, it’s always possible to dig up one paper that differs from the consensus. If Trump’s appointees are highly suspicious of foreign workers to begin with, they will undoubtedly be able to cherry-pick research to support the idea that guest workers cause great harm. That may lead to a broad curbing of skilled-worker visas, which -- unless replaced with a genuine skills-based immigration system -- would deprive many U.S. tech companies of their lifeblood. And the general anti-immigrant tone of some of these executive-order drafts could exert a chilling effect that keeps skilled immigrants away from U.S. shores even without explicit curbs.

That would be very bad. The U.S.’s comparative advantage is in knowledge work and research. American high-tech companies, top universities and thriving technology clusters make the nation the world’s economic laboratory. The prosperity generated by the U.S.’s world-class tech industries and research centers flows throughout society, raising property values, supporting local businesses of all kinds, ensuring that the U.S. will be wealthier than countries like China for the foreseeable future. U.S. research superiority also helps make the American military the most formidable in the world.

Limiting high-skilled immigration would threaten all that. If foreign engineers are unable to work in the U.S., other countries will become the world’s research laboratory, undermining the economy in the long run. The disaster of losing American flagship industries would be at least as bad as the flight of U.S. manufacturing to China.

Research, engineering and technology are what the U.S. does for a living, much of it performed by immigrants or visiting foreign workers. We can’t afford to stop. The best solution is to move toward a Canada-style system that gives green cards -- true immigration -- to people who can come power the nation’s science and engineering dominance. And along with that system, Trump and his appointees should adopt immigrant-friendly rhetoric aimed at telling the best and the brightest that they’re welcome in the U.S. I hope the president does the right thing for the country and the economy.

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

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    Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

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