The U.S. Is Getting the Educated Immigrants It Needs

The influx of high-skilled newcomers from Asia is good news, unless the Trump administration chokes it off.

A newly minted American.

Photographer: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The facts on the ground have dramatically outpaced the national debate on immigration. Things have changed a lot in the last decade, and the way we talk about immigration needs to change as well.

In a previous article, I showed that illegal immigration, which is often at the center of our national debate, has been negative on net during the past decade -- more unauthorized migrants have left the U.S. than have entered it. But the change in who is coming to the U.S. is actually much broader and deeper than that. Low-skilled immigration -- the influx of laborers with little education -- has given way to the high-skilled variety.

QuickTake Immigration Reform

This is clear from a casual glance at the numbers. As the Pew Research Center has shown, the number of immigrants with less than a high school degree increased a lot from 1980 to 2010, but has barely budged since. Meanwhile, the number of immigrants with a college degree or more continues to climb, and has overtaken the lowest-skilled group:

Give Us Your Educated

Number of foreign-born U.S. residents by education level

Source: Pew Research Center

This includes both authorized and unauthorized immigrants.

A new research paper by Gordon Hanson, Chen Liu and Greg McIntosh of the University of California-San Diego has much more data. Entitled “Along the watchtower: The rise and fall of U.S. low-skilled immigration,” it clearly demonstrates that the number of less-educated immigrants living in the U.S. has hit a plateau.

The reason, the authors find, is reduced immigration from Mexico and Central America. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. imported low-skilled immigrants -- mostly from Ireland, Germany, and Italy, but also from China, Russia and elsewhere -- to work in factories and farms. But the country eventually became more selective about who it let in. Latin America was the one big exception, because it has a huge land border with the U.S. That meant it was easy for less-educated Mexicans and Central Americans to cross over.

But fertility rates have dropped in Mexico:

Family Planning

Births per woman in Mexico.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Central American countries aren’t far behind. That means there’s much less pressure for poor Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans to come work low-paying jobs in the U.S. -- instead, they need to take care of their aging parents and take over family businesses back in their home countries. In fact, many Mexican immigrants are already leaving the U.S.

As a result, Hanson et al. predict that the U.S. has just about as many Mexican and Central American immigrants as it’s ever going to get. Here are their projections for the number of migrants aged 15-40 living in the U.S.:

So the great Latin American immigration boom has drawn to a close, as the East European boom did a century ago, and as the Irish and German waves did in the 19th century.

So who is coming into the U.S. now? Educated immigrants, mostly from Asia. Since 2007, more Asian people have come into the country than Latin Americans, and the gap has grown wider year by year. In more than half of U.S. states, the most common country of origin for recent immigrants is now an Asian country. The Pew Research Center projects that if this trend continues, Asians will overtake Hispanics as the country’s largest minority group by the mid-century.

Unlike many of the Latin American immigrants who arrived in previous decades, immigrants from Asia tend to be highly educated. This is a result of the U.S.’s selective immigration policy -- because there is no land border with Asia, the U.S. can be very selective about who it lets in from that continent. Asian countries, especially China and India, also tend to have very large populations, and have education systems that do a good job of identifying talent. Of course, it’s worth noting that the U.S. gets skilled immigrants from all over the world, and they all tend to thrive. But China and India each have about four times the U.S.’s population -- America merely sips from the torrent of skilled workers produced by those supergiant countries.

This epochal shift in U.S. immigration patterns is good news for the economy. In recent decades, the U.S. has shifted from the world’s workshop to the world’s research park, and smart immigrants provide the fuel for that engine of prosperity. In addition, there’s evidence that instead of competing down the wages of native-born Americans, skilled foreigners actually raise the earnings of locals. Immigrant engineers, researchers and professionals aren’t brought to the U.S. to replace native-born Americans, but to help them be even more productive. Skilled immigrants also contribute much more in taxes than they take out in government benefits, so these newcomers are helping to pay for aging native-born Americans to have comfortable retirements.

In other words, the U.S. is now getting exactly the kind of immigration it needs. The threat of low-wage immigrant competition hurting the paychecks of working-class Americans, whether it was ever a big danger, will now recede to nothing, while the benefits from skilled immigration keep flowing.

But that will only happen if the U.S. government refrains from messing with this Goldilocks situation. Though Donald Trump once promised to increase skilled immigration, his administration’s recent moves have gone in the opposite direction. Trump plans to scrap a visa program that would allow immigrant entrepreneurs to come start businesses in the U.S. He also signed an executive order that makes it harder for smart foreigners to study in the country.

The U.S. will suffer if Trump upsets the apple cart of skilled immigration. The ideal policy would be to shift even more toward a system that encourages skilled foreigners to settle in the country. But in lieu of that, Trump should simply sit back and let the positive trends continue.

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

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