The False Economics of Anti-Immigration

The False Economics of Anti-Immigration

George Borjas argues that a protectionist approach towards immigration would be good for American workers. Economists almost universally disagree.

We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative
by George J. Borjas
W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 240 pp.


In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump proclaimed, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.” Every decision in a Trump administration, he explained, “will be made to benefit American workers and American families”—workers and families who know that protecting U.S. borders “will lead to great prosperity and strength.” This is consistent, in its protectionist logic, with campaign pledges Trump has already moved to fulfill: building a wall along the border with Mexico, preventing Syrian and other refugees from entering the country, and deporting undocumented immigrants. These actions draw force from the belief that immigration harms the United States.

Economists almost universally disagree. President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers cited economic research as justification for the high-profile immigration policy that many fear Trump will now revoke: the executive actions that made some undocumented immigrants eligible for work authorization. In September 2016, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed that consensus. “Immigration,” the report maintained, “has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.”

One member from the report’s panel of economists was less enthusiastic. Unlike many of his colleagues, Harvard economist George Borjas worries about the distributive ramifications of immigration. In his latest book, We Wanted Workers, Borjas provides an account of immigration to the United States based on the premise that immigrants arrive in this country with a variety of skills and motives—that they are not, in his words, the “army of worker robots” economists too often assume. A Cuban immigrant who came to Miami as a child in 1962, Borjas took an early interest in immigration as a labor economist, several decades before it became the research focus and policy interest it is today. He depicts himself as a disinterested observer free from the ideological blinders that have led economists to overstate the benefits of immigration and downplay its costs, and therefore support more liberal immigration policies.

The denial of ideological bias is bold under any circumstances, but all the m...