Hank Lee | Williams College (Contribution by Alice Obas)
For Donald Trump, racism is inveterate. Racism is at the core of his political outlook and was the defining feature of his candidacy for president. Trump’s comments this week labeling El Salvador, Haiti, and the nations of Africa as “sh*thole countries” were particularly egregious and evinced unabashed racial bias.
While Trump’s remarks were unambiguously offensive, as a white male born and raised in the United States, it’s impossible for me to fully grasp the sting these remarks evoke for individuals of Salvadoran, Haitian, and African heritage. Alice Obas, a peer and friend of mine at Williams College who was born and raised in Haiti until age eight, shared her reaction with me - in moving terms - to Trump’s comments.
“My first reaction was anger. The comments were infuriating. Donald Trump doesn’t represent me," Alice said. “The anger also came with a feeling of pride for my country. We are poor, but we are rich in character.” During Alice’s youth in Haiti, her life was remarkably different. Her grandfather was assassinated for protesting government abuses. When Alice was eight, her mother was held at gunpoint in traffic by a military officer. This latter event proved a breaking point and drove Alice’s parents to move her family to the United States in the hope of greater physical and economic security. “My parents wanted to give my siblings and I the best education. They wanted their children to have the opportunity to do even better than they had done," Alice recalled.
Thankfully, Alice and her siblings got that opportunity. In a gradual process, in which her family was often separated, Alice and her parents came to the United States and gained citizenship. Alice is smart, and an excellent student. She aspires to a career in business, and with a record of success inside and outside the classroom, is off to a strong start. But she often thinks of those who are still in Haiti, most living in poverty or deep poverty.
She watched, from a distance, as the country suffered a brutal earthquake in 2010 and attempted to rebuild with very scarce resources. The mothers, fathers, children, brothers, and sisters who suffer through Haiti’s natural disasters and the tribulations of the country’s daily living have dreams, just as Alice does. For many, those dreams entail a safe home, a stable job, and a good education for their children. In the United States, in spite of its shortcomings, such a lifestyle is on offer—if you can gain entry.
Alice feels the sting of the President’s biting rebuke, but she worries that the conversation over Trump’s remarks have missed the bigger point. Yes, Trump is racist. But to those who’ve been paying attention, this fact has been plain and his recent commentary reveals little that is novel. Trump’s odious barbs of late came in the context of a discussion on immigration. Trump doesn’t wish to see the United States taking in more immigrants from developing nations. He expressed this view with reprehensible acerbity, but the view itself is hardly uncommon.
Though many of Trump’s colleagues control their tongues with more circumspection, on the substance of American border policy, they stand in alignment with the President. Their racism is more concealed but equally insidious. They wouldn’t get caught saying “shithole” outside the house, but make no mistake, they want tight borders. They want quotas. They don’t want amnesty. When would-be immigrants with a dream and a work ethic need these politicians in their corner, they’re nowhere to be found. For prospective immigrants, Trump’s words may spoil their afternoon, but restrictive border policies will devastate their lives.
The stated reason that many politicians, predominantly Republicans, are unsupportive of flexible borders is the ostensible cost immigration imposes on existing American residents. The concern, so they suggest, is that immigrants will take jobs away from current Americans and depress the wages of others. In theory, this is a genuine concern. Without examining empirical evidence, it is imaginable that through the ordinary mechanics of supply and demand, an influx of immigrants could displace native workers. But this is crude theory. Theory can offer explanations of existing reality and predictions of results that will come to pass in the future. But for the results themselves, we must turn to data.
Careful analysis of existing data on immigration, domestic wages, and domestic employment illustrate that, in fact, immigrants do not have negative impacts on wages or employment for native-born workers. The seminal work to this effect is Berkeley economist David Card’s analysis of the Mariel Boatlift. In 1980, Fidel Castro sanctioned the exodus of over 100,000 Cubans from Mariel Harbor in Cuba. These refugees boarded boats to Miami, where many settled, dramatically expanding the Miami labor market.
Card has found that, while there were some short-term frictions in the labor market as the new immigrants competed with natives for labor, these effects were ephemeral. In the medium-term and beyond, the influx of migrant laborers had no effect on wages or the unemployment rate of native workers. Card’s work was an important step, but it focused on a single city under unique circumstances. The salient fact is that Card’s conclusion is not isolated. An array of analogous studies have generated results largely similar to Card’s. Among economists who study the matter, there is a consensus that immigration does not adversely impact native wages or employment.
The verdict on immigration’s impact on domestic workers is not merely neutral; it’s positive. Another collection of work examining the effect of immigration on productivity has led to a consensus, among economists in the field, that immigration boosts productivity. In a 2009 paper, the seminal work on the matter, UC-Davis economist Giovanni Peri identified a positive link between immigrants and productivity in the United States. Peri suggests that the dominant mechanism by which immigrants generate productivity growth is by promoting increased task specialization. This means that immigrants, who generally possess different skillsets than native workers, shift native workers into fields for which they are more uniquely suited while immigrants fill roles to which their skills cater. To consider a concrete example, native workers may shift more into client-facing capacities (e.g. answering phones, working a desk) in which their English-language proficiency confers an advantage. In contrast, immigrants from developing regions frequently take on manual labor roles, which demand a strong work ethic but limited technical training or lingual fluency. But these jobs are critical income streams. They can feed and shelter families whose next option is poverty.
Acknowledging the positive impact of immigration is important. It ought to inform the way we make policy. If it were the case that immigration harmed domestic residents, we would be faced with a dissatisfying tradeoff. We would need to weigh immigration’s costs to domestic workers with its benefits for migrant families, and structure the nation’s immigration policy accordingly. Fortunately, that’s not the world we live in. In the United States, immigration drives productivity growth while leaving native wages and employment unaffected. Thus, in the language of economists, immigration is Pareto efficient (i.e. some people win, but nobody loses). In theory, productivity growth should be accompanied by wage growth. Over the past several decades, however, workers’ wages have failed to keep pace with the growth in productivity. Thus, the prospect of harnessing more of the untapped benefits of immigration offers yet another argument for solving America’s working-class wage-stagnation crisis, but that’s a story for another time.
So, for those who attempt to dutifully occupy the office of citizen, what do we make of this not-so-new news of immigration’s benefits? The answer is that we need a flexible, open border policy. The current paths to residency, and subsequently citizenship, are cumbersome and tortuous. Most who apply don’t get in. Instead, many languish, bereft of the economic opportunity which, for so many, the United States affords. Our guiding principle for immigrant policy should be simple: if they can find a job after a short stay, they’re in. The details should be built out around this core tenet. If they were, the system would look much different—and much more open—than it does in its current form.
This brings us back to Alice’s main concern; in the wake of Trump’s recent remarks, we need to do more than just cry "racist" (this isn’t news, we’ve known Trump was racist since practically the dawn of time). We need to take Trump’s conversation, in context, and acknowledge that the rot on the immigration issue is more manifest than an isolated racist at 1600 Pennsylvania. It is present throughout the entire Republican party, and even among a handful of misguided Democrats. We cannot focus monomaniacally on the racism of an individual and ignore a deleteriously restrictive, yet widely embraced, system. In recent days, as in the 2016 election, the national conversation has failed to turn once to the immense good done by immigration. Yes, we’ve all heard, we’re a country of immigrants. But that claim doesn’t turn any heads these days. We need to assert the massive, concrete benefits immigration offers in the here and now. Instead, we’ve remained permanently distracted. It’s time to focus. This should be a teachable moment. It starts with DACA, but that is only one small facet. Change will come. It’s been a long, long time coming.
http://www.nber.org/papers/w15507.pdf - Giovanni Peri