Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Issues in the Economics of Immigration

Issues in the Economics of Immigration, Edited by George Borjas, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (2000). IX pp., 399 pp., Price: $75.

George Borjas is the Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy at
Harvard University (George J. Borjas, n. d.). His analyses of labor market and immigration economics have been published since the early 1980’s (Borjas, 2009). In this 2000 volume, he has compiled nine essays presented in a 1998 conference, including one of his own. These essays reflect the general policy concerns in that decade that resulted in extensive research into the economics of immigration.
Thematically, the individual essays delve into fairly standard labor market analyses, uptake of social services, educational attainment, second generation trends, and incarceration (vii-viii). The essay most pertinent to the economics of education is “The Educational Attainment of Immigrants: Trends and Implications” by Julian Betts and Magnus Lofstrom. In this study, Betts and Lofstrom outline a number of conclusions that make intuitive sense, including their finding that returns to education acquired abroad are only greater for immigrants who come from countries with high quality education (102). They also find a widening gap in educational attainment between natives and immigrants (110). The methodology they use is of interest, because they define the heterogeneous characteristics of the immigrant population. They found differences in educational and wage attainment due to age at migration, years of education pre- and post- migration, and source country (81, 94, 102).
From a policy perspective, Edward P. Lazear’s work on “Diversity and Immigration” is interesting because it attempts to analyze the typically qualitative benefits of diversity. If diversity has an intrinsic value, due to creativity or increased output, how can it be measured? Does it counteract its own measureable costs due to difficulty in communication (118)? He finds six main points in his study:
1) The current US immigrant flow is inconsistent with diversity because it is family based.
2) A preference for diversity actually implies a preference for a homogenous population of the “opposite” type.
3) Groups differ greatly in the criteria by which a diverse population can be measured.
4) Education is important.
5) Immigration policy determines the quality of immigrants.
5) Balanced immigration raises gains from diversity (119-120).
Although an excellent primer for the economics of immigration’s historical context, the book is unhelpfully out of date. Published in 2000, one can only wonder if the findings still hold true today after 9/11 and the global economic shrinkage of 2008-09. Immigration policy has changed --to say the least--including more stringent visa requirements and the introduction of a number of tracking systems. Borjas himself has written recently that he expects an out-migration trend from the United States due to the rising unemployment rate (Borjas, 2009). This forecast is completely opposite to the context of the essays that comprise this book.
Another difficulty is that the volume is meant for a scholarly audience. Therefore, detailed descriptions of the statistical methodologies, data sets, problems with variables, and other technical considerations make it a challenging book to read. It would be best appreciated by those who already have a background in statistical methodologies. This is especially true because the methodologies themselves reflect the problem-solving skills of the authors.
Finally, the funding sources for the conference (the Olin Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation) as well as funding sources for the individual papers (Dept. of Labor, National Science Foundation and more), are disclosed. This is a basic step in ethical research. However, the editor has also made his policy preferences known. He wrote to newly elected President Obama's administration calling for a shift to skills-based immigration and wider implementation of the E-Verify employment tracking system (Borjas, 2009). In other words, the essays selected for this volume all tend to support selective immigration by skill set or education as opposed to selective immigration by family ties.
Issues in the Economics of Immigration is an important reference book that reflects the policy concerns of the 1990’s, but it does not represent the current policy framework. An interesting follow up essay collection would be for the authors of each essay to revisit their respective topics to see which trends have remained stable, which have accelerated, and which may have reversed in the intervening 10 years.

Works Cited:
George J. Borjas, (n. d.). Retrieved March 16, 2009, from
Borjas, George. (January 17, 2009). Some Advice to President Obama. Posted to The Borjas Blog. Retrieved March 16, 2009, from

No comments: