BBC Story from Ohio Has Lessons for U.S. Policy Makers

By Jerry Kammer on February 1, 2018

The BBC has posted a story from Ohio that provides interesting background for the discussion of U.S. immigration policy.

Reporter Fergus Nicoll describes central Ohio as an area, "where America is struggling to modernize, struggling to adapt to the fast-moving, digital, hi-tech twenty-first century." Its most salient feature is an interview with Ohio State professor Ned Hill, who teaches economic development policy. Hill's nuanced observations about the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and about globalization's likely future effects on labor markets are particularly useful.

First, Hill describes NAFTA as "a huge net benefit" for Ohio because of its importance for two major industries: auto manufacturing and agriculture. Pointing to the interconnected auto supply chain between the United States and Mexico, he gives the example of a Honda engine-manufacturing plant, the largest in North America: "Every day a ... train leaves that plant to take engines to their factory in Mexico." Hill notes that while Honda's leather seats are sewn in Mexico, the electronics for the seats come from the United States.

Because of the value of this sophisticated supply chain between the two countries, Hill warns against drastic changes to NAFTA. "If you take a simpleton ax to this, you'll cause massive damage," he says.

Then Hill points to globalization's downside for Ohio: the loss of manufacturing jobs. "If you look at the rural, semi-urban counties, there was large scale employment loss," he says. But he adds that most of the loss was due not to trade arrangements, but to automation.

This is the point where Hill, without mentioning immigration policy, makes a prediction that points to the fact that an immigration policy can be a labor policy. As automation continues, he says, the robots "will take the jobs from the semi-skilled, high-turnover positions." As a result, there will be "a continued decrease in the demand for semi-skilled and unskilled labor."

There's the rub for immigration policy makers. It is at the lower end of the labor market where immigration, especially illegal immigration, is most problematic because it is there that newcomers compete with the most vulnerable Americans, including many immigrants who are competing for their piece of the American dream.

T.A. Frank eloquently made this point in 2013 in the New Republic, where he wrote: "Even as these Americans have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs, Washington has looked the other way while millions of low-skilled unauthorized immigrants have competed with them for low-skilled service jobs. The insouciance of privileged Americans toward the effects of this on life among less-privileged Americans is, in my view, a betrayal of citizenship."