Immigration Policy and Competitiveness: Two Nuggets

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on June 7, 2011

The Migration Policy Institute today hosted an interesting discussion on immigration policy and economic competitiveness. Here are two thoughtful nuggets from the discussion that are worthy of consideration.

The first is from Pia Orrenius, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The second is from Jared Bernstein, who recently left his job as chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden and is now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Orrenius, who is proposing immigration reforms that would distribute green cards less on the basis of family connections and more on the basis of job skills, showed that U.S. policy places far less value on skills than do other developed countries. She noted that 65 percent of green cards are distributed to relatives of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, while just 14 percent are distributed according to employment criteria.

Noting the presence of an estimated 11 million "unauthorized" immigrants in the U.S., Orrenius said that current policy is effectively "restricting high-skilled immigration, which tends to be legal, and is encouraging low-skilled immigration." She said encouragement at the low-skilled end stems from the fact that low levels of educational attainment are widespread both among the unauthorized population and among recipients of family-based visas.

Bernstein, while acknowledging the importance of tying immigration policies to workplace demands, said he was concerned that the connection could disrupt a signal that a changing jobs market tends to be broadcast naturally. He said the signal directs workers away from job categories that are losing value and toward categories that are becoming more important. "That kind of signal is actually very important for an economy's evolution," Bernstein said, "and I worry that if we're too responsive to that signal on the immigration side that we dampen it in ways that could hurt our economic growth."