What Would Less Immigration Look Like?

By Mark Krikorian on August 13, 2017

In Vanity Fair this week, T.A. Frank published "The Democratic Case for Restricting Immigration", which isn't actually all that different from the Republican case. He's no Trump fan, but he lays out his "vision of what might happen with a Trumpian immigration policy, a best-case theory for a world that admittedly tends to surprise us in practice." He looks forward to higher wages for less-skilled workers, tax funds freed up for other purposes, less pressure on natural resources, stronger social cohesion, etc. Frank isn't new to this – he opposed the Gang of Eight bill, as well. But coming on the heels of deviations from the party line by Peter Beinart and Fareed Zakaria, we might be seeing some minor cracks in the open-immigration front.

Frank's tour d'horizon of an America with a more moderate level of immigration is theoretical. Laura Meckler at the Wall Street Journal went to Martha's Vineyard to see how it's actually working out at this early stage. She describes it as "a small-scale, real-time experiment in what can happen when labor markets that depend on foreign workers no longer have access to as many of them."

And it looks pretty good!

The specific shortfall was in H-2B visas, which are for low-skilled seasonal jobs in fields other than agriculture. They're widely used in seasonal resort areas, including by Mar-a-Lago. Responding to intense lobbying, Congress gave DHS authority to significantly increase the number for the rest of this year (i.e., it passed the buck), but Secretary Kelly only increased it a small amount, and even that only happened because of blackmail by Sen. Thom Tillis.

Here's what Meckler found:

This summer, businesses here managed to muddle through. They remain open and have found temporary solutions, but the lack of visas disrupted the crucial summer season. It forced some local managers to hunt further afield for employees, and crimped profits.

One restaurant chef noted "I have more Americans working than I've ever had" and he had to pay a premium to a Boston temp agency to find several workers. A big Alaska seafood processor that received hundreds fewer H-2B visas this year complained that "It's very difficult to find people to do this work." But the company filled all its jobs after spending more than $1 million to recruit workers in 32 states and two U.S. territories. Looking at the national level, earnings increased in the leisure and hospitality sector more than in the economy as a whole.

This is all good, but it isn't to say employers haven't had problems with their American workers. Meckler described the chef as saying that some of his workers "don't know the basics of cooking or even how to read the orders." The restaurant had to limit its hours early in the season, while another restaurant on the Vineyard "replaced ceramic ramekins with disposable cups for tartar sauce to ease pressure on the dishwashing station." (No!) The Alaska seafood firm said there was more turnover among the new workers and the plants ran less efficiently.

These are real costs that can't be dismissed. But they are far outweighed by the benefits of drawing people who've dropped out of the life of work altogether back into the job market. Our goal as a society is not maximizing aggregate output but creating the conditions within which our compatriots can thrive and flourish. Using paper cups is a price worth paying.

But it will take more than one season with a tight labor market to change employer expectations. The manager of a fudge store freely admitted he violated the overtime rules for those H-2B visa workers he does have. Meckler also noted:

He says he prefers H-2B workers to college students, who go back to school before the summer season is out, and to high-school students, who he says don't work as hard. American teenagers, he says, "know you need them more than they need you."

The owner of yet another restaurant complained even about the "cultural exchange" program for foreign college students (just another cheap-labor racket) that he's used to replace the H-2Bs:

But that program is "not ideal," says owner Doug Abdelnour, Jr. , because the workers are free to change employers. "If someone says, 'I'll give you 25 cents more an hour,' they're gone," he says.

George Borjas asks in his book We Wanted Workers, "Who are you rooting for?" I'm rooting for free workers able to take advantage of a tight labor market. The sooner we pass the RAISE Act, and the sooner we rein in the alphabet soup of captive-labor guestworker programs, the better.