On the February 21 PlanetMoney podcast, Dean Baker, head of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, was asked to describe the immigration policy of his dreams. His plan would have the government issue a limited number of visas to only highly skilled foreigners with expertise in technical and scientific industries that are unable to find enough qualified American workers. As for non-skilled laborers like farm workers, Baker is less concerned: “I don’t think we need a special underclass of people to work at real low wages on the farms.”
Given the opportunity to sketch out his dream scenario for immigration reform, a progressive economist advocates a system of central planning in which the government determines which industries need “extra” workers and which do not, and then restrict visas to a select group of elite, highly educated professionals. Like for all other protectionist policies, the opportunities for corruption, regulatory capture, and cronyism would be irresistible for corporations and unions with a stake in the final decision. And while the government was trying to figure out if the United States needs 20,000 or 20,001 foreign software engineers, immigration for lower skilled workers would continue to be difficult, if not impossible.
At least Dean Baker recognizes the need for United States to attract highly skilled immigrants. A recent article in Mother Jones, which has been aggressively covering immigration issues and the Obama Administration’s harsh policies towards illegal immigrants, attempts to made a case against the most prominent government program for attracting skilled workers from overseas.
In How H-1B Visas Are Screwing Tech Workers, Josh Harkinson tells the story of recently fired Pfizer employees who were told that they would spend their last few weeks on the job training their replacements: H-1B holders from India. He goes on to list the various ways in which the H-1B visa program harms American technology workers. Harkinson is especially concerned that the ten largest users of H-1B workers are offshore outsourcing companies whose H-1B employees rarely permanently move to the United States but take the job back to India or another, non-American, country. He does not mention the difficulty and expense of the H-1B process or how long it takes for an H-1B holder to gain permanent residency and eventual citizenship for himself or herself and his or her family (indeed, Mother Jones provides a handy quiz that tests your ability to beat the “Immigration Maze”). Instead, Harkinson believes that Congress should institute immigration protectionism by mandating extra rules to ensure Americans receive first dibs on technology jobs and a minimum wage for foreign workers to make them just as expensive as American workers. Of course, if the United States had such policies in the early 19th century, Charles Pfizer might never have moved to America from his native Germany to start the company that now bears his name.
Harkinson isn’t wrong to be concerned about the plight of struggling Americans. But as Bryan Caplan has pointed out in the past, it is morally questionable to put more emphasis on the “American” rather than the “struggling” part. Nevertheless, many progressives want to use immigration restrictions as a round-about way of helping vulnerable American workers. They know that the American public will not support direct subsidies to individual workers harmed by immigration, so they use restrictions as a cynical half-measure to prevent the supposed harm from happening at all. Baker’s proposal has the restrictions fall disproportionally on unskilled and poor foreigners, while Harkinson wants to make hiring high-skilled foreigners more difficult. But both view immigration as a potentially hostile force that needs to be managed for the exclusive benefit of Americans.