STEM visas and the planned economy mindset

Matt Yglesias writes:

In my first read of the Octogang’s bipartisan immigration reform framework, I thought that making high-skill reform conditioned on receipt of a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics advanced degree from an American institution was too restrictive.

I stand by that… On the other hand, you can read this as a very lax provision. What it does, in essence, is create a huge incentive for foreign-born college graduates to apply to master’s programs in STEM fields. Or looked at the other way, it gives accredited American universities a license to print money by launching foreigner-friendly master’s programs in STEM fields. If an Indian computer programmer can increase his salary sixfold by moving to the United States, then why wouldn’t he take out $50,000 in loans to obtain a master’s degree in computer science from some random American university? The programs would have to be selective enough to avoid totally discrediting the university sponsoring them, but there’s absolutely no need for them to engage in any useful educating whatsoever for the value proposition to be enormous.

Exactly. At bottom, we should be regulating immigration by price, not quantity. It’s not really helpful to say we “need” more STEM graduates. If STEM specialists are expensive, they’re expensive. Some price will clear the market, or maybe we need to outsource some jobs. There may be local positive externalities to STEM graduates, but that’s highly doubtful; to the extent that there’s a fairly strong theoretical case that positive externalities from generating “ideas” are important, these are at the global level. Trying to import STEM graduates in particular smacks of economic planning, with all the accompanying stupidities and inefficiencies. Let the market decide what types of immigrants workers we need, or to be more accurate, what kind of foreigners US employers are willing to pay enough to compensate for any disutility that might be involved in moving. Not Congress. Get them out of it. I can easily imagine useless Masters programs springing up to exploit what Yglesias calls “the advanced degree immigration arbitrage opportunity.” That’s why DRITI is the right way to open the borders.

That said, I’d rather hand out licenses to print visas to random American universities that leave it with State Department consular officials. The less discretion, and the more decentralization, the better. If the right to migrate becomes law for one arbitrarily selected subset of people– those who have STEM degrees from American universities– that’s a small step in the right direction.

The Good and Bad of the Immigration Reform Blueprint

This post originally appeared on the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

Today, the so-called Gang of Eight senators revealed a blueprint for an immigration reform bill. Details in the actual legislation will matter a great deal but these are initial impressions based on the blueprint. The good and the bad.


  • Earned legalization for non-criminal unauthorized immigrants. After paying fines, back taxes, undergoing a criminal background check, and other firm penalties, unauthorized immigrants will be able to stay in the United States and eventually earn a green card. This will increase their wages over several years much faster than if they remained unauthorized. 
  • DREAMers will not face the same penalties as unauthorized immigrants who intentionally broke U.S. immigration laws, which is a positive step.
  • Legalization for unauthorized immigrant workers in the agricultural industry will be fast-tracked. This is especially important because the majority of farm workers in most states are unauthorized immigrants.
  • Removing some regulatory barriers and increasing quotas for highly skilled immigrants. This will likely include an increase in the number of employment based green cards and removing the per-country quotas that produce wait times for Indian, Chinese, Mexican, and Filipino workers. Currently, numerous firms and immigrants are dissuaded from even trying to obtain employment based green cards because of the enormous wait times.


  • Increases the amount of resources spent on border security. The size of the border patrol is double of what it was in 2004. The number of border patrol agents is seven times greater than what it was in the 1980s with about nine times as many on the southern border. More technology and aerial drones on the border will be wasteful and not produce results.
  • Strong employment verification system like E-Verify. As I wrote here, here, and here, E-Verify is an intrusive big government workplace identification system that does not even root out unauthorized immigrants. In Arizona, which has had mandatory E-Verify since 2008, many unauthorized immigrants have moved deeper into the black market, some industries fire numerous unauthorized workers but don’t hire natives to fill the spots, and the business formation rate dropped because the penalties for intentionally or knowingly hiring unauthorized workers are so draconian.
  • Increases regulations for guest worker visas. Current guest worker visas for agricultural workers are so overregulated that they are barely used. Adding more regulations will only make the visas more unusable and incentivize American farmers and employers to hire unauthorized workers.

A viable guest worker program will increase economic growth in the United States. Guest worker visas are not as good as green cards for lower-skilled workers, but they are the only viable option at this moment. The devil is in the details but this blueprint does not provide for enough future low-skilled immigration.     

Rawls’ highly unpersuasive attempt to evade the open borders ramifications of his own theory

Open borders advocates sometimes claim that Rawlsian ethics imply support for open borders. If this is an implication of Rawls’ theory of justice, however, it’s one that Rawls himself does not acknowledge, for reasons he mentions in passing in his book The Law of Peoples:

Concerning the second problem, immigration, in #4.3 I argue that an important role of government, however arbitrary a society’s boundaries may appear from a historical point of view, is to be the effective agent of a people as they take responsibility for their territory and the size of their population, as well as for maintaining the land’s environmental integrity. Unless a definite agent is given responsibility for maintaining an asset and bears the responsibility and loss for not doing so, that asset tends to deteriorate. On my account the role of the institution of property is to prevent this deterioration from occurring. In the present case, the asset is the people’s territory and its potential capacity to support them in perpetuity; and the agent is the people itself as politically organized. The perpetuity condition is crucial. People must recognize that they cannot make up for failing to regulate their numbers or to care for their land by conquest in war, or by migrating into another people’s territory without their consent.

How convincing is this argument?

Rawls’ suggestion that a people should be concerned about their land’s ability to “support them in perpetuity” exhibits a strange neglect of international trade. Almost no country today is economically autarkic. In that sense, no country’s land “supports” its people. Some countries, like the United States, could probably get by without international trade, albeit with a lower standard of living. Others, certainly including Hong Kong and Singapore, but probably Japan too, and many others, could not do so, or only with tremendous difficulty. But that’s not a problem, because they don’t need to. They can buy what they lack from foreigners. A primitive Malthusian notion of carrying capacity seems to be at work in Rawls’ mind, but Malthus has been wrong, most of the time, concerning human populations in the last 200 years. Moreover, if a country were really on the verge of a Malthusian nightmare of mass starvation, it would not be an attractive destination for immigrants. It seems safe to say that there is no country in the world today where existing migration restrictions could be plausibly justified by an argument from limited carrying capacity. Continue reading Rawls’ highly unpersuasive attempt to evade the open borders ramifications of his own theory

The Administration’s Deferred Action Policy: Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

For the open borders advocate in the United States, policy changes which modestly expand the opportunity for more people to live and work legally in the U.S. create ambivalence. The beneficiaries of the changes gain access to the American job market and can live without the fear of deportation. At the same time, the limitations of the new policies highlight the plight of those still excluded from freely entering or staying in the U.S. The Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows some undocumented immigrants to temporarily stay in the U.S., is a stark example of such a policy change.

The administration’s action certainly helps a sympathetic group of immigrants. Since August 2012, many undocumented individuals 30 years old or younger who came to the U.S. when they were younger than 16 have been eligible to receive deferred action, which allows them to stay in the U.S. and receive work permits for two years. Individuals have to have been in the U.S. for five years or more, have generally clean criminal records, and be in school, have graduated from high school, or be military veterans. The two year period is renewable. According to the National Immigration Law Center, over one hundred thousand immigrants have received deferred action under DACA, as of December 13, 2012. It is estimated that over 1.5 million immigrants could benefit from the administration’s action. These individuals could lead happier lives with unlimited work opportunities, access to driver’s licenses, and the chance to live without the fear of imminent deportation.

There are several reasons to be concerned about DACA, however. First, there are significant weaknesses in the policy itself. By applying for deferred action, undocumented immigrants are making the government aware of their immigration status, making them vulnerable to future deportation. According to a document produced by several legal groups, “Attorneys are advised to warn their clients in writing that even for prima facie eligible cases, deferred action is not guaranteed. The warning should further explain that applicants will be revealing and, in most cases, documenting their removability to a government agency that can initiate removal proceedings.” A future administration that is opposed to the policy could quickly rescind it. Underscoring the temporary nature of deferred action, the legal groups’ document states that “DHS can renew or terminate a grant of deferred action at any time.”

Second, some of the rhetoric by supporters of DACA suggests that the parents of the young immigrants are to blame for the perilous immigration status of their offspring. In announcing the new policy, Mr. Obama suggested these younger immigrants should not be deported “simply because of the actions of their parents.” (transcript of speech) This is reminiscent of comments made by those who want tighter immigration policies which blame undocumented immigrants for any suffering their children experience from immigration enforcement actions. As reported in the New York Times, Rosemary Jenks, from the restrictionist group NumbersUSA, “said the responsibility for the impact on children of the deportations rests with their parents. ‘If parents are going to come here illegally, unfortunately the child faces the consequences as well…’”

Such remarks by DACA supporters communicate the wrong message to the public about what has caused the young immigrants’ predicament. The threat of deportation for these immigrants ultimately stems from immigration restrictions, not from any fault of the parents. By bringing their children to the U.S. to improve their lives, the parents have shown great dedication toward them. Seeking a quality education, safety, and economic well-being for one’s children is the epitome of being a responsible parent. Conversely, keeping your children in a country that is unsafe, has weak schooling, and/or offers limited economic opportunities in deference to U.S. immigration laws could be considered poor parenting. The rhetoric also implies a dubious distinction between “worthy” immigrant sons and daughters who deserve protection and “unworthy” immigrant parents who do not. (The credit for this criticism of dividing immigrants into worthy and unworthy groups goes to the organization No One Is Illegal.)

Third, DACA protects only a small portion of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Most of the millions of undocumented individuals in the U.S. do not meet the criteria to apply for deferred action. This has been illustrated in recent cases reported in the media. In one, a Mexican woman and her daughter won money at an Arizona casino, but after the casino called the police when they thought their identification was fraudulent, the government learned that the two were undocumented. They were both arrested, but while the daughter was released because she qualified for DACA, the mother was deported because she did not qualify. In another Arizona case, a woman who had been granted deferred action status under DACA watched as her mother and brother were arrested by immigration agents at their home. The mother and brother were released the next day, apparently only because of pressure on the Obama administration, but still face the possibility of deportation. The pressure existed because the woman who had benefitted from DACA was a well-known advocate for young undocumented immigrants.

The policy is an example of the arbitrary and invariably unfair nature of immigration laws. For instance, it does not help immigrants who are 31 years old, who have only lived in the U.S. for four years and eight months, or who came to the U.S. when they were sixteen. It does not help those who did not complete high school, even though they may be upstanding members of their communities. No One Is Illegal has articulated nicely the inherent unfairness of having the government determine who may immigrate and who may not: “… the achievement of fair immigration restrictions… would require a miracle.”

Similar problems will arise should the DREAM Act or “comprehensive immigration reform” be enacted.  The only way to permanently fulfill the hopes and dreams of all immigrants is to regularize the status of current migrants and move towards open borders for prospective future migrants, possibly incorporating some of the keyhole solutions to address restrictionist concerns.  Not only will all immigrants gain when these changes are made, America will have instituted a just immigration policy it can be proud of.

Introducing Joel Newman

We’re happy to announce that Joel Newman will join Open Borders as a regular blogger. Joel Newman has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon. He is completing a book calling for open borders. He plans to write posts about various moral and practical arguments in favor of open borders.

Joel is the first blogger at Open Borders who contacted us of his own initiative for the blogging role, and also the first blogger here who does not comment on EconLog. All other recruits so far have been people we came to know of and touched base with through the comments space on EconLog. Thus, he’s likely to bring a new and somewhat different perspective to the case for open borders than most of the regular and guest bloggers on the site so far. Joel has written about open borders in other venues in the past, including in the magazine of Pomona College, his undergraduate alma mater.