ImmigrationHow “dreamers” and green card lottery winners strengthen the U.S. economy

By Ethan Lewis

Published 15 September 2017

Those who wish to restrict immigration often cite what they naïvely call “supply-and-demand economics” to essentially argue that the economy is a fixed pie that gets divided among a country’s residents. Fewer immigrants means “more pie” for the U.S.-born, as the story goes. I am an economist, and this is not what my colleagues and I say. The commonplace argument that increases in the volume of immigration, by themselves, lower wages and take jobs from Americans – an argument which Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to defend ending DACA – has neither empirical nor theoretical support in economics. It is just a myth. Instead, both theory and empirical research show that immigration, including low-skill and low-English immigration, grows the pie and strengthens the American workforce.

While President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have long decried illegal immigration and proposed remedies like the wall and mass deportations, they have traditionally favored the legal kind, partly because their business donors demand it.

That seems to have changed.

In August, the president publicly backed a GOP bill to slash the number of “green cards” awarded each year in half and move the U.S. to a merit-based immigration system.

More recently, he ended an Obama-era program that protected the so-called dreamers – children of immigrants who crossed the border illegally – from deportation. The fate of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program remains in limbo, however, and the president has affirmed recent talks with Democrats to save it.

As someone who researches the impact of immigration on workers, I believe the GOP plan and ending DACA would both be big mistakes, in part because they’ll make the pool of immigrants in the U.S. much less diverse.

A new system of legal immigration
One of the arguments made to support curbs on immigration is that new arrivals hurt native-born American workers and the economy at large. But in fact, the more homogenous and similar immigrants are to U.S.-born workers, the greater the odds they’ll do just that.

In contrast, immigrants who come from diverse backgrounds with a range of skills – such as the 800,000 dreamers – tend to produce greater economic benefits. That may be one reason at least some Republicans and most Americans are in favor of keeping DACA.

Currently, the U.S. receives a lot of immigrants without a college degree or with imperfect English. About half of immigrants fit either description.

The legislation proposed earlier this summer – the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act – would exclude most such workers and would reduce the total number of green cards awarding permanent legal U.S. residence to just over 500,000 from more than one million today.

More importantly, it would change who gets a leg up when applying for a green card. Currently, family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, including siblings and adult children, are able to apply. The new system would limit that to minor children and spouses.