Guidance for US Immigration Policy

August 13, 2021 Updated: August 16, 2021


Even as the foreign-born become an ever-greater portion of America’s population, Washington’s immigration policy looks increasingly confused and contradictory.

The government held the northern border with Canada tightly closed for an extended time and promptly repatriated any Cuban refugees, wherever they are found, back to their communist “paradise.”

In the meantime, the southern border with Mexico and, by extension, all of Central America seems to be simultaneously open and closed but certainly very dangerous.

What the administration hopes to accomplish with this mélange is murky at best. The foreign- and native-born citizens and residents of this country deserve better. Two recent academic works can perhaps offer guidance on the way the country might deal coherently with newcomers, to improve their economic prospects and those of the nation as a whole.

The first of these studies, by C. Arkolkis, S.Y. Lee, and M. Peters, though produced recently, examines an experience from the more distant past: European immigration between the years 1880 and 1920. Despite the distant time used in the study, the conclusions have remarkably current applications; two among these stand out.

The first is that immigration on balance was of great economic benefit. Its sophisticated statistical analysis determines that the U.S. economy in 1920 would have been 30 to 35 percent smaller had not the waves of immigrants arrived. The authors account for this in two ways. One is the effect of a raw increase in the nation’s workforce. More workers, all else equal, makes for a greater national output. This conclusion is hardly startling. The study’s second conclusion is the more interesting. By correlating numbers of patents with each holder’s birthplace, the study determined that immigrants were considerably more innovative than the native-born.

Indeed, immigrants were three times more likely to have a patent to their name than someone born in the United States.

Taking off from this point, the analysis offers another and still more interesting nuance. The higher immigrant contribution to innovation occurred only after these individuals had become more integrated into American life and practice. New immigrants, these scholars found, weren’t especially innovative and obtained patents at a lower rate than the native-born. The suggestion is that the economy benefits most when immigrants strike out from their narrow communities and engage the larger society.

What is striking is that the second, and, in many ways, very different study reaches the same conclusions. This study, by S. Bernstein, R. Diamond, T. McQuade, and B. Pousada, covers a more recent time period, 1976 to 2012, and focuses on high-skilled immigration. Among other things, the research shows that these relatively recent high-skilled immigrants make their greatest contribution only after they have grown accustomed to American life.

Once this happens, they contribute some 23 percent of national output, far above their 10 percent weight in the population. More telling is that they constitute a still more disproportionate portion of patents granted, some 25 percent of the total. They take an even higher proportion of what the authors describe as “top patents,” by which they mean ground-breaking work as opposed to modifications of existing work.

To be sure, the immigrant group they study is described as “high skilled” and so should gather more patents than the average, native or foreign-born, but the important point for policy is the same that comes out of the earlier study, that the immigrants’ engagement with the larger society is as much a catalyst for innovation as anything they bring with them.

For economic purposes, then, encouraging that engagement should be a goal of immigration policy. That effort would seem to involve these elements: first, the terms of legal immigration should be clear so that newcomers have a sense of security that makes them unafraid to venture beyond their familiar community into the larger society; second, that society obviously should be welcoming; and third, it should encourage newcomers to engage in the larger society.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Milton Ezrati
Milton Ezrati
Milton Ezrati is a contributing editor at The National Interest, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and chief economist for Vested, a New York-based communications firm. Before joining Vested, he served as chief market strategist and economist for Lord, Abbett & Co. He also writes frequently for City Journal and blogs regularly for Forbes. His latest book is "Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Globalization, Demographics, and How We Will Live."