Fascinating new study on immigration reveals the policy preferences of voters and elites differ sharply — but not the way you think

One of my favorite economists, Dean Baker, frequently makes the point that we don’t really have free markets in the country. What we actually have is crony capitalism, which is quite a different animal. We have a nominally capitalist system in which the government in fact works overtime to protect the interests of corporations and wealthy elites. Sometimes the result looks like a relatively unconstrained market; other times, not so much. A case in point is immigration. As Baker likes to point out, when it comes to immigration policy, the protectionists rule.

For example, we have a doctor shortage in this country, a shortage that is likely to loom even large as the ACA kicks in, but discussions of the issue almost never bring up changing our immigration policies as one way to address the problem. American immigration and labor policies as a whole tend to be liberal when it comes to allowing low-skill, low-wage workers to cross our borders and work in our country, but much more stringent when it comes to allowing medical, legal, and other highly educated professionals to do the same. This is in spite of the fact that many professionals from other countries would undoubtedly be willing to work here for far less pay than native-born Americans (because it would be far more than they would receive in their countries of origin, like Mexico, India, or China).

If we actually reversed our immigration policies, making it easier for high-skill workers to work here, and harder for low-skill workers to do so, we’d probably see a reduction in income inequality. The reduction in the supply of low-skill workers would force employers to raise those workers’ wages, and the increase in the supply of high-skill workers would cause employers to decrease the wages of that group. (For the record, I don’t favor decreasing the immigration of low-skill workers, but I do think that would be one of the likely consequences).

At the very least, enabling more highly educated professionals from abroad to work in this country would be good for the all-important consumers that neoliberal pundits and policymakers claim to care so deeply about. So why, then, don’t we see more of this type of immigration here? A simple application of the principle of cui bono gives you your answer. Highly educated elites after all, are the people making these policies. You are not likely to see, for example, many economics professors running around arguing themselves out of a job — even though I am sure virtually all of them are highly replaceable.

Related to these points, a new study by political scientists Dan Hopkins and Jens Hainmueller came to a surprising conclusion: that in spite of the deep disagreements about immigration that characterize our politics, there’s one very important piece about immigration policy that Americans actually agree on. It’s this: among American voters, there is a markedly strong preference for “high-skilled immigrants with high-status professions.” To take one example from the study, “having a college degree makes an immigrant about 20 percentage points more likely to be admitted, and that being a doctor has a positive effect of about the same magnitude.”

What’s remarkable is that the preference for highly skilled, highly educated immigrants cuts across the usual demographic and ideological divides. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, college-educated and not: all prefer educated professionals as immigrants. It would appear that it’s long past time that the U.S. start revising its immigration policy along a model suggested by Canada’s skilled-worker-friendly programs. But given the propensities of our self-dealing elites to look out for their own interests at the expense of everyone else’s, I’m not betting on that any time soon.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee