Everyone Prefers Highly Skilled Immigrants

What determines voter attitudes towards immigration? One view, supported by several empirical studies, is that voters’ opposition to immigration is driven in part by fears that immigrants will threaten their labor market opportunities. If this is so, then voters should be particularly opposed to immigrants that could replace them. So, high-skilled workers may like more low-skilled immigrants, who provide cheap services but pose no threat to their earning capacities, but they should oppose high-skilled immigration (e.g. extension of H1B programs).

A new working paper (ungated) from Jens Hainmueller (MIT), Michael Hiscox (Harvard), and Yotam Margalit (Columbia) challenges this view. The authors examine data from a large survey of employees in 12 industries that vary in their exposure to immigration. Respondents were randomly assigned a question that either asked them whether they would be willing to send Members of Congress a message opposing high-skilled or low-skilled immigration. Essentially, they find that everyone prefers high-skilled immigrants.

Specifically, we find no evidence that individuals are systematically more likely to oppose the immigration of workers that possess skills similar to their own. Rather, workers of all types express greater support for inflows of high-skilled rather than low-skilled immigrants. Strikingly, this preference is almost identical among respondents in all segments of the labor force one compares: among high skilled and low skilled workers, for example, among production workers as well as managers, poor and rich individuals, high school drop-outs and individuals with graduate degrees, and workers located in all the industries we studied.

In short, it is not the features of industries but individual characteristics of the workers themselves that determine their support for immigration. The authors point out that these results are consistent with economic theory, which for the most part suggests negligible or ambiguous implications on wages from immigration.

The findings make sense to me although it would be useful to think a bit more carefully about the social and political context in which workers may start perceiving that their individual welfare is being threatened by immigration; as suggested by the research of our occasional contributor Dan Hopkins . Nevertheless, very important and careful research.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.