Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I really don't understand the way a lot of economics bloggers think about high skill immigration

Most of you probably know my schtick on this by now. For many years I've done research on the science and engineering labor market, which has taught me that concerns about skilled labor shortages (the sort often used to justify picking winners by making it relatively easier for high skill immigrants to get in) are unfounded. I've recently started thinking more about immigration and the lack of a problem with shortages makes it hard for me to embrace the preoccupation with helping high skill immigrants specifically get in. I pretty much come out opposed to immigration policies that create a special fast track for high skill immigrants not available to low skill immigrants.

That can be controversial. Some people really like picking winners by tilting the system in favor of high skill immigrants. Even economists, believe it or not. I don't understand it.

But if I don't understand that policy perspective, then I find this post by Adam Ozimek damn near incomprehensible. He writes:

"Increasing exports is a politically popular goal that enjoys bipartisan approval. Yet despite this agreement nobody seems to be clamoring to get the government to stop holding back one industry that could easily increase exports: higher education. Importantly, unlike many export growth plans, this doesn’t rely on the government picking winners, but rather getting out of the way of growth based on real supply and demand. In fact, all the government has to do is let more international students study here. We can get an idea of the impact that this would have by looking at some simple numbers.

According to the Institute of International Education and U.S. Dept. of State, there now there were around 720,000 international students at U.S. colleges in the 2011 academic year. They estimate that these students contribute $21 billion to the economy through tuition and spending. I don’t know where they get their estimate, but this is around $30,000 per student and that sounds like a sensible enough number for a back-of-the-envelope estimate."

The post goes on to talk about how many more foreign students we could accomodate, noting that it would be feasible. That's all fine.

What I can't get my head around is why Ozimek is under the impression that the government is placing restrictions on student visas!

Student visas are notoriously generous and easy to get. Unless I'm missing something (which is a distinct possibility) you basically need a school to accept you and you need to be able to pay for your education. Not a high bar. That's pretty much what every student requires! There's processing time, of course, but I doubt that's what he's thinking of. What's more, the government has basically outsourced the whole process to sponsoring schools. The government isn't holding anyone back. Schools generally like having foreign students and don't hold anyone back either.

The ironic thing is that one of the recurrent themes of people who support skilled immigration programs like the H1-B is that we are so open with student visas, but then those students have to leave because the leg up we already give to high skilled immigrants isn't sufficient.

We should be open to immigrants - there is no doubt at all about that. It's a moral, cultural, and economic imperative. But we shouldn't have a bias in favor of high skill immigrants and probably the last program we should be worrying about is the student visa program. It's the one pocket of immigration policy where we more or less have open borders already.


  1. Calls for increased science and engineering immigration generally come from employers who want to drive down wages. I remember in 2000 or so, Nortel was saying there was a critical shortage of engineers and government needed to train more. A few years later, Nortel laid off their engineers and welched on the pensions they had promised.

    1. Well yes. This is not surprising as Nortel Networks went bankrupt.


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