President Obama’s recent “do it myself” immigration reform plan, predictably dissed by conservatives and nativists, reveals just how clueless the nation’s leaders are about demographics. Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s immigration crackdown also broke down along predictable lines, with both parties claiming ideological victories.
Yet the heated debates are missing the reality of immigration and its role in America’s future. In reality America needs more immigrants, but with a somewhat different mix.
Rather than an issue of “values” or political sentiment, we need to look at immigration as a matter of arbitrage, a process by which rapidly aging countries bid for the skills and energies of newcomers to keep their economies afloat.
Nowhere is this immigration arbitrage clearer than in the world’s most rapidly aging region, Europe. By 2050 the workforce there is expected to decline by as much as 25%. Yet this diminishing resource is now increasingly on the march as young Greeks, Italians and Portuguese flee to stronger economies in Europe’s Nordic belt and elsewhere. An estimated half million left Spain last year alone. Ireland, which in recent decades actually attracted new migrants, was exporting a thousand people a week last year. In recession-wracked Britain, a 2010 poll found nearly half of the population would like to move elsewhere.
Germany, with its ultra-low birthrate and rapidly aging population, has emerged as a primary migration beacon. Germany needs about 200,000 new migrants ever year to keep its economic engine humming. For decades, newcomers from Turkey and other Islamic countries have flocked there, but this migration has failed to deliver much added value due to their general lack of skills and divergent cultural values. So the Germans — as they did back in the 1960s — look to harvest the diminishing pool of skilled workers from equally aging states on the EU’s southern periphery.
But it’s not simply a matter of a one-way south to north flow. Other EU countries, such as Italy, are playing the immigration arbitrage game by importing young workers from rapidly depopulating southeastern Europe. Milan, for example, added 634,000 foreign residents in just eight years (2000 to 2008), the largest share from Romania, followed by Albania. Over the period, more than 80% of Lombardy’s growth has come as a result of international immigration.
But immigration arbitrage is more than a simple numbers game. As Europe learned through its bitter experience with immigration from North Africa and the Middle East, importing populations without necessary skills and attitudes useful for the modern economy can produce unhappy results. The key issue is how to attract and select immigrants likely to contribute to the national well-being and economic competitiveness.
Almost everywhere in the world, there are shortages of skills ranging from construction to advanced engineering. Much of contemporary immigration to East Asia reflects the need for workers — largely from India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka — to perform tasks considered “dirty, dangerous and difficult” (or 3-D). Singapore and Hong Kong also have a bull market for high-end workers in order to maintain their increasingly financial and technology-oriented economies.
But skills should not be conflated merely with university degrees. Education is no longer a guarantor of productivity; the degree, once a sign of distinction, has become a commodity. Many disciplines have little net positive economic impact. Few countries likely suffer shortages of post-modernist literature graduates, performance artists or lawyers.
Opening the doors to undocumented high school graduates, many with no real marketable skills, as President Obama just did, may not have a great positive long-term effect on the economy. Perhaps it would be better if our immigration policies were less about politics, and ethnic constituencies, and more about gaining specific skills and abilities from other countries, including from Mexico’s growing ranks of educated and skilled workers.
Some countries, such as Canada, Australia and Singapore, already have made major accommodations favoring skilled or entrepreneurial immigrants. The United States, to its great disadvantage, has been slow in this regard. In 2011 barely 13% of all American immigrants came as a result of employment-based preferences, down from 18% 20 years ago. Family reunification should remain a cornerstone of immigration but needs to give way substantially to a more skills-oriented policy.
America’s approach is particularly baffling given our looming skills shortages. The reviving auto industry is already running short of craftspeople such as numerical machine tool operators. In fact, David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, predicts that as the industry tries to hire upwards of 100,000 workers, they will start running out of people with the proper skills as early as next year.
This shortage is also intense in many engineering and technically oriented fields. The Pittsburgh area alone has 1,500 engineering job openings. The Great Lakes Metro Coalition, covering 12 states, is advocating for a federal immigration policy focused on attracting highly skilled talent. Government and business leaders in economically healthy parts of the Great Plains, Texas and Utah now consider persistent skilled labor shortfalls — particularly in science and technical fields — as the greatest barrier to continued growth.
Immigration policy should also look to bring in more entrepreneurs. As business start-ups overall have slowed, immigrants continue to launch new businesses. Today fully one-fifth of all American businesses are owned by immigrants, up from 12% two decade ago. Many of these are located in suburbs and small towns, where together a majority of immigrants see opportunities and a better quality of life.
These qualitative distinctions may be lost on many in the pundit class. As a decline in Mexican immigration has driven overall immigration down below 2009 levels, the number of Asian newcomers is once again growing. Their share of annual new arrivals has risen over the past two years from 36% to 42%.
Asians increasingly do not come for just economic opportunity — there’s often more of that at home — but to attain things almost impossible in their native countries such as a single-family homes with a backyard and less congested, tree-shaded neighborhoods. For some, like migrants from China, political and religious freedom also is often a major attraction.
This is good news for the future. As a Pew report recently pointed out, Asian immigrants tend to possess many of the characteristics this country sorely needs: a commitment to education, family and entrepreneurship. McKinsey suggests China and India will produce 184 million new college graduates over the next 10 years; this provides a vast pool of which the U.S. has only to pick up a small portion to boost its economy.
This is not to argue for a policy based on ethnicity or geography. There are hard-working, skilled immigrants to be had from the poorest countries in Latin America or Africa. If you want to see this, go to any strip mall around Houston, Los Angeles or northern New Jersey.
We need to target immigrants most likely to help our advanced industries, start businesses and families, and whose descendants will provide critical demographic vibrancy. There may soon be many such people looking to move from places like the Middle East, particularly Christians or liberal Muslims threatened by rising Islamism. There also should be policies to welcome restless young Europeans who may be seeking more opportunity elsewhere.
The age of immigration arbitrage will require critical shifts in all advanced countries to provide many more openings for skilled immigrants and entrepreneurs. But ultimately the best way to attract these people lies in boosting the kind of economic growth and opportunity that can attract this most valuable resource to a country.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.