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Tucker Carlson isn’t speaking forbidden truths about immigration — he’s just wrong

Immigrants make most Americans richer, not poorer.

Tucker Carlson. Rich Polk/Getty Images for Politicon

Tucker Carlson, currently facing some advertiser boycotts over a segment in which he accused immigrants of making America “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” resorted earlier this week to a favorite tactic of right-wing provocateurs — playing the victim and insisting on his right to speak his mind rather than engaging in an actual debate on the issue at hand.

On his Monday night show, he replayed his earlier controversial remarks, and then said that “precisely because it is so obviously true, saying it out loud is a threat. Our immigration policy exists for the profit and the comfort of a relatively tiny number of people. Everybody else gets shafted.”

He added: “Meanwhile, the people profiting from the policy don’t want the rest of us to think about it too much. They want us just to mouth the empty platitudes and move on. ‘Nothing to see here. Shut up and go away.’ Those who won’t shut up get silenced.”

None of this is true. For starters, nobody has been “silenced” for criticizing American immigration policy. Donald Trump is the president of the United States, for example, and Tucker Carlson is a multimillionaire television star with wealth and power that far outstrips that of his critics.

There’s not much point getting into the offensive trope that immigrants are dirty. The substantive point is that it’s simply not true that immigration enriches a tiny number of people while making the rest poorer. Quite the opposite — immigration makes most Americans at least a little bit more prosperous while also being of enormous benefit to the immigrants themselves. The concrete material interests of a small minority of people may be harmed by immigration, and their interests certainly matter, but the size of this group is drastically oversold by the anti-immigration community.

That doesn’t mean everyone has to like current immigration policy or that it couldn’t be improved. But Carlson’s core argument about the economics of immigration is false.

The very narrow economic case against immigration

The existence of a robust empirical argument among economists over the impact of unskilled immigration on the wages of native-born Americans can tend to distract attention from exactly how narrow that argument is.

Top White House immigration policy adviser Stephen Miller, for example, likes to cite the work of Harvard economist George Borjas as his go-to authority on immigration economics. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was also a big fan of Borjas. Borjas landed on the Politico 50 list in 2016 for the influence his work had on the economic harm of unskilled immigration from Latin America. Many other economists disagree with his conclusions, but that’s actually less important than understanding what his conclusions say, namely that immigration has been bad for the wages of high school dropouts. Borjas is not making a sweeping claim about all American workers, and in particular not a claim about the entire “working class” as it’s typically defined in American politics.

  • As he wrote in his 2016 Politico article, “According to census data, immigrants admitted in the past two decades lacking a high school diploma have increased the size of the low-skilled workforce by roughly 25 percent. As a result, the earnings of this particularly vulnerable group dropped by between $800 and $1,500 each year.”
  • This echoed research he did in 1994, which concluded that “perhaps a third of the 10 percentage point decline in the relative wage of high school dropouts between 1980 and 1988 can be attributed to the less skilled immigration flow.”
  • And Borjas is famous for his long-running debate with David Card over studies of the Mariel boatlift that sent a huge surge of unskilled immigrants into Miami. This entire debate — which contains a lot of back-and-forths and methodological nuance — is about the impact on Miami-area high-school dropouts.

Borjas’s research on this score, to be clear, is hardly the secret suppressed truth as Carlson portrays it. It is, instead, a minority viewpoint among scholars in the field (see Michael Clemens for an alternative view) that enjoys disproportionate exposure in the media because it supports the views of a major faction in Congress. But either way, the debate is about potential harms to a relatively small minority of the American workforce.

Native-born high school dropouts are rare and mostly old

But even though this debate is important in its own right, it’s important to understand that high school dropouts are a very small portion of native-born workers in the United States. Only about 12 million native-born adults lack a high school diploma in a country of over 330 million residents.

Census Bureau

What’s more according to the Census Bureau’s Erik Schmidt, the non-high school population skews significantly toward the older side.

“Because a larger proportion of non-Hispanic whites are age 50 and older compared to other groups,” he writes, “they completed their schooling when a smaller proportion of people finished high school.”

The high school dropouts who are maybe suffering economically because of mass immigration, in other words, comprise less than 10 percent of the native-born population and even less as a share of the native-born workforce because many of them are at or near retirement age.

When discussing public opinion, the minority of adults who are college graduates tend to be pro-immigration while the non-college majority are more skeptical. But when discussing immigration economics, it’s the vast majority of the population that’s finished 12th grade that benefits, and a small, idiosyncratic minority that maybe suffers.

Curbing immigration can’t help struggling areas

Given Trump-era revival of interest in economic geography, it’s worth paying special attention to how unlikely it is that restricting immigration would boost the economic fortunes of typical working-class whites in economically struggling regions.

A shutdown of new waves of immigrant farmworkers to California’s Central Valley would, for example, plausibly raise wages for the existing stock of (largely immigrant) farmworkers in the area. But that would only help residents of ailing Ohio manufacturing towns if they want to move to the Central Valley to pick vegetables.

Yet for better or worse, the option of “just move someplace where jobs are more plentiful” is an option that’s already available to people living in communities that have been hard hit by deindustrialization (Iowa currently contains two different small metro areas with unemployment rates below 1.5 percent). Normal people, quite naturally, don’t view “just move to Iowa” to be an adequate answer to the problem of community decline.

But to reap the alleged benefits of a reduction in immigration, people would need to want to relocate to the big immigrant clusters to go do their jobs instead — washing dishes at Chicago restaurants, mowing lawns in Los Angeles, nannying in DC, etc.

Realistically, that’s unlikely. If you kick out the immigrant farmworkers, you’re not going to see a mass migration from West Virginia into the vegetable-picking industry — you’re going to see West Virginians paying higher prices for vegetables, and you’re going to see more imports of agricultural products from abroad.

There really are economic trade-offs here — low-skilled immigration appears to quite genuinely be bad for low-skilled immigrants, for example, and even though high school dropouts are a small minority of the native workforce, they are people whose interests count. But the main conclusion of any fair reading of immigration economics is that the preference of fewer immigrants — though perhaps defensible — is the costly option.

Immigration restrictions make us poorer

Like most big-city liberals, I, personally, would not want to live in an all-native, all-white area without a wide range of restaurants, innovative small businesses, diverse cultural attractions, and the other upsides of cosmopolitan metropolises. But obviously, many people have the opposite set of preferences and there’s no sense trying to berate everyone into wanting to live in a neighborhood like mine.

But it is worth debating whether the preference for fewer immigrants is worth not only harming immigrants but also making the majority of the native population at least a little bit poorer. The desire to help native-born Americans who didn’t finish high school is laudable, if undertaken in good faith, but this is an extraordinarily costly way to do it. More realistically, the psychic benefit of cutting back on immigration would probably make some people happier despite the economic consequences. Restrictionists should certainly be free to make that case; there is much more to life than per capita GDP.

What they shouldn’t be free to do is what Carlson has been doing — making false assertions with provocative language that outrages people, and then using that outrage to cast himself as the persecuted one. The underlying issue is that he’s wrong on the facts.