The immigration debate: is it possible to be objective and nativist at the same time?

11 May 2009

A few weeks ago George Borjas talked about how the Center for Immigration Studies has come under attack from the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-immigration stances.

George cites a well-known labor economist who thinks that CIS’s output will be more accurate than refereed journals because of all the folks gunning to discredit CIS. I’m not sure I buy that arguement. Besides, a very well-known immigration economist that I know is just as skeptical about CIS’s work because of their very obvious nativist position.

That said, I think Steve Camarota, the poli-sci Ph.D. who produces most of CIS’s Backgrounders, is a smart guy, and affable, too (I had the good fortune to debate with Steve awhile back at a function for William and Mary’s Christopher Wren Society).

This all points to the question as to whether we stop believing research when its producer starts to take political stands, or when it is produced by a “think tank” with an obvious perspective. I think places like Brookings do a better job of this than, say, CIS, but that may be because I am more likely to see the world from the same perspective that Brookings does.

For me, I guess it comes down to whether I can predict a priori what someone is going to say about a particular topic. If the Cato Institute suddenly came out endorsing universal health coverage, it would be news (and I make take what they say more seriously, because would run counter to my expectations).

I once had some of my research used as talking points by the Republican National Committee (back when Pat Buchanan was running for president) because it showed that immigration had an impact on the wage structure in the US. Despite the fact that I hated being a poster child for the RNC, the data said what they said. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) change that just because it ran counter to my (usually) liberal attitudes. Maybe the numbers that CIS produces are accurate, but you have to wonder whether they always tell the whole story, even if it doesn’t suit their agenda.

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2 Responses to “The immigration debate: is it possible to be objective and nativist at the same time?”

  1. Daniele Says:

    “I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) change that just because it ran counter to my (usually) liberal attitudes.”

    But why does being a “nativist” (interesting new term) run counter to your usually liberal attitudes? From an economic standpoint, the groups most likely to benefit from immigration (if the patterns of migration by skill remain as they have been in the past 30 years) are middle to high skilled workers and (especially) employers, i.e., the groups most likely to be represented by the RNC.

    If you’re for “sharing the wealth” (within the US), you should be anti-immigration. Of course, if your social welfare function depends on the world distribution of income, then it’s a whole different matter.

  2. David Jaeger Says:

    The usual lefty position (e.g. of the AFL-CIO 15 years ago) would be to oppose immigration.

    I don’t think it’s irrelevant to think about the welfare improvements of the immigrants themselves. Probably the largest share of the overall welfare gains from immigration go to them.

    As economists, should we care about national borders?


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