Opinion: Immigration divides Ivy League America and ordinary working folks

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump chanted “Build that wall” before a town hall last spring in Rothschild, Wis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. In this essay, he examines the nation’s divergent views on immigrants, saying, “What works for Ivy League and elite state university graduates does not rhyme well for ordinary working folks in America’s interior.”

He also suggests U.S. immigration policies consider labor force quality, writing, “Innovations in robotics, artificial intelligence and other areas indicate broad opportunities to boost productivity but American businesses face shortages of skilled technicians and engineers to fully exploit those.”

By Peter Morici

President Trump has tabled his first offer on immigration reform—an exhaustive list of measures to better seal our terribly porous borders, establish internal security and reassert federal authority over renegade , sanctuary cities.

It includes conservative wish list items like a wall along the Mexican border that’s too expensive and whose objectives could be better accomplished, for example, through more resources for electronic surveillance. However, the Democrats often behave as if they prefer a border with the holes of a colander to win cheap electoral advantage.

Seen as a first offer to very difficult negotiating partners, Trump’s principles are best evaluated in terms of what is likely—because the Dreamers are hostage to this process—and needed— because the present system of granting even permanent legal visas is broken.

By endorsing the kinds of reforms proposed by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, President Trump is offering Congress an opportunity to better consider how new arrivals can contribute to national prosperity.

The United States has about 45 million immigrants and annually welcomes 1.5 million.

About one-quarter are illegal and in recent years, their number has hardly changed. Declining birth rates abroad and tougher border enforcement have already slowed the inflow.

Canada and Australia face challenges similar to ours—falling birth rates, skill shortages and societies defined by waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia—and both place priority on the needs of their economies.

In contrast to other industrialized countries, the United States places greater emphasis on family reunification. Green Cards are granted automatically to spouses, minor children and parents of U.S. citizens. Subject to annual limits, entry is granted to other relatives of citizens, legal immigrants and refugees, and those who can contribute to economic growth.

Ultimately, about 65 percent of immigrant visas are based on family ties and 15 percent on employment. The remainder is mostly through a lottery for underrepresented countries.

The Cotton-Perdue bill  would limit family reunification visas to minor children and spouses, end the lottery and focus on workforce needs.

Potential economic growth is determined by the sum of productivity and labor force growth. Both have fallen, causing many economists to conclude 2 percent growth is inevitable.  However, missing from this is a discussion of labor force quality.

Innovations in robotics, artificial intelligence and other areas indicate broad opportunities to boost productivity but American businesses face shortages of skilled technicians and engineers to fully exploit those.

Currently, immigrant workers tend to be concentrated among two groups: those with less than a high school education and those with more than a four-year college degree.

Immigrants tend to be older than the native population and more than half qualify for means- tested entitlements, creating obvious frictions.

Downward pressure on wages of lower skilled workers is measurable, but overall the impact of immigration on growth is positive. Technology-intensive activities are greatly enhanced by the influx of high-skilled immigrants, and those benefits overwhelm the costs imposed by lower wages on unskilled workers.

Immigration stresses social cohesion, especially among the working class. New arrivals compete for jobs and often eat different foods, practice different religions and have different family and community traditions.

Folks in small towns and rural counties, riveted by the loss of factories and consolidation in agriculture, increasingly rely on those very things to cope. And they feel alienated by the ethnic diversity and libertine values of larger cities. Those are important reasons why they don’t leave for educational and employment opportunities in diverse urban settings and have abandoned the Democratic Party.

Liberals in big cities—especially in the media and universities who shape public perceptions—dismiss middle-American ambivalence as ill-informed, xenophobic and racist.

After all, the urban elite work harmoniously in Manhattan office buildings, California technology centers and the like where cultural affinities that bring together professional groups tend to overwhelm ethnic differences among highly educated adults—if nothing else, professional schools, like mine, socializes students to common metropolis values and behavior.

What works for Ivy League and elite state university graduates does not rhyme well for ordinary working folks in America’s interior.

That’s why those common people elected Donald Trump to the dismay of urban intellectuals. As Barrack Obama so often lectured during his first years, elections should have consequences and now the will of the common folks should be served.



Reader Comments 0


Groups on the political left and right want to continue the flow of uneducated low skilled immigrants. Democrats rightly believe that immigrants will tend to vote for them as their home countries tend to have governments that take care of many aspects of life. Republicans want the immigrants here as their voters tend to be business people that like keeping wages low. The people that suffer the most are native born Americans with little education and lower work skills.


I can't hardly believe I'm reading this here, but I mean that in a good way.

The policy options we face relative to immigration, employment, and education do not exist in a zero-sum game context.

The highest priority in public policy must be to serve the interests of our own citizenry, all of them, in terms of ensuring they have the basic liberty and opportunity our Constitution, laws, education, and economic systems are intended to provide. We as a Nation also have the capacity and goodwill to extend our liberty and opportunity to deserving others, but this capacity and goodwill will not endure if we marginalize segments of our own population and decay or destroy ourselves from within.


The DACA (Dreamers) want and expect special treatment but fail to admit that their presence here is due to their parents breaking the law. If Dreamers truly want citizenship, they need to earn it just like all those others who came here and followed the road to citizenship laws. Birthright citizenship (anchor baby) also needs to be discontinued. DACA (Dreamers) should be required to pay back our government for the 12 years (or more) of their "free" education in American schools (at taxpayer expense) and also for their reduced rate (in-state) college tuition (also taking a citizen's seat due to a mere check mark in a box identifying one as Hispanic or Other). The illegal entitlement mentality is costing the legal taxpaying citizens plenty. Statistics show that one in eight in this country is illegal and 50% of those receive some type of assistance (medical, dental, vision, food, and/or housing subsidies). It is no wonder that the silent majority is becoming more vocal and very displeased with the vote-mongering politicians who are so willing to provide hand-outs using other people's hard-earned money. The heaviest hit are the middle class workers who cannot afford the luxuries or even the basics the illegals enjoy at taxpayer expense. The DACA protesters can always opt to serve in our military to partially repay their debt to the American taxpayer or earn their college education just as many middle class American citizens of college age must do in order to get a college education.


All this talk about immigration, walls, and secure borders. Still, Trump’s Mar a Lago recently claimed they couldn’t find Americans to fill seventy vacant low level service jobs? Pretty darn hard to believe there weren’t unemployed American citizens who were qualified to be waiters, housekeepers, and cooks.

Maybe what’s really putting a stress on social cohesion is the powerful pitting powerless groups against each other.


@kaelyn We do not need a wall. We just need to stop providing more rights, freedoms, and public assistance to law-breaking illegals. When the hand-outs and support end, so will the influx of those who feel America owes them.


@kaelyn No doubt Mr. Trump found it cheaper to hire foreign workers.  There's a reason he opposes a minimum wage hike.


Companies misuse H1-B and H2-B visas to displace American workers with cheaper foreigners, and American taxpayers unwittingly provide part of the compensation package.

Our incredibly lax immigration system allows these foreign workers to bring along family members and even relatives -- many of which end up on public assistance. 

Hence the claims by companies that there's a "labor shortage" even while American STEM graduates themselves can't find jobs.

And your own kids can't find seasonal work at the local shopping mall.



"Companies misuse H1-B and H2-B visas to displace American workers with cheaper foreigners, and American taxpayers unwittingly provide part of the compensation package."

Yes, they certainly do.It's impossible to overstate how much resentment that this generates among working families that strive to play by the rules and create prosperity the right way-by hard work and education.

When giant crony-capitalist/too big to fail political wire pullers rent politicians like Hillary Clinton to rig the game in their favor,with abuses like the programs that you named,it creates a perfectly understandable backlash.Ivy League elites don't understand the rage that results because they are the political/business establishment that has benefited for generations from such a corrupt system.

We had a peaceful revolution in this country last year. We've had one at periodic intervals in this country throughout its history.Trumps come and go,but the economic construct that allows the American Dream to be attainable for working families needs to be protected by tossing the corrupt and connected out of power on a regular basis.