Harriet Duleep Debunks Myths on the Economics of Immigration

By Joe Flaherty

Although much of the attention on immigration reform in Congress centers on the policy toward illegal immigrants, Professor of Public Policy at the College of William and Mary Harriet Duleep brought to light a surprising fact about immigration.

“For almost half a century family unification has been the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy,” said Duleep. “But now buried in the comprehensive immigration reform proposal that’s been put forth by the Senate is a recommendation that the relatives such as siblings and the children of immigrant citizens could not get in unless they obtain visas for specific job skills.”

In the D.K. Smith ’42 Economics Lecture on Sept. 24, Duleep gave a talk titled “The New Immigrants – Blessing or Bane?”

“Most of the attention in the newspaper is about illegal immigrants but I thought that I would speak about something you may not realize and it has received almost no attention and yet it is a major change,” she said.

Duleep began by saying that contrary to popular belief academic research does have an impact. According to her, the studies on the downsides to family reunification have had a major effect in shaping the immigration reform debate. Duleep is well aware of what federal policymaking can be like. In his introduction, David K. Smith Professor of Applied Economics Phanindra Wunnava praised Duleep’s contributions to the economics of immigration.

“In my view, Professor Harriet Orcutt Duleep is an authority on ‘immigration economic assimilation models.’ Her work is relevant to the ongoing debate concerning the direction U.S. immigration policy should take,” said Wunnava in an email.

Duleep has taken part in that debate personally.

“Given her expertise on immigration over the years she was invited to testify in front of the House of Representatives commission on immigration reform and the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Wunnava.

Duleep explained how there are two motives behind the drive to cut family reunification.

“One is that family admissions serve humanitarian goals only,” said Duleep. She then quoted the late Senator Edward Kennedy who said it would be inhumane to cut out sibling preferences.

“But he didn’t mention that there would be economic fallout from doing so,” Duleep said.

The second belief, said Duleep is that immigrants who gain entry to the U.S. because of kinship ties are not helpful to the economy.

“It falls from that that to be economically competitive the U.S. needs to bring down family-based admissions and increase employment-based admissions,” said Duleep.

She said there may also be some underlying mistrust of lax immigration laws at work. The two groups entering the U.S. in the greatest numbers recently are Asian and Latin American immigrants, with European countries sending fewer migrants, and that the U.S. has historically viewed new immigrant groups with suspicion.

“Would there be the same concerns about the economic productivity of recent immigrants if most came from Europe and Canada? I think that’s a legitimate question although you’ll see from the earnings profiles that although immigrants may still face discrimination … there is enough openness in the economy that this can be overcome,” said Duleep.

The crux of Duleep’s argument was that how we measure immigrant earnings affects whether we think today’s immigrants are a blessing or a bane for the U.S. economy. She also said people who already thought we need to cut down on family admissions were handed a tool in these types of studies that may assume too much.

Duleep explained a variety of reasons why family-based immigrants are not a drag on the economy. First and foremost, employment-based immigrants have siblings too.

“A family friendly policy may be one reason the U.S. has been able to attract the best and brightest,” said Duleep. “Eliminating the siblings preference may make the U.S. a less attractive destination for employment-based immigrants.”

She went on to say kinship based immigrants also contribute economically by a willingness to learn new skills. In some instances, a greater percentage of immigrant groups go to school than U.S. natives. Additionally, in order to add to the economy, one has to stay in the country.

“Immigrants with family ties are more likely to stay in the U.S. and a prerequisite for investing in U.S.-specific human capital is permanence,” said Duleep. “If you’re not going to stay here, there’s no incentive to learning skills that may be applicable to the U.S.”

Duleep also said those who were asked when they decided to stay in the U.S. had high earnings growth beginning that very same year.

“The intent to stay permanently in the U.S. affects behavior and the likelihood of learning new skills,” she said.

Even a quality like entrepreneurship has ties to whether immigrants have relatives here.

“When you look at research examining the likelihood that an immigrant starts a business, the most important variable that far surpasses any other variable like education or age is whether an immigrant has siblings in the U.S.  It’s a very strong result,” said Duleep.

An overarching point to the lecture was a word of warning about assumptions in academia.

“When you read economic studies as they are reported in the newspaper, be wary of assumptions. The assumptions are perhaps what you should pay most attention to and think about if there is a way one can approach this issue without making assumptions,” said Duleep.

Ian Thomas ’13.5 was in attendance and said in an email that the U.S. sought to continue family-based immigration.

“Prof. Duleep accurately highlighted the importance of permanence in our ever-changing world. Citizens and immigrants are much more likely to invest time in acquiring country specific skills if they believe they will settle in that country,” he said.