Harvard economist George Borjas is immigration critics' favorite intellectual. His work is regularly cited by the White House, top Republican lawmakers, and conservative pundits to justify policies that would keep more people out of the country. Without his work, they would be hard-pressed to find any academic or scholar making the same arguments.
It's not a position that Borjas, who is a Cuban-born immigrant to the U.S., finds particulary comfortable. He stands by his work but is wary of the spotlight and deliberately tries to stay out of any immigration debate that isn't focused squarely on economics. He knows as well as anyone how intensely politicized the debate can get.
"I try not to read much about me, so that should tell you how I feel," Borjas told the Washington Examiner. "I don't like my work being judged on the answer, OK? Because if people like the answer, they praise it, and if they don't like it, they trash it. That's not the reason I got involved in this [work] in the first place. ... If I had wanted to be a policymaker, I would have gone to Washington in the past."
Avoiding the debate is getting increasingly difficult as the Trump administration and Republicans push forward on immigration. Trump adviser Stephen Miller cited Borjas in an Aug. 2 press briefing to justify revamping the green card system to reward immigrants based on skills and end family "chain migration."
Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and George Perdue of Georgia sponsored Senate legislation that would do that, replacing the existing system with a point system that would "prioritize those immigrants who are best positioned to succeed in the United States and expand the economy." According to Borjas, Cotton's office called him twice to discuss the legislation before its release. Borjas said he had no involvement in the drafting of the bill. He nevertheless had a major impact on it. In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Borjas was the only academic cited by Cotton when asked what research the bill is based on.
"The fact that he wrote the leading labor economy textbook used by universities gives him real credibility," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies. Asked for other scholars who immigration restrictionists could point to if they didn't have Borjas, Krikorian admitted he was stumped. "He is probably the only academic doing what he does."
Shikha Dalmia, senior fellow at the Reason Foundation and a proponent of immigration who has debated Borjas, says he is "literally the only economist of any repute who questions the economic benefits of immigration." She adds that he is a great asset to his side because his work is "exceedingly clear and accessible, which is unusual for an economist."
Borjas says he became involved in the question of the economic impact of immigration in the 1980s when it wasn't a particularly controversial field. He focused on the question of which factors caused immigrants to move to the particular place they moved to. Broadly speaking, his work suggests that immigration drives down wages for native workers, especially low-income ones, and that immigrants cost more in terms of welfare and related programs than other research would suggest. Restricting immigration would reverse that, Borjas argues.
"It was only over time, years later, after I had written all of these works, that it became a policy nightmare," he said. Despite being a tenured professor, he says he remains "very careful" about how he presents his research and tries to avoid non-academic settings.
Nevertheless, he has taken a more forward role in the debate lately. In an essay last week for Politico, he called the Cotton-Perdue bill "a clear and transparent framework for determining which types of workers we believe to be most beneficial," adding that the approach was "common sense." Borjas said he wrote the essay at Politico's request. Last year, he wrote a book called We Wanted Workers on the subject of how immigration hurts low-wage employees.
He defends the Cotton-Perdue bill's approach by noting that the current green card system works by lottery and arguing it doesn't serve the country's economic interests very well. "If we are going to have any kind of restriction, there will have to have to have a method of selection. There will have to be — and I hate to use the word but that is what we are doing — a way of discriminating among applicants. Right now, we use the method of family for discriminating among applicants. If you have family here, it is easier to get a visa," he said. No other country does that, he says. Ending that and shifting the bias toward high-skilled immigrants would help because they pay more in taxes, receive fewer services, and boost productivity overall, he says. That approach also would sharply reduce the overall number of immigrants by ending "chain migration."
Borjas' academic credentials haven't prevented his work from being controversial. A recent study he did on the effects of the "Mariel Boatlift," a mass immigration of Cubans in the 1980s, found that the "wage[s] of high school dropouts in the Miami labor market fell significantly after the Mariel supply shock." The finding, which was cited by Miller, has been hotly disputed by other economists. Borjas argues the reaction is due to "political sensitivity" over the findings.
"The general academic rap against him is that he makes rather unorthodox assumptions in his models that are not shared by other economists. So, for example, he uses non-standard assumptions about how much capital will expand to accommodate labor productivity increases due to immigration. Because of that, he underestimates how much immigration grows the economic pie and overestimates the negative impact of immigration on native jobs and wages," Dalmia said.
Borjas says he has no ideological axe to grind in the immigration debate and only goes where the data takes him. His attitude comes from his experiences growing up in Castro's Cuba. "My personal experience with Communist indoctrination when I was 10 and 11 years old left me very wary of thinking about anything in ideological terms," he said in an essay for Reason.