From a white paper from Gordon Hanson proposing a research agenda for economists studying immigration comes this important point:

While doubling the supply of illegal immigrants (currently 5% of US workers) in the US labor force would likely have at most second order effects on economic growth, doubling the supply of high skilled immigrants could have a first order effect.

Despite this, Hanson notes that the bulk of research -though of course not all of it- has focused on estimating the impact of low skilled immigration on the well-being of natives. Likewise, political discourse about immigration seems to exhibit a similar bias towards focusing on low-skilled and illegal immigration. Hanson argues that economists should change their focus, and I think this is probably true for pundits and journalists as well. This of course is not to say that low-skilled immigration isn’t an important issue, especially for humanitarian reasons. But when the issue is self-interested immigration, we should understand that the impacts of low-skilled immigration are likely to be minimal compared to high-skilled immigration, and the discussion and policies should reflect that fact.

This paper is part of a series on “grand challenges” in the social and behavioral sciences that the National Science Foundation requested in order to help them “to frame innovative research for the year 2020 and beyond that enhances fundamental knowledge and benefits society in many ways”. Other submissions from economists can be found here.

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