Viewpoint: The Dichotomy Between Skilled and Unskilled Immigrants Is False

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Republicans and Democrats in Washington don’t agree on much, but they do seem to agree on this: America’s immigration policy should prioritize the admission of “skilled” immigrants.

This column is about why they are wrong.

But first, a bit on the consensus. President Obama embraced it over the weekend in his weekly address. “Immigration reform would make it easier for highly-skilled immigrants and those who study at our colleges and universities to start businesses and create jobs right here in America,” the president said. He warned that if Congress does not act, “We won’t benefit from highly-skilled immigrants starting businesses and creating jobs here.”

The Democrat-controlled Senate embraced this theory in its immigration bill, which set up a system of what the legislation calls “merit-based points,” under which a doctoral degree is worth 15 points, a master’s degree ten points, and a bachelor’s degree is worth five points. And the Republican-controlled House of Representatives earlier this month moved through the Judiciary Committee something called the SKILLS Visa Act, which describes itself as a bill “to enhance American competitiveness through the encouragement of high-skilled immigration.”

The editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol, and the editor of National Review, Rich Lowry, summed it up the other day when they wrote, “Everyone professes to agree that our system should be tilted toward high-skilled immigration.” Even lobbyists for special interests have seized on the theme: one news article quoted an official of the National Ski Areas Association arguing that bilingual and multilingual ski instructors deserve preferred immigration treatment because they are “skilled and certified,” unlike, say, “strawberry pickers.”

This dichotomy between highly skilled and unskilled immigrants, however, is a false one.

For one thing, the children of “unskilled” immigrants often turn out to develop some formidable skills themselves. Mario Rubio came to America at age 6 as an immigrant from Cuba. Like most six year olds, he didn’t have a Ph.D. He eventually worked a hotel bartender and school crossing guard, and he married another Cuban immigrant who was a hotel housekeeper and Kmart stock clerk.  Their American-born son Marco became a lawyer, the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senator from Florida.

What’s more, some politician’s definition of “highly skilled” may not match an employer’s definition. It’s possible that someone with a Ph.D. for research in some obscure field may end up creating less value over time than someone who gets on-the-job training in bartending or housekeeping. Plenty of Americans, after all, who would rather have the services of a star bartender or housekeeper than sit in a class taught by a mediocre sociology Ph.D.

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Finally, for some immigrants, the journey from low-skill to high-skill happens within one lifetime. The immigrants in these cases often arrive too young for their skills, or their potential skills, to be evident.

There was Sergei Brin, who arrived in America at age six as a refugee from the Soviet Union. He went on to co-found Google. Abraham Rosenthal came to America from Canada as a boy and became the editor of the New York Times. Max Frankel came to America from Germany at age 10; he, too became the editor of the New York Times. Andras Istvan Grof came to America from Hungary at age 20 and supported himself through City College in New York in part by working as a summer bus-boy at a New Hampshire resort hotel; he went on, as Andrew Grove, to co-found and lead the microchip-maker Intel.

My favorite low-skill immigrant story, however — at least my favorite one that does not involve my own great-grandparents or grandparents — is the case of one Israel Isidore Beilin. He was born in what is now Belarus and arrived in America when he was about five years old. No Ph.D., no master’s degree, no bachelor’s degree. Under the proposed “merit-based points” system for education, he would have been a zero. But with just about nothing by way of formal education, Irving Berlin wrote a series of canonical American songs, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Blue Skies,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “White Christmas,” and “God Bless America.

Got that? If the “highly skilled” immigration rules, taken to their logical extension, had been in place, the song wouldn’t have been “God Bless America,” but “God Bless Belarus.” Or, given that there wasn’t much to praise about Belarus if one was a poor young Jew, as Beilin/Berlin was, the song probably would never have been written at all, and Beilin/Berlin would have died in a pogrom, the Holocaust, or some Stalin-imposed starvation.

(MORESidelined Obama Faces Impossible Task on Immigration)

The next time some well-intentioned politician from either party starts palavering about high-skilled immigration, you might ask what plan they have for people who want to come here but who appear to not have many skills. If the politician doesn’t appear to understand, you could break into a rendition of “God Bless America.”

It ends, “God bless America, My home sweet home.”

Ira Stoll is editor of and of


This is asinine. You cherry-pick 5 or so examples of scrubs-made-good completely ignoring the drain the majority of illegals have been on our government resources. They don't supplement these costs by contributing taxes.


So let me understand, because your relative wrote some catchy songs, all illegals should be allowed in? False. My grandparents were the "skilled" set, and my grandfather retired from the AMERICAN military with several letters of commendations from actual Presidents. This pair also produced many police officers and lawyers. Skilled immigrants have more to lose, and therefore follow the laws. They get car insurance, the add millions more into the economy versus sending it back to their country of origin, and they raise better children. I myself would choose to close the borders completely, and let in no one until this economy is back on its feet. However, if we have to let in anyone, I certainly choose those with college degrees and the ability to get a real job rather than those who come with nothing and end up dealing drugs. I don't give a damn about your tune-writing relatives 100 years ago. I care about the Mexican trash coming over now, with their gang members and their crime culture.


And citizens should not be deceived.  

There is NO "skilled labor shortage" --  it is a corporate LIE.  There are numerous independent studies that expose corporate falsehood from "skilled labor shortage", "1000s of unfilled jobs" through "best and brightest".  But the quick, irrefutable proof is that wages rise when in a shortage yet tech wages have been stagnant since the 1990s.   

This is about corporate profits, lobbying, propaganda -- and GREED.  Why would not one tech CEO testify to this "shortage" under oath -- and penalty of perjury?  Citizens need to ask themselves hard questions about corporations that refuse taxes and hiring of citizens -- yet spend hundreds of millions on lobbying and propaganda to pervert our government to serving their end.   Even when such policy is contrary to the interests of the nation and citizens.


Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.

-- Thomas Jefferson

HankRodgers 1 Like

If you are arguing that focusing on increasing immigration of the "highly skilled" or "highly educated" is flawed, you are right, but for the wrong reasons.

Further, we cannot use the "uneducated" CHILD who succeeds as an example of anything. After all most, if not all, immigrant CHILDREN are uneducated; and probably just as many, if not more, children of uneducated immigrant parents are relatively unsuccessful, than successful. Most research reflects that the likelihood of success for children, native or immigrant, INCREASES due to the luck of having educated parents.

As to why your reasons are wrong, for most current U.S. citizens at least: just ask yourself how the average current citizen will directly benefit IN THEIR OWN GENERATION AT LEAST, from an increase in educated and skilled immigrant labor. The relatively few, "extraordinary examples" of successful immigrants are not only not necessarily typical, they discount that every benefit for one, in a competitive environment, is a injury to one or more others. The big, wonderful, unlimited human progress is a myth -- most certainly for the individual.

MilhousChermann 2 Like

There are no jobs. Haven't been for 5 years. We don't need more people. We need less. Why can't you people in the press get this?


There are jobs. You are just too lazy to work in the fields.