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.

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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