If you’ve been following the heated national debate about President Trump’s decision to rescind former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, you know that an economic conventional wisdom has been quickly established. It holds that, whatever you think about the legality, propriety, or morality of ending its legalization process for the young and young-ish residents of the country who arrived as the children of illegal immigrants, the impact on the nation’s growth, employment, and productivity would be disastrous.
Sadly – but not surprisingly – an examination of the data reveals this conclusion to be quintessential fakeonomics.
Worse, these claims have been spread with techniques that have become all too typical in the nation’s political, policy, and media circles – by endlessly and credulously repeating assertions that are based either on no solid data whatever, or on unusually weak data.
Enough examples could be cited to fill a book, so let’s focus for now on one that’s just appeared in America’s leading newspaper (The New York Times) and by no less than a Nobel Prize-winning economist (columnist Paul M. Krugman).
As Krugman argued in this morning’s paper, the Trump administration’s position that DACA has “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens” is not only “junk economics.” But because it’s based on the (equally false, per Krugman) belief that “immigrant workers compete with less-educated native-born workers, driving their wages down and increasing income inequality,” it’s “irrelevant.”
The reason? “The Dreamers [as beneficiaries of DACA are often called] are a relatively well-educated group, very different from undocumented immigrants who came as adults.” Therefore, “letting Dreamers work is all economic upside for the rest of our nation, with no downside unless you have something against people with brown skin and Hispanic surnames.”
Needless to say, the argument that Dreamers actually tend be valuable economically on top of being young and young-ish, and slated to suffer for the sins of their parents, contributes to the image of Mr. Trump’s policy as a loser on all counts.
But the main evidence cited by Krugman doesn’t justify this conclusion at all. It comes from a Times feature posted on Tuesday that purports to show that “DACA-eligible immigrants have higher-skilled jobs” than other illegal immigrant workers.
Two big problems here, however. First, the statistics presented in this post show that this standard represents an awfully low bar. Second, the differences revealed by these numbers between DACA-eligible illegals and other illegals is decidedly unimpressive.
For instance, what’s the occupation of the greatest percentage of workers in both groups? “Food preparation and serving” (16 percent). That sector of the economy sure isn’t known for creating great jobs. Number two for the Dreamers and those eligible for this designation? “Sales and related.” This category also features the biggest absolute occupation gap between the Dreamer-types and non-Dreamers, employing 15 percent of the former but only six percent of the latter. But these kinds of jobs sound pretty dead-end, too. Ditto for “Office and administrative support” (which employs the next greatest share of Dreamer-eligible workers). Worse, both the sales and the office jobs are being killed off left and right these days by automation.
Equally revealing: The next four biggest employers of Dreamer-eligible workers are the kinds of blue-collar-dominated categories that typically don’t require much education, and which therefore place Dreamer types in direct competition with their “less-educated native-born counterparts.” These categories – “Construction and extraction”; “Production”; “Transportation and material moving”; and “Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance” – employ fully 32 percent of the Dreamer types. An additional seven percent work in the comparable occupations of Personal care and service and Installation, maintenance, and repair.
It’s true that, in what’s officially considered a very low unemployment economy, the Dreamer-eligible workers may not be taking jobs from the native-born (or from legal immigrants). At the same time, their presence may well explain some of the nation’s nearly multi-decade low labor force participation rate. Moreover, the laws of supply and demand strongly indicate that the influx of Dreamers into these labor markets is holding down wages, all else equal.
This Times feature reveals something else fishy about the new Dreamer-nomics conventional wisdom. Much is based on a survey that should prompt considerable skepticism – and especially from reporters and editors, who are supposed to be professional skeptics.
Here I’m talking about the insistence that DACA recipients (in the words of the liberal, pro-DACA Center for American Progress), thanks to their new status “are making significant contributions to the economy by buying cars and first homes, which translate into more revenue for states and localities in the form of sales and property taxes. Some are even using their entrepreneurial talents to help create new jobs and further spur economic growth by starting their own businesses” as well as earning higher wages.
Yet there are no hard numbers behind this “finding.”
Instead, it’s based on a widely cited survey conducted by a researcher employed by the Center and other pro-DACA groups that asks Dreamers about their experiences following the Obama decision. On the one hand, there can be little doubt that workers with some legal protections are going to do better than workers with none. On the other hand, how sustainable will these gains be, especially in an economy with poor recent economic and social mobility? Moreover, because DACA-style legalization is such a boon to recipients for reasons beyond economics, too, don’t the respondents have a strong incentive to play up their progress?
I’ve actually been moving toward the position that the Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the country permanently, and possibly get that proverbial “path to citizenship” – largely because they came out of the shadows and registered with the authorities based on a presidential promise. It’s not their fault that the promise’s legality was dubious at best. Best of all would be a Dreamer amnesty coupled with border security and other immigration policy measures smart enough to prevent yet another powerful illegal immigration magnet from being constructed.
But policy shifts based on clearly hyped and mis-interpreted data rarely turn out well. If Americans do decide to give the DACA recipients the blessings of legal residence in the United States, they should at least do it with their eyes wide open to the likeliest economic impact.