Immigration Often Good for Individual Migrants but Bad for Sending Countries

Published on December 9th, 2013

An unlikely critic, a New York Times columnist, took billionaire Mark Zuckerberg to the woodshed for his immigration tunnel vision. In his op-ed, Oxford University Economics and Public Policy professor Paul Collier scorned Zuckerberg and his lobbying organization FWD.us for presenting the insidious comprehensive immigration reform effort as a social justice issue when it is “self-serving” and “happens to align nicely with the interests of the technology industry….” [“Migration Hurts the Homeland,” by Paul Collier, The New York Times, November 29, 2013]

Collier wrote that Zuckerberg’s “high-minded rhetoric reflects an attempt to appeal to pro-immigration liberals, who presume that opening doors wider is the humane thing to do.” But Collier correctly wonders, “humane for whom?”

After politely trashing Zuckerberg for his immigration advocacy, Collier goes on to make several points that organizations like CAPS have stressed for decades: too many non-immigrant visas displace American workers and depress the wages of those who manage to keep their jobs. And, over the long term, the sending countries suffer when highly trained and skilled personnel don’t return home.

Consider the nursing profession. In 2009, former U.S. Representative Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) introduced H.R. 2536, the Emergency Nursing Supply Relief Act, which would have allowed 20,000 foreign-born nurses to enter the U.S. each year for the ensuing three years. This so-called temporary measure would have helped fill an alleged shortage of 100,000 nurses.

In a familiar refrain, hospital administrators like El Centro’s William R. Moore claimed that they could not find qualified American nurses. Said Moore: “All we want is temporary relief. Let us get a group of experienced RN hires from the Philippines, and we won't ask for more.” In immigration-speak, “temporary relief” means eventual permanent residency.

By 2009, importing foreign-born nurses, mainly from the Philippines, was a well established trend. In 1994, 9 percent of the total registered nurse workforce was composed of foreign-born RNs; by 2008 that percentage had risen to 16.3 percent, or about 400,000. [“Immigration: More Foreign Nurses Needed?” by Moria Herbst, Business Week, June 21, 2009]

Wexler’s bill went nowhere. Only five representatives co-signed. Had it passed, two things would have happened. First, American students would have been less likely to pursue nursing careers since the perception would be that the profession hires mostly foreign-born. Second, bright, young nurses would be lured away from poorer countries like the Philippines that should retain their talented nurses. Although in 2009 no one could have predicted Typhoon Haiyan, the thousands of nurses that might have come to the U.S. from the Philippines under Wexler’s bill were needed at home to care for the more than 26,000 injured and to provide comfort for the families of the 5,700 dead.

What may be good for migrants is not always good for the countries like the Philippines that they leave behind.

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