they influence U.S. society—and thus, in the long run, the characteristics of the foreign-born population.

Who Wins? Who Loses?

The choice of goals for immigration policy depends in part on the priorities assigned to the welfare of three groups with different stakes in the debate: people who were born in the United States, people who were born elsewhere but have come to live in the United States, and people who live in other countries. Even if the native-born receive primary consideration, inevitably some will be winners and some losers. Some may largely gain from immigration because the goods produced by immigrants, with their lower wages, will now be cheaper. On the other side of that coin, some native-born Americans may see their wages or even their jobs jeopardized as they compete directly with immigrant workers. But even among native-born Americans who may lose economically, attitudes toward immigrants vary by ethnicity and by the strength of ties to prospective immigrants in other countries. And simple adherence to the economic interests of the native-born may be complicated when foreign policy or social and humanitarian concerns dictate attention to the concerns of the other two groups.

Another complication in setting immigration policy lies in the way it impinges on government at all levels. Policies that set the number and the kinds of immigrants to admit into the country are made at the federal level. These policies need not, however, result in the same pattern of costs and benefits for states and cities. Each level has its own sources of revenue and its own responsibilities for expenditures. What may, on balance, largely benefit one governmental level may impose heavy costs on another. Since immigrants are not spread evenly across the states, they may confer more benefits or impose more costs on the states or localities in which they are concentrated. Consequently, the net impact of immigration on the fiscal positions of individual states may vary widely.

Is Immigration "Too" Costly?

In the past three decades, immigration policy has been debated especially in the context of concerns about illegal immigration. Mexico, with which the United States shares a long, porous border, is only the most obvious source of clandestine migrants. Dramatic tales of Haitian boat people and dangerously overcrowded Chinese vessels highlight the issue. Whatever the interdictions of illegal immigration, in the coming decades the magnet of higher-paying jobs in the United States is unlikely to weaken for people from poor countries with dim prospects for finding well-paying jobs with potential for advancement in their home countries.

In this context, there are four primary questions raised in the debate.

First, does immigration, on balance, yield economic benefits or economic

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement