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Low-skilled Immigrants are Productive, Too

Here’s a letter to Mr. Alex Leventis, who majored in economics back in the 1990s at the University of Texas:

Mr. Leventis:

Thanks for your kind e-mail in which you express your support for more open immigration of high-skilled immigrants but not of low-skilled immigrants. I support more open immigration of both, for both sorts of immigrants make net contributions to the economy.

It’s true that each high-skilled immigrant typically makes a larger net contribution to the economy than does each low-skilled immigrant. This fact is true if only because the excess of the amount that each high-skilled immigrant produces over the amount that he or she consumes is greater than is the excess of each low-skilled immigrant’s production over his or her consumption. But as long as there is such an ‘excess’ – as there always is for every person who earns income in the market through mutually voluntary work and trade – why should we not avail ourselves of the net benefits of low-skilled immigrants? After all, the total net contribution of some number of low-skilled immigrants – say, perhaps, six of them – equals the net contribution of one high-skilled immigrant.

Put differently, just as a pound of feathers is as weighty as is a pound of lead, each $1 worth of net economic contribution by a group of low-skilled immigrants is as valuable as is each $1 worth of net economic contribution by one high-skilled immigrant.

Let me close by asking you to recall your microeconomics. There you learned that each producer expands her output as long as the revenue available from the sale of that additional output is greater than the cost of making that output available for sale. The analogy to immigration isn’t exact, but it’s close enough to be useful: just as a producer would be foolish not to make available for sale, say, a tenth unit of output simply because the profit she will earn by selling that tenth unit is, while positive, less than is the profit she earned by selling the ninth unit, we are foolish to turn away low-skilled immigrants just because the net contribution each makes to our economy is less than is the net contribution made by each high-skilled immigrant.

Here, if you’re interested, is a short essay that I wrote a few years ago on this topic.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030