People who want less immigration have been underrepresented in the U.S. Congress. Gallup found that 38 percent of Americans fall into this category, while 21 percent want increased immigration. But in 2013, a Senate committee voted 17-1 against capping legal immigration at 33 million people over the next decade. The one senator who voted for a cap — the amendment’s sponsor, Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama — is leaving the legislature to become attorney general.
A younger Republican, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, is taking up Sessions’s old role as the Senate’s foremost immigration restrictionist. In a recent op-ed, he argued for “a large reduction in legal immigration and a reorientation toward ultra-high-skill immigrants.” This policy, he argues, would boost wages for low-income workers, a category that, he notes, includes a lot of recent immigrants. Reducing immigration “would give recent arrivals a better shot at higher wages, stable work and assimilation.”
Senator Cotton overstates his case. Citing the Economic Policy Institute, he says that wages have dropped by 2 percent for Americans with only high-school diplomas, and by 20 percent for people without those diplomas, since the late 1970s. These numbers would look better if they were based on a better measure of inflation or included non-wage benefits. Also, today’s high-school dropouts are a more distinctive segment of the population now than they were then. (According to the Census Bureau, 32 percent of people older than 25 lacked a diploma in 1979. Only 12 percent lack one today.)
His basic point, though, is that low-skilled immigration puts downward pressure on wages at the bottom of the labor market and that reducing it would relieve that pressure. On that point, Senator Cotton is probably right.
One might well ask why a conservative Republican wants to interfere with market forces to help low-wage workers. Cotton could respond that he is not dogmatic about markets: He backed an increase in the minimum wage in Arkansas.
All such policies involve trade-offs. Raising the minimum wage risks depressing job growth. Reducing low-skilled immigration would harm the life prospects of many foreigners who won’t get to come here, and very modestly reduce our living standards on average. But it would probably also help low-wage workers and promote assimilation and social cohesion.
I think that’s a trade worth making, and I’m glad at least one senator agrees.