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What’s behind the desire for ‘skilled’ immigrants? Racial prejudice.

New research shows that the preference for “skills” conceals bias against Latinos.

- May 21, 2019

Last Thursday, the Trump administration proposed its third plan to overhaul the U.S. immigration system. Democrats quickly attacked its emphasis on what the administration called “merit-based” applications: a point system that makes advanced degrees a priority. Much as in its earlier proposals, the administration emphasized admitting more highly skilled, highly educated immigrants — rather than the less-skilled applicants who’ve been admitted to join family members already here, which they’ve labeled “chain migration,” and who’ve been the majority of U.S. immigrants for years.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded: “Are they saying family is without merit? Are they saying most of the people who’ve come to the United States in the history of our country are without merit because they don’t have an engineering degree¯

Many Americans say they’d prefer admitting high-skilled migrants over the rest. But some critics argue that the plan is racist and a veiled attack on the fact that many U.S. immigrants — both those who are undocumented and those who arrive via family reunification policies — are from Mexico and Central America, aren’t proficient in English and don’t have even a high school degree.

Supporters argue that the emphasis is economic, not racial. As one unnamed Trump administration official told CNBC, bringing in highly skilled immigrants will minimize competition for lower-skilled jobs and put “upward pressure on wages, that’s good for Americans who are already here.”

So which is the real motivation: economics or ethnic bias? Our research, recently published in the Journal of Politics, finds that bias pervades American thinking about immigration and occupational skill. The Trump administration focuses on skill-based immigration because while on the surface it’s race-neutral, it clearly signals race to his supporters. (Although “Hispanic/Latino” is not a racial category according to the U.S. Census, many Americans conceive of nonwhite Hispanics as a racial group in America, and much media coverage depicts them as such.)

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How we did our research

As part of our research, we analyzed and conducted survey experiments run on numerous data collection platforms: GfK Knowledge Networks, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Survey Sampling International. The body of data we considered was extensive and diverse: three experiments conducted between 2011 and 2016, with sample sizes ranging from 1,369 to 3,438, with both convenience and nationally representative samples. The experiments presented profiles of hypothetical immigrants with varying countries of origin (e.g., Mexico vs. Canada or Sweden) and education/skill levels (doctors with graduate degrees vs. farm laborers with no formal education). We fixed other cultural characteristics such as English fluency. Survey respondents were asked whether they would support admitting the presented immigrant on a scale ranging from 1 (definitely not admit) to 7 (definitely admit).

We found three patterns suggesting that bias hides behind the preference for skill

First, we find that prejudiced Americans are most likely to support admitting skilled Hispanic immigrants. We measure prejudice by how someone rates Hispanics or whites (the two categories offered in the immigrant profiles) on traits like laziness and intelligence. Those who scored highly as biased against Hispanics cared much more about education and skill levels when considering the entry of Latinos than those who were not biased against Hispanics.

On the other hand, prejudice against whites did not translate into a “skill bonus” for white immigrants. Overall, the skill advantage for white immigrants was much lower than that for Hispanic immigrants. In other words, people were more likely to penalize a Hispanic immigrant for being low-skilled than a white immigrant. If bias was not affecting immigration views, this penalty should have been about the same.

Second, we find that people’s general views of whether skills benefit the U.S. economy aren’t tightly related to which immigrant groups they would admit. We asked people whether they believe low or highly skilled workers are generally more beneficial to the economy. Regardless of how they responded, most people were more likely to admit skilled immigrants. And their views on economics only seemed to affect which white immigrants they were willing to admit. When people evaluate Hispanic immigrants, they were more likely to admit those more highly skilled — no matter what they said about which group mattered more to the economy.

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In a third test, we had some respondents read a short article about how parts of the U.S. economy, like agriculture and construction, urgently need low-skilled immigrants. Other respondents did not receive this information. We then assessed whether this information changed who they’d admit to the United States. Those who’d read the article were more willing to admit low-skilled white immigrants than those who had not. That wasn’t as pronounced when they evaluated Hispanic immigrants. Further, people who scored low on prejudice against Hispanics responded by becoming more likely to admit low-skilled Hispanic immigrants; those who scored high on prejudice were much less affected. That suggests that bias was influencing their responses.

As a final test, in addition to asking whether respondents would admit the immigrant in the profile, we asked them to rate the immigrant on such characteristics as language ability and potential for assimilation. When these survey respondents assessed a Mexican immigrant with higher levels of skill and education, they were also more likely to assume that the immigrant spoke English well and had a better chance at assimilating into the U.S. culture — even though the profile explicitly stated that the immigrant spoke only a limited amount of English. In contrast, survey respondents were less likely to assume that more highly skilled Canadian applicants had more English fluency and would be more likely to assimilate culturally.

Bias hides behind the preference for skill

Our research suggests that prejudice against Latinos is an important, if veiled, reason that some Americans advocate admitting primarily highly educated, highly skilled immigrants.

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That fits in with other research, including that of TMC’s Michael Tesler, finding that Trump’s 2016 voters were significantly influenced by their own prejudice toward ethnic minorities and fear of increasing ethnic diversity. If preferring highly skilled immigrants is a coded way of talking about keeping out Latinos, Trump may be offering a policy that especially appeals to his base.

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Neil Malhotra is the Edith M. Cornell professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Benjamin Newman is an associate professor of public policy and political science at the University of California at Riverside.