Politics
Here’s how immigrants from countries Trump slammed really do in the US

By Lyman Stone

President Trump’s comment about not wanting immigrants from “shithole countries,” — which he has unpersuasively denied — came in a very specific context: He was discussing with lawmakers under what conditions Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras might be renewed.

Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, grants people fleeing specific crises in specific countries who have entered the United States without any permanent legal status the right to be to be temporarily shielded from prosecution for illegal residency. It doesn’t give them a visa or permanent status, but it does let them live and work here legally for the time being.

In the ensuing uproar, some on the right have asserted that President Trump was really making a good point, however crudely: Maybe we don’t want immigrants from poor countries, who, they assume, are low-skill immigrants. The administration is known to support a more “skills based” immigration system, and maybe Trump was just, in a clumsy way, trying to articulate that?

Foreign countries have interpreted his remarks very straightforwardly: a joint statement by all 55 African countries included an apology and a request for an clarification of which of them, exactly, President Trump considers to be a “shithole.” Critics from the left have argued that Trump’s comments were not only offensive but ignorant because, actually, immigrants from Africa perform extremely well in the United States.

Unfortunately, the debate so far has featured a dearth of up-to-date, solid empirical work on the countries that benefit from TPS.

In fact, we have quite a lot of data on how immigrants from TPS-receiving countries (and Africa more generally) do after arriving in the US. Countries receiving TPS have, by definition, experienced a severe disaster creating large amounts of emigrants. They also are almost always very poor countries. (It is precisely because some countries are extremely unsafe, poor, and dangerous that we provide TPS.)

So how do immigrants from TPS-receiving countries do in the United States?

 Lyman Stone

Most are substantially poorer than native-born Americans, though Syrians are richer. It should surprise nobody that desperate people fleeing disaster-prone countries would tend to not be the highest-earning people in the US. However, it is worth noting that, over the 2011 to 2015 period, the US poverty line was about $11,000 to $12,000 per person. In other words, for every single TPS-receiving group, average incomes were above the poverty line: The typical TPS-country immigrant is not impoverished. Furthermore, notice the income bars of their home countries: extremely low. At one end of the tail, Somali immigrants only closed about half the income gap between Somalia and the average native-born American. At the other end, Syrians surpassed Americans by 14 percent. The average immigrant from a TPS-receiving country closed about 55 percent of the income gap between the typical US worker and their home: their income ended up looking more like the average American than it did like their home country.

 Lyman Stone

Now, true, poverty rates are fairly high for immigrants from many of these countries. But again, it’s vital to consider some relevant benchmarks. African immigrants, for instance, are about as likely to be in poverty as are people in the states of Mississippi or New Mexico. Nicaraguans have similar poverty rates as Texas or North Carolina. Somali and Yemeni immigrants, on the other hand, do have quite high poverty rates by any metric.

But income and poverty measures are affected by lots of other variables. Some cultures prioritize family more than work outside the home; they have lower measured income because they have fewer two-income households. Different groups have different age and regional profiles, which also effects incomes. One factor which is somewhat more predictive of core “skills” for an immigrant group is its educational level.

On the whole, about 43 percent of immigrants from all African countries over the age of 30 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus just 29 percent of the native-born over-30 population, confirming the view that African immigrants generally are actually a higher-skilled immigrant pool. On the other hand, only about 13 percent of immigrants from TPS-receiving countries have a bachelor’s degree. However, in terms of total years of schooling, these differences are smaller: African immigrants average about 14 years of schooling, native-born Americans about 13.5 years, and TPS-receiving-countries about 10.3 years.

 Lyman Stone

But while immigrants from TPS-receiving countries may have lower education than most Americans, they represent a disproportionately well-educated subset of their co-nationals. In every case, the immigrants we receive in the United States from TPS-receiving countries are substantially better-educated than their countrymen back home.

As can be seen from the education and income data, the United States, even in its immigrant programs aimed at the most destitute of nations like TPS or the refugee program, is skimming off the best, most qualified, most capable people from developing countries. Far from getting the worst from poor countries, we really are getting some of the best.

But the question of African immigrants more broadly turns out to be an interesting one, and increasingly pressing. The United States is receiving a growing number of immigrants from Africa. African countries certainly felt targeted by President Trump’s comments, and so it’s worth exploring whether African immigrants in particular, as restrictionists might imagine, are poor, indigent, and low-skilled?

 Lyman Stone

Because African population growth continues to be strong while population growth in other parts of the world slumps, there is a growing “pull” on Africans to emigrate. That will be even more true in the future as fertility continues to fall in the United States. But aside from that, incomes in Africa are rapidly rising, with more and more Africans making enough money to be able to finance the cost of emigrating to richer countries. While it may seem counterintuitive, rising incomes can actually drive higher outflows from African countries in the short run …read more

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