Immigration vs. the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis
By Bryan Caplan
Who loses the most from additional immigration? The data is clear: The biggest losers are immigrants who are already here. This is hardly surprising: recent and new arrivals are in close competition because they supply nearly identical skills. Ottaviano and Peri estimate that immigration from 1990-2004 raised the average native’s wages by 1.8%, but slashed the average foreign-born worker’s wages by 19.8%.
If self-interest had a big effect on policy preferences, current immigrants would be the staunchest opponents of immigration. Are they? I decided to check with the General Social Survey. The GSS’s best measure of attitudes about immigration is LETIN1. It reads:
Do you think the number of immigrants to America nowadays should be…
increased a lot (=1); increased a little (=2); remain the same as it is (=3); reduced a little (=4); reduced a lot (=5)
The average answer for the whole sample is 3.7, with a median of 4.
I then defined the variable IMMIGRANT, which equals 0 if both your parents were born in the U.S., and 1 otherwise. (As far as I can tell, the GSS doesn’t have a good measure of whether you were born in this country, but my measure is fine for our purposes). Survey says: Contrary to the self-interested voter hypothesis, people with at least one foreign-born parent are much less hostile to immigration: a full .8 points.
How big is this effect? It is well-known that the educated and liberal are less hostile to immigration. How does the effect of my immigrant measure compare? Here’s the multiple regression:
It’s one thing to say that self-interest has little or no effect on policy preferences. The children of the foreign-born go far beyond this. Immigrants hurt them the most, but they oppose immigration the least. How is this possible?
The best explanation is that the children of the foreign-born, like many other groups, are group-interested voters. They’re concerned about the well-being of people they identify with, people “like them.” The children of immigrants know what it’s like to be an immigrant from first-hand experience. They know the misery of the Old Country, and the hardships of the New. And when they ponder immigration policy, their first thought isn’t their wages. Their first thought is that the law is denying someone like their parents, cousins, or neighbors a chance to work for a better life.