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Efficiency and Equity as Goals for Contemporary U.S. Immigration Policy

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As the United States has entered its postindustrial stage of economic development, mass immigration has again become a distinguishing feature of the U.S. economy. In all of its diverse forms, immigration presently accounts for anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the annual growth of the U.S. labor force. By the turn of the 21st century, it could conceivably comprise all of such growth. Immigration is the one aspect of population and labor force growth that public policy should be able to shape and control. Unfortunately, however, the extant public policies that govern the size and composition of the immigrant and refugee flows are largely unrelated to emerging economic considerations. The revival of mass immigration is not taking place in a vacuum. Indeed, it appears that the labor market is being radically transformed. The demand for labor is increasingly favoring those workers with skill and education. There are diminishing needs for job seekers without these human capital endowments. On the labor supply side, it is unfortunately the case that the United States already has a significant number of adults who are ill-prepared for many jobs that are being created. To assist in this effort to enhance efficiency, immigration policy should be flexible. It should be capable of responding to changing domestic economic conditions. Currently, the nation's immigration policy is dominated by political motivations that give priority to family reunification and humanitarian goals. Immigration can be a short run means to provide skilled and educated workers to fill critical worker shortages. But in the long run, equity considerations derived from the nation's multiracial and multicultural character of the labor force also come into play. It is imperative that citizen workers be prepared for the high quality jobs in the growth industries of its postindustrial economy. Immigration must not inhibit market pressures from encouraging employers to provide better opportunities for training and employment of citizens. The obverse is also true. It is essential that immigration does not provide only workers who can be employed in the declining occupations and industries. With a sizeable adult illiteracy problem already, the nation can ill-afford to increase the pool of unskilled and poorly educated workers, which increases the competition among such workers for the shrinking number of jobs available to them.

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immigration; United States; labor force; public policy; labor demand


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Required Publisher Statement: Copyright by the Human Sciences Press. Final article published as Briggs, V. M., Jr. (1989). Efficiency and equity as goals for contemporary U.S. immigration policy. Population & Environment, 11(1), 7-24.

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