Daniel W. Drezner

All this policy relevance is making my head spin

All this policy relevance is making my head spin

Some in the policy blogosphere believe that the American Political Science Review does little more than publish abstruse, small findings of no consequence to anyone other than fellow political scientists.  And, truth be told, a lot of political scientists think this to be the case as well.  

The APSR has had a pretty decent month contradicting that belief, however.  The February 2010 issue of the journal already touched on issues related to Rusia’s counterinsurgency tactics in Chechnya

A different article has now cropped up in a front-page story in the New York Times by Julia Preston on immigration.  Preston reports that more immigrants are employed in white collar professions than previously thought.  Why is this politically significant?  Preston goes to the APSR for an answer: 

The data belie a common perception in the nation’s hard-fought debate over immigration — articulated by lawmakers, pundits and advocates on all sides of the issue — that the surge in immigration in the last two decades has overwhelmed the United States with low-wage foreign laborers.

Over all, the analysis showed, the 25 million immigrants who live in the country’s largest metropolitan areas (about two-thirds of all immigrants in the country) are nearly evenly distributed across the job and income spectrum….

The findings are significant because Americans’ views of immigration are based largely on the work immigrants do, new research shows.

“Americans, whether they are rich or poor, are much more in favor of high-skilled immigrants,” said Jens Hainmueller, a political scientist at M.I.T. and co-author of a survey of attitudes toward immigration with Michael J. Hiscox, professor of government at Harvard. The survey of 1,600 adults, which examined the reasons for anti-immigration sentiment in the United States, was published in February in American Political Science Review, a peer-reviewed journal.

Americans are inclined to welcome upper-tier immigrants — like Ms. Kollman-Moore — believing they contribute to economic growth without burdening public services, the study found. More than 60 percent of Americans are opposed to allowing more low-skilled foreign laborers, regarding them as more likely to be a drag on the economy.

You can access the Hainmueller and Hiscox article by clicking here.  Their argument:

Past research has emphasized two critical economic concerns that appear to generate anti-immigrant sentiment among native citizens: concerns about labor market competition and concerns about the fiscal burden on public services. We provide direct tests of both models of attitude formation using an original survey experiment embedded in a nationwide U.S. survey. The labor market competition model predicts that natives will be most opposed to immigrants who have skill levels similar to their own. We find instead that both low-skilled and highly skilled natives strongly prefer highly skilled immigrants over low-skilled immigrants, and this preference is not decreasing in natives’ skill levels. The fiscal burden model anticipates that rich natives oppose low-skilled immigration more than poor natives, and that this gap is larger in states with greater fiscal exposure (in terms of immigrant access to public services). We find instead that rich and poor natives are equally opposed to low-skilled immigration in general. In states with high fiscal exposure, poor (rich) natives are more (less) opposed to low-skilled immigration than they are elsewhere. This indicates that concerns among poor natives about constraints on welfare benefits as a result of immigration are more relevant than concerns among the rich about increased taxes. Overall the results suggest that economic self-interest, at least as currently theorized, does not explain voter attitudes toward immigration. The results are consistent with alternative arguments emphasizing noneconomic concerns associated with ethnocentrism or sociotropic considerations about how the local economy as a whole may be affected by immigration.

To unpack that abstract a bit:   Hainmueller and Hiscox are arguing that material self-interest does not explain attitudes about immigration.  The findings suggest one of two possibilities:  simple prejudice, or concerns that low-skilled immigration negatively affect overall U.S. welfare. 

I confess I have some skin in the game on this question, as I’ve argued that American attitudes towards immigration would be affected by implicit realpolitik calculations of national interest

Still, this is the second time in less than a month that a quant study in the most recent issue of the APSR has yielded salient findings about a matter directly affecting public policy.