After completing an M.A. in mathematics in her native Germany, Brigitte Waldorf came to America in 1985, for a PhD program in geography at the University of Illinois. Like many foreign-born academics, she stayed on after graduating, working as a regional scientist for top-flight institutions including Princeton University and the University of Indiana, before joining Purdue University in 2005. That’s an example, Waldorf says, of the way that America benefits from the human capital that immigrants bring. “We value human capital quite a bit — and this is human capital that the United States didn’t have to pay a penny to create,” she says. “My education in mathematics was totally paid for by Germany, and now Americans are getting it for free.”
Thinking about immigration in terms of human capital, rather than border security or broken laws, reveals inefficiencies that the country should be eager to eliminate. “The focus should be on how much we’re wasting,” Waldorf argues. One example: The spouses of foreign-born graduate students and skilled workers are usually themselves highly skilled and educated, but typically receive visas that prohibit them from working while in the United States. She says that wasting such potential is like refusing to put gas in the tank of the engine driving the U.S. economy. “Just go to Purdue University’s graduate student housing, and look at all the spouses who are sitting there and aren’t allowed to work,” she says. “We’re keeping these people totally idle.”
Because of immigration, the American population has been constantly rejuvenated.
Besides giving such people permission to work, Waldorf says, the United States should be doing more to ensure that immigrants are given opportunities to use their education and experience effectively. Too often, she warns, immigrants find their qualifications aren’t recognized by U.S. employers, and wind up working in roles far below their ability. “The extreme example would be someone who has a PhD in physics, and drives a taxi in Manhattan,” she says. That’s something that could be mitigated with policies to facilitate integration and language acquisition.
The benefits of immigration are clearest when you look at the cases of highly educated immigrants, Waldorf says. But immigrants with less education have plenty of human capital too. “Immigrants tend to be positively selected. The immigrants coming in are the ones who are more entrepreneurial,” she explains. “Crossing a border doesn’t happen by itself — it takes effort and initiative, and that typically has very, very positive effects.” Waldorf adds that keeping so many undocumented immigrants in the shadows is an economic waste. “They may have higher human capital, but they don’t dare to apply for jobs that would utilize their skills. The risk of deportation, and the drama that comes with it, is bad for undocumented immigrants and for the United States as a whole.”
Waldorf says the conversation around immigration should take its positive societal impact into account. “Think about it — if there hadn’t been immigration, we wouldn’t have as many young people as we do, and we’d be in the same demographic mess that the European countries and Japan are in,” she says. “In Japan or in Germany, there’s hardly anybody growing up into the labor force to pay for social security and medical care — but because of immigration, the American population has been constantly rejuvenated.”
The take-home lesson from the American experiment, Waldorf says, is that immigration is a powerful and positive force, but one we’re not taking advantage of. “Immigration is beneficial — but it could be even more beneficial if we didn’t waste so much human capital,” she says.