An op-ed earlier this week in the New York Times examines the emphasis and attention that has been placed on the influx of low-wage immigrants to the United States. According to Steven Clemons and Michael Lind, “Congress seems to believe that while the United States must be protected from an invasion of educated, bright and ambitious foreign college students, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, we can never have too many low-wage fruit-pickers and dishwashers.”

They base this conclusion on many of the measures and stipulations that have been put forth in the varieties of proposals, bills, and amendments flowing out of the latest discussions over immigration reform. “While the United States perversely tries to corner the market in uneducated hotel maids and tomato harvesters, other industrial democracies are reshaping their immigration policies to invite the skilled immigrants that we turn away,” they write.

The answer, say Clemons and Lind, is to model US immigration policy on the successful examples of other countries, that see highly-educated and motivated immigrants as a boon rather than a curse. Even so, the authors oppose the interests of skilled and educated immigrants against those of the unskilled and uneducated. In doing so, I think they go a bit too far.

It is one thing to say that the influx of competitive, driven, educated, and skilled immigrants has not received enough positive attention in the current debate. Clemons and Lind are right on that score. As they write, “more talent means more innovation and opportunities for all, immigrant and native alike.”

They don’t think this holds true for unskilled immigrants however, and view them in a rather less positive light: “with the vast pool of poorly paid, ill-educated laborers already within our borders, we do not need a third of a million new ones a year.” But to make their case, I don’t think Clemons and Lind have to pit the skilled against the unskilled.

It is true that higher competition for low-wage jobs will have the tendency to lower wages, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a powerful incentive for unskilled natives and immigrants alike to pursue new training and education to increase their standard of living. Being a line-worker at Subway is ideally not a career, but rather ought to be a transitional position and motivation for workers to increase the cost of their labor.

The Copenhagen Consensus of 2004 recommended policies that lower barriers to migration for skilled workers as a “fair” program, because they “were regarded as a desirable way to promote global welfare and to provide economic opportunities to people in developing countries.” The reason that the Consensus opposed guest-worker programs was not because low-skilled workers necessarily have a negative economic impact, but because they have a “tendency to discourage the assimilation of migrants,” by placing them in a social and economic position that is lower than natives.

Andrew Yuengert makes the case that there is a limited right to migrate in his monograph, Inhabiting the Land. The unskilled possess this right to no less of an extent than the skilled.