Marcos Breton: Giovanni Peri crunches the numbers on immigration

02/17/2013 12:00 AM

04/18/2013 7:45 PM

Giovanni Peri, an Italian-born economist at UC Davis, is quickly becoming one of the most important voices in America's immigration debate.

Featured in the Wall Street Journal last week and cited often by the New York Times and others, Peri's work sheds light on the positive effects immigrant labor has had on America's workforce.

A tall and youthful 42-year-old father of three, Peri is driven by neither a desire to close American borders nor a thirst to fling them open.

His ideology is governed by facts. Somewhat like Nate Silver – the New York Times political blogger and numbers cruncher – Peri uses complex microdata to cut through emotional issues with statistical analyses that go against conventional wisdom.

He debunks the myth that undocumented immigrants cost Americans jobs in the short run or long run. He estimates that the last big wave of immigration – from 1990 to 2007 – raised the annual income of each native-born American worker by about $5,000.

How has Peri come to these conclusions?

By breaking down federal databases with enough precision to track immigrant and non-immigrant workers as they move from job to job.

"One of the biggest innovations of the last 20 years is microdata where I can track the movement of where immigrants go (in the labor force)," Peri said. "The new generation of economists can ask a big question and have the statistical power to answer the question."

What Peri finds is that immigrants and native workers mostly end up vying for different jobs.

Many companies that filled jobs with recent immigrants benefited from their low-wage labor, became more efficient and were able to hire more American workers in supervisory roles.

To read Peri's 2010 paper for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (posted for your convenience at www.sacbee.com/links) is to understand how badly anti-immigrant voices have distorted the debate.

"People say numbers can lie," Peri said last week on the UC Davis campus after taping an interview with National Public Radio. "You can lie even more without numbers."

Misinformation is one of the great obstacles to federal immigration reform. Groups driven by anti-immigrant sentiment have sponsored many of the negative studies on immigration. GOP politicians from Pete Wilson in California to Jan Brewer in Arizona have inflamed ethnic tensions to be elected governor of their respective states.

But with Latino voters overwhelmingly supporting President Barack Obama last November, a new political calculus has created an opening for immigration reform – and for Peri's work.

After years of recession, there appears to be a willingness now to consider that highly skilled immigrants could bring innovation and investment to America – while low-skilled, undocumented workers could boost government tax rolls if they are granted legal status.

Peri's sees his role in this debate very simply: "We need to deal with the immigration that exists," Peri said. "Not the one that people have in their minds.

"I do think that repeating a few crucial facts should be our role."

What facts?

"In the last four or five years, immigration has virtually stopped and the number of undocumented has decreased. This is a good time to tackle this issue without that pressure."

"Many more highly educated immigrants have come in as a percentage of their group."

In the Wall Street Journal recently, Peri wrote of the American economic gains that would be achievable if an antiquated immigration system were reorganized to be more responsive to business trends.

Part of what is causing illegal immigration is a legal immigration system that is bogged down by years-long bottlenecks. The chief culprit is a rule that immigrants of no one country can hold more than 7 percent of green cards in the United States.

"It doesn't matter if it's China and India – which have half the world's population – or Djibouti and Luxembourg Some people from China, India and the Philippines have to wait 20 years."

Consequently, America loses many highly skilled immigrants each year because they don't want to wait a decade or more for a permanent visa once their temporary ones expire.

The long waits exacerbate illegal immigration because the demand for immigrant labor exceeds the number of permits available.

"Let's dig down a little bit: Why do we have so many undocumented workers? There was huge demand for these type of jobs and no legal temporary permits to hire them," Peri said.

Peri proposes pragmatic reforms mixed with straight talk on immigration facts. "Border security gets trumpeted a lot, but I think we need to say we achieved that," he said.

Like many, Peri advocates a path to citizenship for undocumented workers who can pay fines and back taxes, and earn their way to legal status through hard work.

"The employment rate of immigrants is higher than (for the) native-born. They work more. They are a potential resource, just as technology is a potential resource," Peri said.

Is America ready to embrace that reality? Perhaps.

"I'm more optimistic than I have been in 10 years of working on this," Peri said.

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