Immigration in the Twenty-First Century: A Personnel Selection Approach

By Brunner, Lawrence; Colarelli, Stephen M. | Independent Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Immigration in the Twenty-First Century: A Personnel Selection Approach


Brunner, Lawrence, Colarelli, Stephen M., Independent Review


Immigration is an integral part of the U.S. social fabric. As of 2004, a total of 12 percent of the population was foreign born. (1) Immigrants account for a disproportionate share of population growth because they are younger and have higher fertility rates than natives. Because of immigration's importance, immigration policy has been debated throughout our history. In the past thirty years, the United States has undergone tremendous changes, yet immigration policy has not changed with the times. In this article, we propose an immigration policy adapted to the twenty-first century--when global competition and high-technology workplaces will predominate--and argue that a policy based on theory and research in personnel selection would be more effective than current policy or the popular alternatives. We first provide a brief historical overview of U.S. immigration policy, then discuss concerns about current policy and alternatives, and finally sketch a policy based on personnel selection. We are not concerned here about how many immigrants should be permitted to enter the country, but about how those who are admitted will be chosen. We wish to optimize the attributes of the immigrants who are admitted, given that limits on immigration will continue to exist. (2)

A Brief Survey of U.S. Immigration

The United States has experienced four periods of immigration (Martin and Midgley 1999). The first was from the eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries, when the majority of immigrants came from the British Isles and western Europe. (3) The economy was primarily agricultural, with relatively little economic integration, and the open-immigration policy during this period helped to populate the country. Supporters of this policy viewed immigrants as beneficial to businesses and the economy (Martin and Midgley 1999). For the most part, the nation's elites regarded immigration positively, although some natives were hostile to immigrants they perceived as different. (4)

During the second period, from the late nineteenth century to 1921, the policy was an extension of open immigration with some restrictions. Strong economic growth increased the demand for labor, and the political and economic dislocations in many parts of Europe created a large supply of potential immigrants. Immigration surged from the late nineteenth century until the early 1920s, in what has been called the First Great Migration (Hatton and Williamson 1994). More immigrants entered the United States during the First Great Migration than at any other time in the country's history (including the present). The majority who arrived during this period came from southern and eastern Europe. Although immigration remained mostly open, Congress passed legislation to exclude some immigrants. In 1875, it barred prostitutes and convicts, and in 1882 paupers and "mental defectives." These restrictions were based on individual qualities and did not discriminate on the basis of any racial, national, or ethnic identity, with one exception: the Chinese. Opponents of Chinese immigration argued that the Chinese could not be assimilated and that a "yellow horde" would overwhelm the country and its dominant culture. Some people, particularly in California, also feared that new Chinese immigrants would adversely affect natives' wages. Although nativists had argued since prerevolutionary times against allowing people of particular nationalities or ethnicity to immigrate, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first such restriction enacted. Thus began a long period in U.S. immigration policy when restrictions, rather than being based on individual qualities, were made primarily on the basis of group membership.

The psychological literature on prejudice and stereotyping would interpret these restrictions as based on bigotry (Stangor et al. 1992; Kurzban, Tooby, and Cosmides 2001). An alternative economic interpretation is that the restrictions were driven by the ratio of unskilled wages to average income (Timmer and Williamson 1998).

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