I am not an economCHINA SYNDROMEist, politician, statistician or STEM-trained (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) job-seeker (since I have no degrees in any of those fields and am happy with my current job).

But I am curious—about what the eventual impact on jobs and economies will be when illegal immigrants anywhere in the world are granted “amnesty”.

That’s in quotes because I’ve always thought that “amnesty” is something granted only after the alleged commission of an offense, not also before—especially since the latter, some migration amnesty critics would argue, serves as an invitation to lawlessness, not just forgiveness for it.

But setting that amnesty controversy aside, crucial questions remain to be answered: Is any economy wherever or whenever in the world likely to benefit when penetrated by and forgiving those who have circumvented the specified, lawful and appropriate procedures and regulations in place to regulate their (non)entry? Is there any economic justification whatsoever for allowing—or in the extreme, encouraging—that to happen? (The following analysis is an extension of the analysis in my previous article “(Im)Permeable Borders: a Job Creation Tool?“, with an emphasis here on filling, rather than creating jobs.)

I’ve thought about it, despite the ostensible, daunting challenge and have come up with a few ideas, including what I’m calling “The China Syndrome“–in part, after the 1979 Michael Douglas/Jane Fonda movie about a nuclear reactor meltdown that figuratively, if not literally, can burn through the Earth’s core, all the way to (or from) China.

If that were not terrifying enough for those worried about their jobs and their economies, there’s a second sense I would like to associate with the phrase: the economic ascendancy of juggernaut China caused by its marshaling of hundreds of millions of very low-wage workers working very long hours, with very few benefits, if any.

Illegal Migration vs. Illegal Immigration and STEM Jobs

Before explaining how the China Syndrome could justify illegal migration—a term I prefer to “illegal immigration”, since the latter sounds a tad like an oxymoron and makes it sound as though, as a form of immigration, illegal immigration should be accepted as a fait accompli, i.e., a given not to be debated, a challenge has to be thrown at the feet of those who claim that legitimizing millions of illegal migrants can help an economy meet its advanced talent needs, e.g., in the STEM professions (a defense cited by some illegal-migration supporters).

It is this: How likely are those most-qualified, well-educated, intelligently motivated and in high demand as STEM-qualified to choose a career path through the deserts bordering the U.S.? Surely, high demand should translate into taking a position in a lawful queue, not in a rattling truck or ship container. This question can be posed independently of U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions recent protests against amnesty and proffered statistical rebuttal of the “short supply” claims of corporations alleging that there aren’t enough STEM professionals to meet current and projected demand.

That’s because simple logic prima facie suggests that whether such demand is strong or weak, the desert is unlikely to be the smart route. On the one hand, if demand is strong, such STEM candidates could fly through the process with flying colors rather than driving to the opportunity in a camouflaged vehicle. On the other hand, if demand is weak, period, the net result is likely to be a strong disincentive to come at all or desperation to take whatever jobs are available, i.e., non-STEM jobs, for which legitimate citizens are already having trouble finding.

The one scenario under which a STEM professional would have a real incentive to illegally migrate rather than legally immigrate is that in which not only despite such high qualifications, but also because of them, especially high immigration barriers would be faced. For example, in Canada at times, it has been easier to be granted landed-immigrant status as a chef or caregiver than as a physician or lawyer, either because of very tight quotas or outright exclusions from the listed eligible categories.

In cases like that, the STEM-trained worker may conclude—rightly or wrongly and strategically as well as morally—that making a night run for it is the best, if not the only option. But even in this instance, the smart route is not to legalize the illegal, but to remove or revamp regulations and policies that bar qualified applicants when their talents are in short supply among current citizens.

Alternatively, there’s the option of a fast-track offered to other STEM professionals back home, in those other countries, who have not applied or sneaked in—unless only the worst qualified STEM workers, unable to find work back home, are piling onto the trucks.

The Second China Syndrome

Enough about that challenge question. Back to the China Syndrome and the question of how it can contribute to an economic recovery rather than an economic meltdown. One argument for allowing or legitimizing illegal migration is based on very elementary economics: If millions of new workers are added to an economy, the likelihood (not certainty) that they will depress wages is high.

If they depress wages low enough, the average worker in that economy may become competitive with workers in China, Laos, Vietnam or wherever low wages translate into low costs and the most competitive prices for that economy’s exports—assuming the nation actually produces stuff to export. That’s what China did—with the help of massive government subsidies, controlled exchange rates and other forms of protectionism.

Could that work elsewhere and spark an economic renaissance in an economy that were to go that route and allow wages to sink? Well, other serious issues aside, e.g., plunging standard of living and unmanageable personal indebtedness caused by borrowing to meet essential expenses, one huge snag is that the success of the China Syndrome in propelling China to the global forefront economically (at least) was predicated on a robust, burgeoning export market.

But if the added millions in a copycat economy end up in service industries (especially in a service or finance-based economy), such as janitorial, hedge fund or fast-food enterprises, the export effect may never kick in.

Hence, even if the China Syndrome in the form of a reactor meltdown through the core of the Earth tunneled a passageway into the U.S., Chinese workers migrating through it in search of STEM or export-oriented employment might be gravely disappointed to find themselves in the middle of a third China Syndrome: no, as opposed to low wages and the prospect of becoming the only Chinese export without a market.


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