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What to Do on Immigration

Discussants: Tamar Jacoby, President, ImmigrationWorks USA, and Steven Camarota
Updated: June 23, 2006


The debate over immigration rages on as Congress tries to reconcile very different approaches to addressing the growing number of illegal immigrants in America. The presence of some twelve million illegal immigrants is testament to the United States' constant demand for labor, as well as the ineffectiveness of policies for regulating the flow of people across U.S. borders. Legislators have considered a raft of proposals—from a House bill that stressed building barriers and tightening border security to the Senate bill, which offered a guest-worker program and a path to legalization—as they wrestle with this complex and contentious topic in an election year. A June 20 decision by House Republicans to hold hearings across the country before taking on the difficult task of reconciling the House and Senate bills has postponed action on the issue until the fall, and potentially doomed the chances of any meaningful reform passing this year.

Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow and immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute, and Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, address how the need for immigrant labor in America affects the policy debate.

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Steven CamarotaJune 23, 2006

Steven Camarota

We Can Enforce Our Immigration Laws, If We Try

It's true that most economists, with the exception of those who actually study immigration, tend to hold favorable views of it. Standard economic theory predicts that the shifts in the supply of labor caused by immigration should produce some economic gains for natives. But every attempt to measure the size of those gains based on actual data shows that it is extremely small. The National Research Council report mentioned in my last entry shows this clearly. Moreover, those gains are generated by the wage losses suffered by natives in competition with immigrants, who in the case of illegals tend to be the poorest and least-educated Americans. Lowering their wages so that the rest of society can be made imperceptibly richer is hardly sound public policy.

It is possible that the standard economic model does not capture the true benefit of immigration. However, a 2002 National Bureau of Economic Research study, using a new model, found that all natives lose from immigration, not just the unskilled. As for immigrant entrepreneurship, the share who are self-employed is actually slightly lower than natives—11 percent vs. 13 percent. One simply cannot make the case for immigration on economic grounds.

As for polls, they show the public will accept amnesty for illegals if you give them no other option, or give only mass deportations as an option. But the House of Representatives has an alternative: attrition through enforcement. By more than two to one, the public likes a policy of steady enforcement and making illegals go home over time, instead of amnesty and increased legal immigration.

On Ms. Jacoby's main point that we are not letting in enough people legally, she misunderstands how migration works. Legal immigration has roughly doubled in the last two decades. Yet we have more than twice as many illegals as in 1986. Most of the top illegal-alien-sending countries are also the top legal sending countries. Legal immigrants are the ones who often provide illegals with jobs and housing. The presence of an ever-larger legal immigrant population is the basis of the social network that draws in illegals.

Finally, she still seems to be saying that it's okay to debate the issue, but in the end we must accept that foreigners will break our laws if we don't accommodate them. This kind of determinism must be rejected. We can enforce our immigration laws. The problem is that we have never tried.

Tamar JacobyJune 23, 2006

Tamar Jacoby

Americans Want Lawful Immigration, and Congressional Reforms Would Deliver

I say change an unrealistic, unenforceable law, then enforce it to the letter; Mr. Camarota claims I propose ignoring the law. I say give the immigrants already coming into the country illegally a lawful path; Mr. Camarota writes that I want "a dramatic increase." And then he expects us to take his word for the other "facts" he asserts?

The truth is we could argue all summer about the economic impact of immigration. But I'll make do with three final points. Last week, 500 prominent economists, including five Nobel laureates, signed a letter saying immigration is a "net gain" for Americans. Similarly, a few years ago, a survey of past heads of the American Economic Association and the Council of Economic Advisors found 80 percent convinced that immigration has a "very favorable impact" on economic growth. And while the newcomers' contribution may be a small part of our $13 trillion economy—a total that includes inputs from labor, capital, appreciation, the return on foreign trade and investment, and more—between 1996 and 2003, immigrants filled nearly 60 percent of all new jobs. In other words, they made that job growth possible.

On assimilation, the public may believe it's no longer working. But the facts argue strongly otherwise. Nine in ten second-generation Hispanics are fully bilingual or English-dominant. By the time they have been here twenty years, eight in ten new immigrants have become U.S. citizens. Latinos are serving in the armed forces nearly in proportion to their share of the population. Most striking of all, between a third and a half of second-generation Latinos and Asian Americans marry someone of a different ethnic group. If that isn't successful assimilation, I don't know what is.

Of course, voters' views matter. No one is asserting otherwise—that's why the battle raging now is taking place in our democratically elected Congress. But there is no conflict between the public's views and the changes I've been advocating.

Majorities in every survey think that, by and large, immigrants are good for America. People don't generally want to increase the number we admit, but they would overwhelmingly prefer a legal influx to an illegal one—so much so that virtually every major media poll in recent months shows between two-thirds and three-quarters of the public in favor of legalizing the illegal immigrants already here. What Americans want is a lawful, controlled immigration system—exactly what the reform under consideration in Washington would deliver. What a pity it would be if the small, shrill minority Mr. Camarota speaks for succeeded in blocking that historic change.

Steven CamarotaJune 22, 2006

Steven Camarota

Increased Immigration Has Little Economic Benefit and Low Public Support

Let's be clear about one thing: no economic study of immigration has ever found significant economic gains for native-born Americans. The most authoritative study on the subject was done by the National Research Council (NRC) in 1997. The report, authored by the top researchers in the field, concluded that the gain to natives was equal to one-tenth of one percent of the economy. Moreover, the benefit was derived by making the poorest 10 percent of American workers 5 percent poorer.

As the nation's top immigration economist, George Borjas of Harvard, puts it, the benefit to natives is "minuscule." The [eceonomic] effect from illegals, who are one-third of the immigrant population, is even less. Moreover, the NRC concluded that the fiscal drain (taxes paid minus services used) from all immigrants was larger than the tiny economic gain. Yes, the economy is larger because of immigrants, but almost all of that increased economic activity goes to the immigrants themselves in the form of wages and benefits. Let us also be clear about another established fact: immigration can have only a very small impact on the aging of American society. A 2000 Census Bureau report stated that immigration is a "highly inefficient" means for changing the share of the population that is of working age. The average American woman will have roughly 2.1 children in her lifetime, but if all the immigrants are removed from the data, the average would still be 2.0. In contrast, that figure is 1.4 for Europe. This is the main reason we are not aging as fast as Europe, not immigration.

Immigration is not only an economic issue. While we could have a long debate about topics like assimilation, clearly the public thinks something is wrong. In a recent Zogby poll, only 26 percent of Americans said immigrants were assimilating fine and we should keep immigration at current levels, while 67 percent said we should reduce it so we can assimilate those already here. We should listen to the people and stop telling them, "Tut tut, we in the elite know better."

Ms. Jacoby tells us that enforcing our laws is "a recipe for disaster." Instead, she wants to push through a dramatic increase in immigration. Talk about a recipe for disaster. This could very well lead to a huge social and political backlash. She should at least consider this before advocating a policy with little or no economic or fiscal benefit and just as little public support.

Tamar JacobyJune 21, 2006

Tamar Jacoby

Immigrants Grow the Economic Pie for Everyone

Of course, as Mr. Camarota writes, it is the American people who must set our immigration policy, and voters have a "right" to set any policy they like—no matter how unworkable. But experts like us should be pointing them toward good policy, not urging them to exercise their right to chart a course that undermines American prosperity.

Yet that is exactly the effect of an immigration policy that fails to recognize and meet our need for unskilled foreign labor. Mr. Camarota could not be more wrong about immigration's consequences for the economy. In fact, rather than taking jobs from Americans, immigrants grow the pie for everyone: attracting investment, making capital more productive, and filling jobs at the low end of the ladder so that increasingly educated Americans can maximize their productivity. Newcomers don't generally compete with the native-born, they complement them, to everyone's benefit. Even the 9 percent of American workers who haven't completed high school—the only ones who go head-to-head with immigrants and whose wages sometimes suffer as a result, though by no more than a few percentage points over the past twenty years—make up what they lose in wages in cheaper services. Meanwhile, immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs, and immigration allows many industries, including agriculture and food processing, to stay in the United States rather than move where labor is cheaper.

Yes, many immigrants are poor, uneducated workers who pay relatively little in taxes. But that's precisely the point: even with modern technology—in some cases, because of it—we still need a significant number of low-skilled workers to keep our economy running. Surely Mr. Camarota isn't suggesting that we do the right thing when we profit from their labor but, by keeping them illegal, limit their access to services? And if anything, once they became legal residents, they would pay more of their fair share of the taxes that pay for those benefits.

Attrition through enforcement isn't a policy—it's a fantasy, and an ugly fantasy at that. And rather than deterring immigrants or driving them out, attrition will merely drive them further underground, benefiting no one but smugglers, document forgers, and unscrupulous, exploitative employers who will have even more of an advantage than they do now over competitors who obey the law. It's a recipe for disaster that will only delay the need to come to grips with the reality of immigration and keep us from finding a solution that allows us to reap its benefits without eroding our security or the rule of law.

Steven CamarotaJune 20, 2006

Steven Camarota

Illegal Aliens Take Jobs from Unskilled Americans

Ms. Jacoby's solution to illegal immigration is essentially to legalize the illegals and dramatically increase legal immigration. But this approach has already been tried, and it failed. In the 1980s, 2.7 million illegal aliens were legalized, and legal immigration has roughly doubled since then. Yet we now have even more illegals. Moreover, her approach doesn't solve most of the problems associated with illegal immigration.

Under her plan, the poorest and least-educated American workers would still face job competition from millions of legalized illegal aliens and new legal immigrants arriving from abroad. In occupations where illegals are concentrated—such as construction, building maintenance, and food preparation—the native unemployment rate averages 10 percent. There are sixty-five million native-born Americans (ages 18 to 64) with no education beyond high school. Of these, some four million are unemployment and another nineteen million are not working or even looking for work. Wages for such workers have stagnated or declined. Ms. Jacoby's plan only makes sense if we think the poor are overpaid.

As for fiscal costs, illegal aliens create a burden mainly because they are unskilled, not because they are illegal. At least 60 percent lack a high school degree, and another 20 percent have no education beyond high school. Such persons tend to pay little in taxes regardless of legal status, but tend to use a lot in services. The National Research Council found that immigrants without a high school diploma created a lifetime net fiscal drain of $80,000; for those with only a high school degree, the drain is $31,000.

Ms. Jacoby's argument that if we don't let more people in, they will simply come illegally is also profoundly undemocratic. We currently allow one million people in each year. We have a right to increase or decrease that number as we see fit. Ms. Jacoby is telling us that the desire of foreigners to break our laws should set immigration policy, not the American people.

The only real solution is a policy of attrition through enforcement. If America becomes less hospitable, over time many more illegal immigrants will decide to go home. We need to penalize employers who hire illegal aliens and we need the cooperation of local law enforcement. The IRS must stop accepting false Social Security numbers. Illegals must be denied drivers' licenses, bank accounts, and in-state college tuition. The border must be secured. Making illegals go home will help less-educated Americans, save taxpayers money, and restore the rule of law.

Tamar JacobyJune 19, 2006

Tamar Jacoby

Make Immigration Serve National Interest

With immigration, as with all things, the first step toward control is understanding—and the most important thing to understand about immigration is that it’s not, as often thought, some kind of whimsical "experiment." The historic influx of immigrants, legal and illegal, that the United States is experiencing today is the product of huge tectonic shifts: declining U.S. birthrates, an aging and increasingly educated U.S. workforce, worldwide development, vastly improved communications, and the emergence of global labor markets. Together, these forces draw some 1.5 million immigrants to the United States annually in an all-but-inevitable flow. We imagine we can fight it, when in fact the best we can do is manage it. We can not so much stem the tide as ensure that, to the fullest possible extent, it serves our national interests.

The best analogy is Prohibition: try as we might, we found that there was no way to abolish alcohol use. But when we bowed to reality and turned instead to regulating it, we found much to our surprise that "control" was in our grasp. Today, if we recognized the reality of our labor needs and the international influx that helps us meet them, we would find it much easier to control immigration.

This is the logic behind the reform on the table in Washington. The goal is to replace our current unrealistic quotas—all but impossible to enforce—with a new, more realistic law that we enforce to the letter.

The package has three parts, none of which will work without the other two. The first, called a "guest worker" program, is a misnomer: many, if not most, of those who come to work for a short stint will end up wanting to stay on indefinitely. But the idea is exactly right: to bring our annual intake more in line with our labor needs. This would be matched by more effective enforcement—on the border and in the workplace—that would funnel workers now coming illegally into this new, legal program. And finally: to make up for our past lack of realism and create a solid foundation for the new system, we must allow the roughly twelve million illegal immigrants already here to make restitution and earn their way to the right side of the law.

The bottom line: the most effective government in the world is no match for global economic forces. It’s better to recognize those powerful currents and make the most of them. 

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