The Economics of Immigration Reform
Of the two big items on Barack Obama’s current agenda—gun safety and immigration reform—I suspect he’ll get more done on the latter than the former.
The gun lobby still holds sway on large numbers of both parties in both houses, while wise Republicans recognize they have a vested interest in making nice to the larger Latino community in the hopes of picking up enough political support to avoid oblivion in presidential elections to come.
Yet there’s widespread resistance among House Republicans and some senators to the idea of a pathway to citizenship (“amnesty” they call it) for 11 million undocumented workers (“illegal aliens” they call them). Truth to tell, there is more than a modicum of anti-Mexican prejudice at work here. But the politics of political survival and even—pardon the word—morality are likely to rule.
Actually well more than half the undocumented did not cross the borders illegally; rather, their legal visas or visitors’ green cards expired and they remained long past the date they should have returned.
Contrary to the conservative argument that undocumented residents are a financial burden on the U.S., there are powerful arguments that citizenship and the right to work will bring an ultimate economic benefit and strengthen Social Security.
Social Security actuaries estimated in 2007 that about two-thirds of undocumented workers paid into the system but many fewer received any benefits. If more were citizens they would receive more benefits but pay in even more, contributing to its overall solvency.
Florida’s former Republican Governor Charlie Crist, then running for the Senate as an independent, raised the point in 2010:
“If we are willing to have a thoughtful, reasonable pathway to citizenship…those [undocumented] people can become productive, participating members of the American economy, paying the payroll taxes, helping Social Security going forward, and making America stronger financially,” he said. Ironically, his Tea Party Republican opponent Marco Rubio won the seat, but is now the lead GOP senator in selling immigration reform.
The progressive economist Dean Baker agrees it would help “but probably not hugely,” he wrote me. “The net is probably positive for the program but most likely not a huge positive.
Apart from Social Security, the Congressional Budget Office now estimates that if all undocumented workers became citizens they would pay $48 billion more in overall taxes while increasing the cost of public services by $23 billion, for a net gain of $25 billion. This should ease the minds of those genuinely concerned about the cost, for example, of educating immigrants’ children.
Other studies suggest that low-wage immigrants won’t seriously compete against current citizens for jobs—they will actually increase their average wages.
One poison pill, however, is planted in the senate’s proposed bill. It puts border security ahead of the citizenship path and in effect gives border-state governors the say-so about whether the borders are secure.
That means goofs like Rick Perry of Texas and lying lunatics like Arizona’s Jan Brewer would have veto power over the entire citizenship path.
Better we should just let that pair secede.
Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer