On Tuesday, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) sent out an email memo with talking points for opponents of immigration reform. Most of the points are based on misinterpretations of government reports, cherry-picked findings by organizations that engage in statistical chicanery, or just flat-out incorrect. These anti-immigration arguments do not advance a logical argument against immigration. Here is a point by point rebuttal of the major claims of this memo:
Claim: No immigration reform proposals will halt unauthorized immigration.
Fact: Guest worker visas are the most effective way of halting unauthorized immigration because it provides a lawful pathway for low-skilled immigrants to enter instead of overstaying a visa, running across a desert, or being smuggled in. Providing a lawful immigration pathway will funnel peaceful migrant workers into the legal system leaving immigration enforcement to deal with a much smaller pool of unlawful immigrants. Italian immigrants in 1910 did not crash boats in to the Jersey Shore to avoid Border Patrol. They entered legally through Ellis Island because there was a legal way to enter. Let’s reopen that pathway – at least partly.
Congress did open it a little bit in the 1950s which ended up cutting unauthorized immigration by over 90 percent by creating a low-skilled guest worker visa called the Bracero Program. That program later ended due to union pressure, causing unauthorized immigration to immediately skyrocket. The program was shut down after domestic unions, especially Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, mounted a national campaign against it.
According to Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy, a February 1958 Border Patrol document from the El Centro, California district states, “Should Public Law 78 [Bracero Program) be repealed or a restriction placed on the number of braceros allowed to enter the United States, we can look forward to a large increase in the number of illegal alien entrants into the United States.” That is exactly what happened.
The government cannot regulate immigration if much of it is illegal. Legalizing the flow of workers into the United States is a simple and cost-effective way to control the border.
Sources: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
Claim: Immigration reform will increase the budget deficit.
Fact: Immigration has a very small impact on the size of budget deficits. For what it’s worth, a Congressional Budget Office’s dynamic score of the Senate immigration reform plan found that it would reduce federal government budget deficits by about $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. Extra growth to the economy and tax revenue from more legal immigrants more than offsets the additional cost of government benefits. Poor immigrants consume government benefits at a lower rate than poor natives and they also pay taxes. Highly skilled immigrants make a more positive contribution to government budgets. According to a survey of countries, the impact is rarely more than plus or minus 1 percent of GDP. In the U.S. case it is generally positive over the long run but the numbers are very small. In short, according to economist Robert Rowthorn, “[t]he desirability of large-scale immigration should be decided on other grounds.”
Claim: New immigrant workers are mostly lesser-skilled and will compete in every sector, industry, and occupation in the U.S. economy.
Fact: Few immigrants compete with U.S.-born workers. To compete, immigrant workers need to have similar characteristics to U.S.-born workers. But as the anti-immigration talking points admit, immigrants are more likely to be lesser-skilled than Americans. Immigrants with lesser-skills do not compete against Americans with higher skills. For instance, an immigrant worker in a meat-packing plant does not compete with an American accountant anymore than Senator Sessions does.
Immigrants are much more likely to be lower skilled and higher skilled than Americans so there isn’t much competition. Because immigrants and the U.S.-born mostly have different skills, they are more likely to be complementary – meaning that they work with Americans rather than compete against Americans.
It takes years for many immigrants to learn English to the point where they could potentially compete with English speaking U.S.-born workers. As a result, the labor market splits in two: One where English is spoken and the second where other languages are spoken. Jobs where English is required are higher paid professions while jobs that don’t require English language skills are typically lower paid. A restaurant offers a perfect example. Low-skilled immigrant workers are primarily the dishwashers, busboys, and cooks – jobs that don’t require much English language ability and are lower paid. The low-skilled Americans who used to do those jobs instead specialized in restaurant jobs that require English. Lower-skilled Americans became the waiters, hosts, and managers – all jobs that require English and are higher paying. Lower-skilled immigrants helps push up those lower-skilled Americans through the economic process described above, also known as complementary task specialization.
Immigrants are not just workers though, they are also consumers and entrepreneurs. Hispanic and Asian Americans, the two most recent ethnic and racial immigrant groups, spend about $2 trillion dollars a year. That spending, made possible by immigrant work and entrepreneurship, creates job opportunities for Americans elsewhere in the economy. Immigrants are also about twice as likely as their U.S.-born counterparts to start a business – a remarkable achievement in a country as entrepreneurial as the United States.
Claim: Immigrants take American jobs.
Fact: Immigrants come when there are jobs available and leave when there aren’t many. There has been a slow-down in unauthorized immigration since the beginning of the Great Recession because many of the jobs immigrants used to work evaporated during the housing collapse. The collapse in new housing construction tracks very closely with the decrease in unauthorized immigrant crossings. Throughout American history, immigration increases during times of economic prosperity or decreases and sometimes reverses during bad times. More guest workers and lawful immigrants will ensure that when the economy recovers, Americans will be able to find enough workers to fill positions and enough customers for new goods and services. But due to the economics of immigration, we will not be overwhelmed by immigrants when there are no jobs for them.
Claim: The last 40 years has been a period of record immigration to the United States.
Fact: About 13 percent of America’s population is foreign born, below the all time peak of 14.7 percent in 1910. The average percent of the population that was foreign born between 1860 and 1920 was about 14 percent – higher than it is today. As a percentage of the U.S.-born population, yearly immigrant flows to the U.S. are half of what they were during the 19th century and early 20th centuries. Rich countries like Canada, Australia, and Switzerland all let in far more immigrants as a percentage of their population every year and have far larger immigrant populations. Switzerland, for instance, lets in about five times as many immigrants as the U.S. does every year as a percentage of their population. The percent of the U.S. population that is foreign born is also below the OECD average. In and of itself, that is not an argument for opening lawful immigration but it should damper the notion that the U.S. has the most immigrant friendly policies in the world. The numerical numbers of immigrants who come here yearly is large, about the same annual number as a hundred years ago, the U.S. has the third largest population in the world to absorb them.
Claim: A sensible immigration policy would also listen to the opinions of the American people and not paid lobbyists.
Fact: A sensible immigration policy should absolutely be based on the opinions of the American people. Every day tens of millions of Americans willingly live near immigrants, employ them, sell them goods and services, and deal with them peacefully and voluntarily. The daily actions of the U.S.-born show how comfortable they are living with New Americans, in direct contrast to the few very loud opponents of immigration. Let the economic demands of Americans set immigration policy, not bureaucrats in Washington.
Claim: We must enforce every immigration law before reforming them, otherwise we destroy the rule of law.
Fact: Bad laws should be reformed, not enforced at all costs. Congress didn’t wait until it caught every bootlegger before ending Prohibition or prosecuted every tax cheat before it instituted the Reagan tax cuts. Congress doesn’t have to keep trying to enforce immigration laws that are fundamentally at odds with our pro-immigration traditions, counter economic growth, and increase unauthorized immigration.
Immigration laws themselves undermine the rule of law. The rule of law means that lawmakers, judges, and individuals are all subject to the same laws and that the laws must be nonarbitrary, consistent with our traditions as a free society, and as free as possible from government ad hoc actions.
Current immigration laws abjectly fall far short of these standards. Our immigration laws are complex and give the government bureaucrats administering them arbitrary power. Most businesses applying for a worker visa have to deal with arbitrary and changing application standards. For instance, government regulatory changes to streamline work visas were adopted in the closing days of the Bush administration. The Obama administration, after taking office, changed portions of those regulations to satisfy union demands. Who knows what regulations will change next year or the year after? Current immigration laws are much more restrictive than the open immigration system our country had from the founding until the early 20th century (with some exceptions), so they aren’t consistent with our traditions. If the rule of law requires predictability as well as respect for America’s traditions, the immigration system fails.
U.S. states are finally relenting, slightly, in the War on Drugs. Let’s not start a new War on Immigrants just as the previous fiasco is starting to wind down.
Claim: The House plan provides legal status and work authorization first – the fundamental grant of amnesty.
Fact: The legal definition of amnesty is an act of forgiveness for past offenses, especially to a class of persons as a whole. The 1986 Reagan amnesty can be accurately described as an amnesty but no proposal in 2013 is because the regulatory hoops, fees, and fines serve as a punishment and not a forgiveness for past offenses. As Mark Krikorian, head of the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, wrote in 2001 in National Review, “Both the retrospective and prospective approaches [of amnesty] grant legal residence, and eventually citizenship, to illegal aliens — the defining characteristics [emphasis added] of an amnesty.” A House version of legalization would likely not include a path to citizenship for most legalized unauthorized immigrants meaning that for them, according to Mark Krikorian’s definition, they would not be amnestied
Claim: Most immigrants who are legalized will get access to welfare immediately.
Fact: Under the proposed Senate version of reform, the legalized immigrants wouldn’t have access to means-tested welfare for 13 years – at a minimum. But if welfare is a genuine concern, it is far easier to deny non-citizens access to welfare than it is to stop all immigration. I co-authored a Cato policy analysis on this very topic that is simple to implement and Constitutional.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that immigrants and their descendants drive increases in the benefit levels and total size of welfare programs regulated on the state level. For every state like California and New York that has many immigrants and a large welfare state, there is a state like Texas or Florida with many immigrants and a shrinking (individual benefit levels in real terms) or smaller welfare state. There is no relationship between immigration and growth of welfare spending in the U.S. over time.
Claim: President Obama has been openly and aggressively defying immigration law.
Fact: President Obama has presided over a large immigration enforcement apparatus that is on track to deport its 2 millionth person in the next few months – something that took President George W. Bush a full 8 years to accomplish. With the notable exception of deferring deportation for some childhood arrivals and some recent reorganization of enforcement priorities, President Obama has been a noted enforcer of immigration laws.
In conclusion, the memo that Senator Sessions’ staff emailed around had many charts showing how the Great Recession affected Americans. Those charts are as accurate as they are scary but there is no connection between them and immigration, nor is there any indication that immigrants are the cause of our economic problems.