Tag: immigration reform

Senate Moving Forward with Immigration Reform Bill

Yesterday, senators voted to proceed with debating the immigration reform bill on the floor of the Senate. The Gang of Eight’s bill was amended numerous times in the Judiciary Committee but now it will face input and criticism from the rest of the Senate. There are four big areas of the legislation to watch for amendments and criticisms:

Welfare

Numerous amendments will be introduced to further block non-citizen access to the welfare state. Cato colleagues and I have done a lot of work on this issue, including a forthcoming policy analysis, that has provided some of the intellectual ammunition demonstrating the viability of building a wall around the welfare state while increasing lawful immigration.

Border Security

Senators like John Cornyn (R-TX) are deeply worried that the current bill does not provide enough border security. The current bill adds billions of dollars to an enforcement system that has grown along with the rest of the government over the last few decades. The best way to limit unlawful immigration is to increase legal immigration opportunities, such as temporary guest worker visas and other broader measures. Senator Cornyn’s border security amendment will be crucial for the bill’s political success but will not much affect the policy outcome of the legislation—except to make it more expensive.

E-Verify

With scandals about government invasions of privacy, one would think a national electronic employment eligibility system like E-Verify would raise opposition.  Designed to weed unlawful immigrants out of the work force, the system is fraught with problems and raises numerous privacy concerns that my colleague Jim Harper has explored here.  Given how internal enforcement has almost zero deterrent effect on unlawful immigration, it’s a mystery why so many so-called limited government conservatives support it in the first place.

Legal Immigration 

The guest worker provisions of the bill are too regulated, too restricted, and too limited for workers of every skill category.  Applied retroactively, the proposed guest worker visa system would not be big enough to channel most unlawful workers who came in previous years into the legal market.  Regardless, the immigration reform bill is a step in the right direction for guest workers—albeit a small one.

There are other important policy and political issues going forward, from controversy over the net fiscal cost of immigration reform to the tremendous economic benefits of increasing the number of productive people, but these are the big ones to follow for libertarians and fellow travelers.

Heritage Immigration Study and Government Spending

Conservative and libertarian scholars are clashing over the findings and political implications of the new Heritage Foundation immigration study. The study spans 92 pages and is jam-packed full of statistics and detailed calculations.

I’ll leave the immigration policy to my colleagues who are experts in that area. To me, the study provides a very useful exploration into how massive the American welfare state has become. Here are some highlights:

  • “There are over 80 of these [means-tested] programs which, at a cost of nearly $900 billion per year, provide cash, food, housing, medical, and other services to roughly 100 million low-income Americans.”
  • “The governmental system is highly redistributive … For example, in 2010, in the whole U.S. population, households with college-educated heads, on average, received $24,839 in government benefits while paying $54,089 in taxes … [and] households headed by persons without a high school degree, on average, received $46,582 in government benefits while paying only $11,469 in taxes.”
  • “Few lawmakers really understand the current size of government and the scope of redistribution. The fact that the average household gets $31,600 in government benefits each year is a shock.”

Total federal, state, and local government spending in 2010 was $5.4 trillion, or $44,932 per U.S. household. The figure of $31,600 in “benefits” is total spending less spending on public goods, interest, and government pensions.

A useful feature of the Heritage study is a breakdown of the $5.4 trillion in spending into six categories constructed by the authors. “Direct benefits” includes mainly Social Security and Medicare. “Pure public goods” includes programs such as defense and scientific research. “Population-based services” includes programs aimed at whole communities, such as police and highways. (Some of these also seem to be public goods). “Means-tested benefits” includes programs such as food stamps. Education includes both K-12 and college subsidies. “Interest and pensions” is the current costs of past spending, which includes servicing the debt and paying for government pensions. The chart shows spending in 2010.  

This spending breakdown is useful for thinking about the proper size of government. From a libertarian standpoint, governments ought to be spending only on public goods and population-based services, as a first cut. That would be $1.94 trillion, or just 36 percent of the current total of $5.4 trillion. As a percent of GDP in 2010, that would be spending of 14 percent, rather than current spending of 38 percent.

But some of the population-based services mentioned by the authors could be privatized, and spending on some of the public goods could be cut. So a good libertarian target might be less than 36 percent of current spending, or less than 14 percent of GDP.

The Heritage study is sparking a debate about what type of immigration reform the nation should have. But hopefully, it will also spur more discussion about the massive size of the American welfare state. Immigration is partly, or mainly, such a contentious issue because we have such a huge welfare state.

The study includes projections about how many trillions of dollars of government benefits will flow to immigrants and their children in the decades ahead. But conservatives and libertarians agree that we ought to cut trillions of dollars in benefits to immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.

So is there some common ground here? Can we work toward an immigration reform that cuts government dependency in general and downsizes the welfare state?

The Path to National Identification

In my 2008 paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” I wrote about where “internal enforcement” of immigration law leads: “to a national, cradle-to-grave, biometric tracking system.” More recently, I wrote “Internal Enforcement, E-Verify, and the Road to a National ID” in the Cato Journal. The “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal includes a large step on that path to national identification.

National ID provisions in the 2007 immigration bill were arguably its downfall. Scrapping the national ID provisions in the current bill would improve it, allowing our country to adopt more sensible immigration policies without suffering a costly attack on American citizens’ liberties.

Title III of the “Gang of Eight” bill is entitled “Interior Enforcement.” It begins by reiterating the current prohibition on hiring unauthorized aliens. (What seems to many a natural duty of employers was an invention that dates back only as far as 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Prior to that time, employers were free to hire workers based on the skills and willingness they presented, and not their documents. But since that time, Congress has treated the nation’s employers as deputy immigration agents.)

The bill details the circumstances under which employers may be both civilly and criminally liable under the law and provides for a “good faith defense” and “good faith compliance” that employers may hope to use as shelter. The bill restates (with modifications) the existing requirements for checking workers’ papers, saying that employers must “attest, under penalty of perjury” that they have “verified the identity and employment authorization status” of the people they employ, using prescribed documents or combination of documents. Cards that meet the requirements of the REAL ID Act are specifically cited as proof of identity and authorization to work.

In addition, the bill would create a new “identity authentication mechanism,” requiring employers to use that as well. It would take one of two forms. One is a “photo tool” that enables employers to match photos on covered identity documents to photos “maintained by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services database.” If the photo tool is not available, employers must use a system the bill would instruct the Department of Homeland Security develop. The system would “provide a means of identity authentication in a manner that provides a high level of certainty as to the identity of such individual, using immigration and identifying information that may include review of identity documents or background screening verification techniques using publicly available information.”

The bill next turns to expanding the E-Verify system, requiring its use by various employers on various schedules. The federal government and federal contractors would have to use E-Verify as required already or within 90 days. A year after the DHS publishes implementing regulations, the Secretary of Homeland Security could require anyone touching “critical infrastructure” (defined here) to use E-Verify. She could require immigration law violators to use E-Verify anytime she likes.

Immigration: Government Can Only Regulate Legal Markets

Details about the Boston bombers are surfacing by the minute, but many opponents of immigration reform are already using it as an excuse to oppose reform. There is no reason to assume that continuing the status quo immigration policy will prevent future terrorist attacks.

Legalizing the peaceful and otherwise law-abiding unauthorized immigrants here will allow law enforcement to focus on legitimate national security and crime threats. It is more costly for the government to weed out criminals and national security threats when there is such a large and relatively peaceful unauthorized immigrant population. Shrinking the size of that immigrant black market quickly and cheaply through responsible legalization, and allowing more immigration of workers in the future, will channel scarce government resources toward legitimate security and criminal screenings and away from enforcing economic protectionism. Every minute that a government official currently spends raiding workplaces and checking whether immigrants will affect the wages of technology workers or Washington lawyers is a waste.

Removing peaceful people from the immigration black market and channeling future immigrants into a legal system—after security, criminal, and health checks—is likely to increase safety, not diminish it. The number of permitted immigrants should be determined based on the demands of the market, not the whims of politcs. The government should shed its economic protectionist role in immigration enforcement and instead devote its resources to weeding out the terrorist and criminal needles in an otherwise peaceful and productive haystack.

Heritage Immigration Study Fatally Flawed

There are indications that The Heritage Foundation may soon release an updated version of its 2007 report, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” by Robert Rector. That 2007 report’s flawed methodology produced a grossly exaggerated cost to federal taxpayers of legalizing unauthorized immigrants while undercounting or discounting their positive tax and economic contributions – greatly affecting the 2007 immigration reform debate.

Before releasing its updated report, I urge the Heritage Foundation to avoid the same serious errors that so undermined Mr. Rector’s 2007 study. Here is a list of some of its major errors:

  1. Count individuals, not households.[1]  Heritage counts household use of government benefits, not individual immigrant use. Many unauthorized immigrants are married to U.S. citizens and have U.S. citizen children who live in the same households. Counting the fiscal costs of those native-born U.S. citizens massively overstates the fiscal costs of immigration. 
  2. Employ dynamic scoring rather than static scoring. [2] Heritage’s report relies on static scoring rather than dynamic scoring, making the same mistake in evaluating the impact of increased immigration on welfare costs that the Joint Committee on Taxation makes when scoring the impact of tax cuts. Instead, Heritage should use dynamic scoring techniques to evaluate the fiscal effects of immigration reform. For example, Heritage should assume that wages and gross domestic product are altered considerably because of immigration policy reforms. In contrast to that economic reality, immigrant wages, gross domestic product, and government welfare programs are unrealistically static in Mr. Rector’s study. His study largely ignores the wage increases experienced by immigrants and their descendants over the course of their working lives, how those wages would alter after legalization, and the huge gains in education amongst the second and third generation of Hispanics.[3] Heritage is devoted to dynamic scoring in other policy areas – it should be so devoted to it here too.[4]
  3. Factor in known indirect fiscal effects.[5]  The consensus among economists is that the economic gains from immigration vastly outweigh the costs.[6] In 2007, Mr. Rector incorrectly noted that, “there is little evidence to suggest that low-skill immigrants increase the incomes of non-immigrants.” Immigrants boost the supply and demand sides of the American economy, increasing productivity through labor and capital market complementarities with a net positive impact on American wages.[7] Heritage should adjust its estimates to take account of the positive spill-overs of low-skilled immigration.
  4. Assume that wages for legalized immigrants would increase – dramatically.[8]  Heritage did not assume large wage gains for unauthorized immigrants after legalization.  In the wake of the 1986 Reagan amnesty, wages for legalized immigrants increased – sometimes by as much as 15 percent – because legal workers are more productive and can command higher wages than illegal workers.  Heritage should adopt similar wage increases to estimate the economic effects of immigration reform if it were to happen today.[9] 
  5. Assume realistic levels of welfare use.[10]  Vast numbers of immigrants will return to their home countries before collecting entitlements,[11] the “chilling effect” whereby immigrants are afraid of using welfare reduces their usage of it, and immigrants use less welfare across the board.[12]  100 native-born adults eligible for Medicaid will cost the taxpayers about $98,000 a year.  A comparable number of poor non-citizen immigrants cost approximately $57,000 a year – a 42 percent lower bill than for natives.  For children, citizens cost $67,000 and non-citizens cost $22,700 a year – a whopping 66 percent lower cost.  Heritage should adjust its estimates of future immigrant welfare use downward. [13] 
  6. Use latest legislation as benchmark.[14]  The current immigration plan, if rumors are to be believed, would stretch a path to citizenship out for 13 years.[15]  Most welfare benefits will be inaccessible until then, so Heritage’s report must take that timeline into account.
  7. Remittances do not decrease long term consumption.[16]  Remittances sent home by immigrants will eventually return to the U.S. economy in the form of increased exports or capital account surpluses.  Heritage should recognize this aspect of economic reality rather than assuming remittances are merely a short-term economic cost.  
  8. Factor in immigration enforcement costs.[17]  Heritage did not compare costs of legalization and guest workers to the costs of the policy status quo or increases in enforcement.  The government spends nearly $18,000 per illegal immigrant apprehension while the economic distortions caused by forcing millions of consumers, renters, and workers out of the U.S. would adversely affect income and profitability.[18]
  9. Use transparent methodology.[19]  Heritage’s methodology should replicate that of the National Research Council’s authoritative and highly praised – even by immigration restrictionists – study entitled The New Americans.[20]  That study is the benchmark against which all efforts at generational fiscal accounting – including Heritage’s 2007 report – are measured.  If Heritage deviates from their methods, it should explain its methodology in a clear and accessible way that states why they altered practice.[21]
  10. Don’t count citizen spouses.[22]  Heritage counted U.S.-born spouses of unauthorized immigrants as fiscal costs.  Counting the net immigrant fiscal impact means counting immigrants and perhaps their children at most,[23] not native-born spouses who would be on the entitlement roles regardless of whether they married an immigrant or a native-born American.
  11. Suggest changes to the welfare state.  Heritage has elsewhere called low-skill migrant workers “a net positive and a leading cause of economic growth”[24] and accurately reported that “[t]he consensus of the vast majority of economists is that the broad economic gains from openness to trade and immigration far outweigh the isolated cases of economic loss.”[25]  Instead of arguing against low-skill immigration, Mr. Rector should instead suggest reforms that would, in the words of Cato’s late Chairman Bill Niskanen, “build a wall around the welfare state, not around the country.”[26]

It is imperative that the economic costs and benefits of increased immigration be studied using proper methods and the most recent data.  A previous report by the Heritage Foundation in 2006 entitled, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” by Tim Kane and Kirk Johnson roundly rejected the negative economic assessments of Mr. Rector’s 2007 study.[27]  Not only does Mr. Rector not speak for the broad conservative movement; it appears that economists who have worked for the Heritage Foundation also disagree with Mr. Rector’s conclusions. 

For decades, the Heritage Foundation has been an influential intellectual force in conservative circles.  Its economic analyses have been predicated on consideration of the dynamic effects of policy changes as opposed to static effects.  Unfortunately, Mr. Rector’s past work has not been consistent in this regard, employing the same static scoring conservatives have traditionally distrusted in other policy areas. 

Many conservatives rely on the Heritage Foundation for accurate research about immigration’s impact on the economy.  Before releasing another study assessing the net fiscal impacts of immigration reform, Heritage should correct the errors outlined above to guarantee the most accurate information on this important topic is available.

Migration Opportunities for Lower-Skilled Workers

Today President Obama is meeting with immigration reform activists, labor unions, and business leaders to discuss immigration reform. The House Judiciary Committee is also having a hearing about opportunities for legal immigration and enforcement of existing laws. Opening the House hearing, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said that any immigration reform “must prevent unauthorized immigration into the future.”

So far President Obama and the Senate blueprint for immigration reform have either not mentioned lower-skilled workers outside of agriculture and dairy or propose increasing the rules and regulations that currently make American guest worker visas unworkable. The 2007 immigration reform effort was stopped cold in the Senate when its guest worker provision was gutted because of union pressure—with help from then senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and then senator Jim DeMint (R-SC).

Unions and immigration restrictionists came together in 2007 to stop reform. If they cannot stop it again, they can certainly eviscerate much of the long term gains of a freer international labor market.

In a video released today, I discuss how immigration reform could severely reduce immigration problems going forward, including unauthorized immigration.  My three points in the video are:

  1. Increasing lawful migration opportunities for lower-skilled workers will funnel potential unauthorized immigrants into the legal market.
  2. Welcoming highly-skilled immigrants regardless of where they were educated jumpstarts innovation, entrepreneurship, and allows for firms to expand production in the United States while also increasing employment opportunities for native-born Americans.
  3. Pursuing border and immigration enforcement without a lower-skilled guest worker visa program is a waste of resources. The economic allure to immigrants of coming here is so great that many of them will knowingly and intentionally defy America’s international labor market regulations immigration laws if they are too restrictive. A legal avenue for lower-skilled workers to come to the United States in sufficient numbers to satisfy economic demand and eliminate the supply of unauthorized immigrants is essential.

Legalizing unauthorized immigration will be good for the United States and good for legalized workers. However, without a guest worker visa program going forward this reform will just be an improvement on President Reagan’s 1986 law, but with highly-skilled worker visas.

One Cheer for Obama’s New Immigration Policy

The new legalization non-deportation policy President Obama announced on Friday, which I’ll call “Executive DREAM,” is really interesting.  A half-measure not worthy of unadorned praise or condemnation, Executive DREAM creates mixed feelings in those of us who want liberalized immigration laws – because immigrants are generally a good thing for a country – but want to see actual, you know, law-making get us there.  Not executive initiatives, not prosecutorial discretion, not administrative-agency diktats, but honest-to-goodness passed-by-Congress-and-signed-by-the-President laws.

I thus join my colleague Alex Nowrasteh in calling this a ”temporary, tepid” immigration fix.   Alex notes that Executive DREAM, if its operation turns out to be similar to the proposed DREAM Act, “will shrink the informal economy, increase economic efficiency, and remove the fear and uncertainty of deportation from potentially millions of otherwise law-abiding people.  It would be a good first step toward reforming immigration and a glimpse at what the Dream Act would do.”

Now, while the result of this little Executive DREAM is good, the manner in which it was promulgated ensures that it will be a short-lived stopgap that prevents real reform and undermines the rule of law.  There’s no reason not to normalize the status of those who would have been eligible for legalization under the DREAM Act, but doing it by executive discretion after Congress had rejected the equivalent legislation shows contempt for a co-equal branch of government.  That President Obama announced it in the midst of an election campaign, after not having spent any political capital on immigration during the first three-and-a-half years of his term, only adds to the corrosive cynicism surrounding the issue.

Our immigration system needs comprehensive reform that will only be achieved with buy-in from both parties.  Executive DREAM feels good and is the least we can do for over a million law-abiding, productive young people, but makes the long-term goal that much harder to achieve.  Indeed, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has already indicated that the president’s actions have essentially sucked the oxygen from his nascent attempts at reform.

Doug Mataconis has a similar take.  He concludes that “this action was made somewhat inevitable by Congress’s failure to act on immigration reform for at least the past six years. When there’s a power vacuum, someone will move in to occupy that space. Unfortunately, that’s what the President has done and, in the process, he’s done real damage to the Separation Of Powers.”