illegals

More Visas Reduce Illegal Immigration

In the latest edition of the Cato Journal, economist Bryan Roberts argues that immigration enforcement has significantly diminished the flow of illegal immigrants across the Southwest border. Contra Roberts, sociologist Doug Massey argues that border enforcement had virtually no impact on the flow of unlawful immigrants prior to 2010. This post takes a slightly different approach and uses additional sources of data to look at the causes behind the decline of illegal immigration in the aftermath of the Great Recession. This is especially relevant as the House Judiciary Committee is marking up the Agricultural Guest Worker Act (Ag Act) that would increase the flow of temporary visas for workers in farming and related sectors. An increase in visas like those supplied by the Ag Act will likely further diminish unauthorized border crossings. 

Model and Data

This blog is intended to reveal whether the quantity of Mexican legal immigrants (green cards issued overseas and temporary migrants) or border security is responsible for the decline of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Our dependent variable is the estimated gross annual flow of Mexican illegal immigrants. The American unemployment rate, the difference between Mexican and American GDP per capita (PPP), line-watch hours at the Southwest border, and legal Mexican immigration are our independent variables.

We chose a log-linear OLS model to compensate for non-linearity. OLS is a type of regression that helps identify the relationship between independent variables that we anticipate will explain how dependent variables behave. We then ran an autoregressive model (AR (1)) that will help us account for a particular empirical anomaly, the serial dependence between current and immediate past variables that could affect an OLS regression. We then ran a series of regressions with the yearly aggregates beginning in 1960 and ending in 2009. Data limitations prevented us from going beyond 2009 and prior to 1960.

Trump’s Real Immigration Policy

All of my political predictions about Donald Trump were wrong.  I predicted that he wouldn’t get the Republican Party nomination despite all of the polls to the contrary.  I followed the polls closely during the election and thought Trump would lose.  I was wrong again.  While certainly no mandate, Trump won the election.  Now the policies his administration will implement and push for are what matters.  We have very little to go on when it comes to predicting his actions.  Trump has no voting record on this and other issues.  His statements, actions, a policy paper, and his staff picks are the best indicators of this actions.

My prediction is that Trump will increase the scale and scope of immigration enforcement, rescind President Obama’s executive actions or at a minimum not allow Dreamers renew their status, massively curtail or end the refugee program, and try to convince Congress to cut legal immigration.  I’ve been wrong about Trump in the past and I hope I’m wrong here too.  Let me lay out evidence that I think supports my pessimism and evidence that supports a more optimistic interpretation.

Optimistic Take: Why Trump Could Not be THAT Bad

Trump is not ideologically grounded except that he is a nationalist and a populist.  Those political instincts usually manifest an anti-foreign bias in trade and immigration but they don’t have to.  Trump has portrayed himself as a deal maker so it’s possible he’s staked out a harsh immigration position as a bargaining tactic to get concessions elsewhere.

Donald Trump on Immigration: Same Anti-Immigration Ideas, New Salesman

Donald Trump’s newly released position paper on immigration is the precise mix of fantasy and ignorance that one has come to expect from the recently self-described Republican.  Specifically, his position paper reads like an outline of this April op-ed by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL).  Trump is still a candidate in the GOP primary supported mainly by older white men who are not particularly conservative.  Although the electorate has never been more supportive of expanding legal immigration, Trump has never been more opposed.

Trump’s position paper attempts to lay the foundation for his immigration policy as president. Below, I review how his ideas measure up. Quotes from his paper are in quotes, my responses follow.

Here are the three core principles of real immigration reform:

  1. A nation without borders is not a nation. There must be a wall across the southern border.
  2. A nation without laws is not a nation. Laws passed in accordance with our Constitutional system of government must be enforced.
  3. A nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation. Any immigration plan must improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans.

The first sentence is true by definition, but assumes that for a border to be real, it must have a wall around it. Whether a wall is warranted should depend on the circumstances at the border, which are vastly more safe than Trump claims. 

The last two principles are vague enough that they could support any immigration policy from a total ban on immigration to open borders. The rest of his position paper narrows their focus.

U.S. taxpayers have been asked to pick up hundreds of billions in healthcare costs, housing costs, education costs, welfare costs, etc. Indeed, the annual cost of free tax credits alone paid to illegal immigrants quadrupled to $4.2 billion in 2011.

This analysis factors in only fiscal costs, which will always lead to negative fiscal outcomes. It ignores the fiscal benefits that come from a larger economy.  The fact remains that poor immigrants use less welfare than poor Americans.  They contribute mightily to Social Security, Medicare, and other portions of the U.S budget.  Over time, immigration’s impact on the U.S. taxpayer is about a net-zero.  In other words, immigrants and their descendants pay for themselves. 

Immigration can turn fiscally positive by further restricting welfare access.  Right now illegal immigrants do not have access to means tested welfare programs, but their American born children do.  However, their benefit levels are adjusted downwards to account for the non-eligible members of their households.  Short of lowering welfare benefit levels for everybody, which would be a positive move, the government cannot deny citizens access based on who their parents are.  However, Congress can deny all non-citizens access to welfare.  Cato has published the only guide of how to do that. Removing the Earned Income Tax Credit for unauthorized or other categories of non-citizens would also be easy.

The position paper doesn’t factor in the estimated $400 to $600 billion government cost of removing all unauthorized immigrants as well as the lost tax revenue from the subsequently smaller economy.  Doing so reveals how fiscally damaging this immigration plan would be if it ever became law. 

The effects on jobseekers have also been disastrous …

The influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans – including immigrants themselves and their children – to earn a middle class wage.

There is a lot of research on whether immigrants displace Americans in the job market – and the general finding is that immigrants displace very few American workers. 

What Explains the Flow of Unlawful Immigration?

The flow of unauthorized immigrants to the United States has collapsed.  The apprehension of illegal immigrants by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the best proxy measurement of the flow of such people, along the Southwest Border is way down (see below). 

All Apprehensions on Southwest Border

                       

Source: Customs and Border Protection.

What explains this?  A number of factors are at play.  Economic conditions in the United States, economic or other conditions in other countries, and immigration enforcement all explain part of the decrease in unauthorized immigration over the years.    

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) gives most of the credit to beefed up immigration enforcement along the border.  Krikorian seconds a quote by Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute, who says:

Every month or quarter that the economy continues to improve and unauthorized immigration doesn’t pick up supports the theory that border security is a bigger factor, and it’s less about the economy and we have moved into a new era.

But if immigration enforcement is the main reason why unauthorized immigration collapsed, why are the numbers of unlawful immigrants from countries Other than Mexico (OTMs) increasing?  CBP apprehensions don’t discriminate based on country of origin because they can’t tell where the immigrants are from until they’re apprehended.

Response to Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan of George Mason University posted some comments I sent him along with some questions about a recent blog post of his.  His questions are in quotes, my responses follow.  First, some background.

It’s important to separate immigration (permanent) from migration (temporary).  Much of what we think of as “immigration” is actually migration as many of them return home.  Dudley Baines (page 35) summarizes some estimates of return migration from America’s past.

Country/Region of Origin            Return Rates

Nordics                                     20%

English & Welsh                         40%

Portuguese                                30-40%

Austro-Hungarians & Poles          30-40%

Italians                                      40-50%           

 

Gould estimates a 60 percent return rate for Italians – similar to Mexican unauthorized immigrants from 1965-1985. 

There were three parts to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that all affected both immigration and migration.  The first part was the amnesty.  The second was employer sanctions through the I-9 form that was supposed to turn off the jobs magnet.  The third was increased border security to keep them out.  For the first two questions, I assume the rest of IRCA was passed.

Interpreting the New Deportation Statistics

Shortly before Christmas the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a report detailing deportations (henceforth “removals”) conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during fiscal year 2014.  Below I present the data on removals in historical context – combined with information from the

Do Amnesties Increase Unlawful Immigration?

One popular argument against a legalization, or amnesty, of unlawful immigrants is that it will merely incentivize future unlawful immigration.  Unlawful immigrants will be more likely to break immigration laws because they will eventually be legalized anyway, so why bother to attempt to enter legally (ignoring the fact that almost none of them could have entered legally)?  This claim is taken at face value because the stock of unlawful immigration eventually increased in the decades after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that amnestied roughly 2.7 million.

However, that doesn’t prove that IRCA was responsible for the increase in the stock of unlawful immigrants.  The stock of unlawful immigrants may have been increasing at a steady rate prior to the amnesty and that rate may have just continued after the amnesty.  Measuring the flows of unlawful immigrants is the best way to gauge whether the 1986 Reagan amnesty incentivized further unlawful immigration.  If the flows increased after IRCA, then the amnesty likely incentivized more unlawful immigration.  The number of annual apprehensions of unlawful immigrants on the Southwest border is a good way to approximate for these cross-border flows.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think that an amnesty of unlawful immigrants could increase their numbers in the future.  There are at least two ways this could occur.  The first is through knowledge of an imminent amnesty.  If foreigners thought Congress was about to grant legal status to large numbers of unlawful immigrants, then some of those foreigners may rush the border on the chance that they would be included.  Legislators were aware of this problem, which was why IRCA did not apply to unlawful immigrants who entered on January 1st 1982 or after.  IRCA had been debated for years before passage and Congress did not want to grant amnesty to unlawful immigrants who entered merely because they heard of the amnesty.  To prevent such a rush, subsequent immigration reform bills have all had a cutoff date for legalization prior to Congressional debate on the matter. 

Even with the cutoff date, some recent unlawful immigrants would still be able to legalize due to fraud or administrative oversights.  An unlawful immigrant who rushes the border to take advantage of an imminent amnesty still has a greater chance of being legalized than he did before, so legalization might be the marginal benefit that convinces him to try.  This theory of a rush of unlawful immigrants prior to an imminent amnesty is not controversial.

Immigration Does Not Decrease Economic Freedom

A common criticism of immigration reform (here, here, and here) is that it will decrease economic freedom in the United States, by increasing the voting pool for the Democratic Party.  Leaving aside the issue of which party supports economic liberty, if any, it’s important to see what the actual impacts of immigration are on economic freedom in the United States and the world.  The political effects of immigrants after they arrive are less certain than the economic benefits.  Do immigrants decrease economic freedom in their new countries?  The bottom line: fears of immigrants decreasing economic freedom seem unfounded.

Since 1980, wealthy countries have seen rises in immigrant populations.  Immigrants are drawn to economic prosperity, higher wages, and better standards of living so it’s not surprising that wealthier countries have higher percentages of immigrants.  I excluded numerous small countries and petro-states like the UAE and Kuwait from the analysis.

I looked at the 25 wealthiest nations in the world in 1980 (by per capita GDP PPP) and considered their economic freedom rating and the percent foreign born.  I then tracked those same countries every 5 years until 2010.  Here are the averages for all 25 nations:

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