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Toward a Real Immigration Debate

On the right, the immigration debate is between fat-cat corporatists and slack-jawed nativists. Progressives can do better.
 
 
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Our current immigration debate is wrought with emotion and waged on grossly simplistic terms. It's a national argument loaded with bad faith, marked by a surplus of name calling and often based on terrible data.

The key to getting to the bottom of the immigration question is to embrace the complexity of the issue. If we take a broad look at the facts -- with all their nuance -- perhaps a common-sense solution will emerge.

A real issue

A few weeks ago Robert Scheer argued, "There is no immigration crisis -- other than the one created by a small but vocal stripe of opportunist politicians, media demagogues and freelance xenophobes."

I'll explain why he's partially right. Yet at the same time, to deny that immigration is a real issue is not only politically tone-deaf, it misses the point entirely.

The present state of our immigration system is horrible from a pro- as well as an anti-immigration point of view. Recall that on Sept. 10, 2001, when Guantanamo Bay was still just an odd relic of the Cold War, the United States was already holding over 3,000 people indefinitely in its immigration system, "pending deportation" to countries that didn't want them, without charge or access to attorneys.

It's an issue because we have more undocumented immigrants in this country than ever, and recent polls show that three out of four Americans consider immigration "a very big or moderately big problem." Many see unchecked immigration as the root cause of American workers' deteriorating economic health.

With virtually no mainstream debate about how so-called "free-trade" affects working people, how easy it is to break unions or how debased corporate America's ethical culture has become, it's not surprising that immigration is such a hot-button topic. Working people have seen their real wages and benefits falling, and although that decline doesn't match up chronologically with the influx of immigrant labor over the past 10 years, it's understandable that people believe immigration plays a much greater role than it actually does. Immigrants are visible in a way those other factors are not.

But while the high number of immigrants in the United States is an issue, it's not a crisis, and it is certainly not an invasion. What we've seen is a large but finite surge in immigration, mostly from Mexico and largely in response to the effects of trade deals Mexico signed in the 1990s. According to a study by the Pew organization, Mexican immigration "grew very rapidly starting in the mid-1990s, hit a peak at the end of the decade, and then declined substantially after 2001. By 2004, the annual inflow of foreign-born persons was down 24 percent from its all-time high in 2000."

That timeline corresponds perfectly with the damage wrought in Mexico by NAFTA. According to one of the better analyses of that deal's impact ( PDF), between NAFTA's passage in 1995 and 2002, Mexico saw "a decline in domestic manufacturing employment" and "Mexican agriculture has been a net loser … [E]mployment in the sector has declined sharply." Real wages for most Mexicans today are lower than when NAFTA took effect.

According to a Pew analysis of census data, there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, up from around five million in the mid-1990s. As a percentage of the population, there are fewer foreign-born in America today than there were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At less than five percent, immigrants are a much lower percentage of the civilian work force than we've had in past eras.

We need a clearer understanding of who immigrants are and what they do. According to the Census Bureau ( PDF), less than half of all immigrants come from Central and South America. The same percentage of the foreign-born population has college degrees as Americans (although fewer have high school degrees).

The common notion that there are "good" immigrants who enter the United States legally, pay their taxes and work hard to raise their families, and "bad," shiftless immigrants who enter illegally, take services and give nothing in return while depressing native wages is at best overly simplistic. Up to 40 percent of the illegal population entered the country legally and overstayed their visas. Illegals pay payroll, sales and property taxes (mostly passed through rental property owners), which are the three taxes that take the biggest bite from all working-class families. According to a Pew study, a quarter of all immigrants live in "mixed" households where some members are U.S. citizens, some are legal residents and some are undocumented.

Today's "bad" immigrant, if given the chance, becomes tomorrow's "good" one. Currently, the two are likely to be cousins.

The economy

"They took our jobs!" is neither accurate nor a cogent analysis of the impact immigration has on the economy.

The short version goes like this: We absolutely need a large supply of immigrant labor for our overall, long-term economic health. Immigrants have a negative short-term impact on local governments' fiscal situation, but over the long haul, immigrants pay more in taxes than they take in services. Immigrant labor has a negative effect on wages for a small group of Americans, and the positive contributions -- including their positive contributions to workers' wages -- are enjoyed by a much, much larger group of natives. All of these factors are very small in relation to the economy as a whole, and almost none of the rhetoric about how immigration hurts working people is justified by the data.

The myth is that there is one American "labor market" which adheres strictly to the laws of supply and demand. As Thom Hartmann recently put it, "Working Americans have always known this simple equation: More workers, lower wages. Fewer workers, higher wages."

That kind of simplistic view is dangerously inaccurate. It suggests that working people are perfectly mobile, both geographically and socioeconomically. To understand the real picture, you've got to disaggregate. There is no "American" labor market -- that's a simplification. There are dozens of labor markets divided by education and skills levels, as well as by region. Thom Hartmann writes: "Do a little math … there are between eight and 20 million un- and underemployed Americans," and concludes that natives could fill all the jobs taken by immigrants. But an unemployed Pennsylvania steel worker doesn't do anything for a California farmer's labor needs.

That immobility is what those who argue that there are no jobs that can't be filled by Americans are missing.

The bottom line in terms of the economic impact is that study after credible study shows that the influx of immigrant labor has almost no effect on employment or wages for natives overall. The classic is Berkeley economist David Card's study of the Miami labor market after the Mariel boatlift dumped 125,000 new arrivals into it, increasing the local work force overnight by almost ten percent. He found that it had "virtually no effect" on either wages or employment opportunities. That work was confirmed by Harvard's George Borjas (who favors more restrictions on immigrants) in his 1994 study.

Reviewing a number of studies for the Journal of Economic Perspectives , economists Jennifer Hunt of Yale and Brown's Rachel Friedberg concluded ( PDF):

Despite the popular belief that immigrants have a large adverse impact on wages and employment opportunities of the native-born population … empirical estimates in a variety of settings and using a variety of approaches have shown that the effect of immigration on … natives is small. There is no evidence of economically significant reductions in native employment. … Even those natives who should be the closest substitutes with immigrant labor have not been found to suffer significantly as a result of increased immigration.

Howard Chang, an expert in immigration at the University of Pennsylvania, explains why the supply-and-demand argument is wrong: "...the demand for labor does not remain fixed when immigrants enter the economy," he argues. "Immigrant workers not only supply labor ... they also demand goods and services, and this demand will translate into greater demand for locally supplied labor."

The United States Commission on Immigration Reform (CIR) conducted the most comprehensive and sophisticated study of the economic impact of immigration during the last great immigration scare in the mid-1990s, when Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, launched a crusade against the foreign invasion of the day. The Commission suggested severe restrictions on immigration, but they were killed because their own data didn't back them up.

The CIR found that competition with immigrant labor mostly hurts earlier immigrants. "The data suggest that the jobs of immigrant and native workers are different," they concluded. The CIR also noted that immigrants contribute as much as $10 billion dollars to the American economy, adding "not many changes in policies would produce benefits as large as" liberalizing immigration.

Penn State's Howard Chang, reviewing a wide range of economic studies, added that the "evidence indicates a weak relationship between native wages and immigration across all types of native workers, white or black, skilled or unskilled, male or female."

Most of these studies looked at legal as well as illegal immigration but, economically, the only difference is that there are about twice as many legal immigrants as illegal -- undocumented immigrants' impact is the same but far smaller.

The other economic argument is about public services and taxes. The conventional wisdom -- that immigrants suck up more in services than they pay in taxes -- is also not supported by the data.

To understand why, you have to look at the entirety of what immigrants pay into the system and what they take out of the system, and you have to distinguish between the short- and the long-term.

The kernel of truth to the anti-immigrant claims is that recently arrived illegal immigrants do take more in public services than they pay in taxes. But looking ahead to the next generation this deficit reverses quite dramatically.

There are a number of studies biased towards finding higher costs by including the cost of educating immigrant children without considering the taxes those children will pay when they reach maturity. Authors of the CIR study commissioned by Congress noted that only by looking at the big picture -- including the returns on the investment of education -- can the full fiscal effect of immigration be considered.

The CIR found that when you look at that picture, the average immigrant and his or her offspring will contribute $80,000 more in taxes than they take in services. The economists found that even those immigrants with less than a high school education contributed positively to the budget when the second generation is included.

Demographics are another issue we have to consider. We hear a lot about the pending Social Security crisis and the graying of the population. We need immigrants because native-born fertility rates are just at the replacement level. It's a law of economics that growth equals population growth plus productivity growth. The only way the pie gets bigger is through more workers and/or more productive workers. Most of our population growth comes from immigration.

According to the Census Bureau ( PDF), "Compared to the native-born, a significantly higher percentage of immigrants are of working age (between 28 and 54 years of age)." The Social Security Administration estimates that three out of four illegal immigrants pay payroll taxes, but can't claim the benefits, amounting to an "illegal surplus" of between $6 billion and $7 billion per year. According to the CIR study, "[D]ue to contributions by immigrants, the total net benefit to the Social Security System will be nearly $500 billion."

When you look at the totality of the data, it's hard to escape the conclusion that immigrants are a vital part of our economic mix. As Penn State's Howard Chang notes, "A fair reading of the economic literature on immigration presents little justification for more restrictive immigration laws. Contrary to popular belief, economic considerations point toward liberaliz[ation]"

But while the economic benefits of immigration are widespread, the costs are fairly concentrated. Two-thirds of all immigrants settle in just six states (California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois), and their numbers can strain state and local budgets, especially education and emergency medicine budgets.

Similarly, the benefits of immigration (again, slight over the short run and significant over the long haul) are widely distributed to native workers as well as corporate shareholders, but a small number of Americans bear almost all the pain of competing with foreign-born workers. Specifically, among decent-paying jobs, the influx of immigrant labor has hurt construction workers in about a dozen states and meat packers.

When the costs of a policy are borne by a few and the benefits accrue to the many, the answer -- in a perfect world -- is redistributive policies. That's easy with local budget deficits -- all of the immigration bills being considered in the Senate would send more federal funds to affected communities -- but trickier among individuals. You could, sensibly, raise taxes on those benefiting the most and give benefits -- unemployment payments, job training, whatever -- to those who get hurt. But, unfortunately that's not politically feasible in this day and age.

So what do you tell that small number of American workers who compete with immigrant labor to their detriment? There's no good answer, and proponents of immigrant rights have to face that honestly.

But it's important to understand where the blame for working people's powerlessness really lies. Neither meat packers nor construction workers would be facing their situation if not for a long-term corporate-funded crusade against America's labor movement.

The blame rests not with some family whose agricultural livelihood has been decimated by a flood of corn imports following NAFTA and is just trying to get by. The blame should fall squarely on an immoral corporate culture, on conservative lawmakers who fight against decent wages and the right to organize, on trade agreements that hurt overseas workers and push them to emigrate and, most importantly, on the decline of organized labor.

But we always hear how immigration hurts Americans

It's always easy to distort statistics, but there's no area of public policy with more junk research than immigration. There are any number of ways to bias a study, but with immigration studies, the most common is fairly simple: Count only one side of the ledger or look at a very narrow set of data. Count the costs in services, but not the taxes. Look at the workers displaced, but not those who gain from immigrant labor (for a good example, see Alejandro Ramos' take-down of the three influential but deeply flawed studies used to push California's punitive Prop. 187).

The most prolific manufacturer of anti-immigrant data is the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Billing itself as a "nonpartisan think tank" on immigration, CIS publishes dozens of reports about the "costs" of immigration.

CIS may be nonpartisan, but it's highly ideological. It's funded heavily by the Scaife and Olin foundations. CIS was spun off from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) after FAIR became associated with white supremacist views. Rightweb notes that FAIR's "policy rhetoric is often inflammatory, clearly anti-immigrant, and partisan." FAIR was started by John Tanton, a leader in the English First movement who fell from grace after a newspaper printed a memo he wrote questioning the "educability" of Latinos.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "the organized anti-immigration 'movement' is almost entirely the handiwork of one man, Michigan activist John. H. Tanton."

According to Rightweb:

As the founder and publisher of Social Contract Press, Tanton has published books that have helped shape a nationalist ideology focused on the threat of immigrants to the white English-speaking population. Social Contract books also stoke fears about immigrants taking over the United States, with research that highlights the rapid rise of Spanish-speaking residents and related socioeconomic problems, while ignoring research that points to the positive contributions of immigrants.

Getting the policy right

A progressive approach to immigration would punish employers, not workers, for breaking the law. Most analysts agree that focusing on border enforcement doesn't work. Keeping employers from hiring undocumented workers is the single best way to discourage future waves of immigration. It's not only more effective than creating a Maginot Line on our 1400-mile southern border, it's much cheaper, less hostile and has no environmental consequences.

Americans are divided on what to do with those already here. In a recent Pew Poll, 27 percent of respondents said illegal immigrants should be required to return home, 32 percent said they should be allowed to stay permanently and 32 percent said they should be granted temporary worker status.

Trying to send them all home is not really an option. It would only send the undocumented population deeper under cover, cost a fortune and hurt the economy. People that call for throwing undocumented immigrants out "by any means necessary" haven't given enough thought to the reality of that option. If the news began broadcasting images of poor working families being forcibly removed by armed federal agents -- with plenty of crying women and children -- all but the die-hard white supremacists would quickly lose their stomach for the policy. It'd be Elian Gonzalez repeated ten million times.

Guest-worker programs are outright immoral. They use the immigrant labor, take the immigrants' taxes (although some programs allow them a partial rebate) and give them nothing in return. The Bracero Program, which allowed employers to sponsor migrant workers though the mid-1960s, sounded good in theory, but it made workers extraordinarily vulnerable. When they tried to organize or protested poor working conditions (or, in some cases, refused their employers' sexual advances) they were fired and immediately deported. President Bush proposed a plan that would work similarly -- tying workers to one employer.

People tend to feel strongly about amnesty. But the reality is that "amnesty" is a scare word -- none of the bills being considered at the moment call for amnesty. The better proposals provide a "path to citizenship," which is referred to as "amnesty" by immigration opponents to scare off support.

What's the difference? Amnesty is a simple get-out-of-jail-free card. The idea of giving immigrants a path to citizenship is that they'd have to work for it. They'd have to pay a relatively hefty fine for being here illegally -- fines being the appropriate punishment for all kinds of misdemeanor violations -- learn English, have their taxes paid up and have a clean criminal record, and they'd have to have an employer sponsor them (unlike the Bracero program, if they were fired, they'd have 45 days to find a new employer). If they work, pay taxes and stay out of trouble for several years, they'd be eligible to apply for permanent residency. Eventually, after more years and more tax bills paid, they could demonstrate their proficiency in English and American history and become citizens.

That's all in keeping with American values. A recent Time poll found that over eight in 10 Americans thought the United States wasn't doing enough to keep out illegal immigrants. But in the same poll, 78 percent favored "allowing illegal immigrants now in this country to earn U.S. citizenship if they learn to speak English, have a job and pay taxes." That's the path to citizenship, and it's the American way.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.