How to Make Progress in the Immigration Debate
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Immigration reform has not been on Washington’s agenda lately, but that may change soon: The final version of the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget proposal, released last week, is widely expected to offer a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers. That means the debate about immigration reform may also soon return, along with zealotry on both sides.
The debate over immigration is so difficult because it twists together at least two distinct and challenging subjects: economics and culture. On the economics at least, there should be no further debate: Immigration is a net gain. The cultural arguments against immigration are harder to counter, but addressing some of the economic anxieties could help ease some of the cultural ones.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, mastermind of the harshest border polices in recent history, articulated both the economic and cultural cases against immigration in a 2017 speech, saying that millions of people from around the world want to come to the U.S., but the U.S. could not accept them all. Doing so, he said, would drive down wages for struggling Americans and overwhelm the ability of society to assimilate them.
On the first assertion, the data show otherwise. Economists have debated the effects of immigrants on native wages for decades. Tellingly, the strongest critics of immigration argue that the effects are small and limited to lowest-skilled workers. Supporters argue that the effect is large and positive.
What both groups agree on is that high-skilled immigration increases innovation and per-capita GDP, thereby lowering the tax rates necessary to finance public services. Even hardliners such as Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, who advocates cutting legal immigration in half, support reforms that would focus on admitting the highest-skilled immigrants with the best economic opportunities.
Proving or disproving the second assertion is harder. Proponents of greater immigration often point out that until 1875 the U.S. had no restrictions on immigration at all, and few against Europeans until 1924. That period saw an enormous boom in U.S. economic power and the development of a unique culture envied around the world, based on the assimilation of immigrants from scores of far-flung nations.
Proponents of less immigration point out that the percentage of foreign-born Americans today is approaching the highs of the early 20th century. Those levels induced a sharp cultural backlash and, eventually, the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which led to sharp quotas based on national origin. Today, even as 75% of Americans say that immigration is on the whole a good thing, only 33% actually want to see immigration levels increased. And 81% of Americans view illegal immigration as a “critical” or “important” threat to the country.
The polling indicates a potential path forward: Both sides should accept the public’s embrace of current levels of immigration. Republicans would abandon their demands to reduce overall immigration. Democrats would abandon attempts at increasing immigration through further decriminalization or lax enforcement.
Specifically, Congress should legalize both former President Barack Obama’s DACA policy, which allows children of immigrants currently in the country to stay in the country, and former President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. This would ease uncertainty for immigrants who already here, while making it clear that future immigrants will not be able to take advantage of the asylum system.
On legal immigration, Democrats should accept the skills-based reforms proposed by Cotton’s Raise Act so long as Republicans agree to keep the level of legal immigration, as a percent of population, constant. This would eliminate any concern about the effect of immigration on low-skilled wages, while at the same time allowing the pace of immigration to rise over time.
This type of compromise will not sit well with hardliners on either side. But by addressing the situation at the border, the economic impact of immigration and the ability of the country to assimilate its current immigrant population, these moves could bring clarity to the issue and, in time, reduce the influence of extreme voices.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Karl W. Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was formerly vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation and assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina. He is also co-founder of the economics blog Modeled Behavior.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.