Like so many public policy debates that go on in America, the people will be robbed of the debate we should be having as it relates to the immigration reform plan front and center in Congress right now. Charles Babington and the rest of the Beltway pundits are most interested in how this legislation will impact the partisan horse race and escalating tribalism in American politics. The lawmakers themselves are most obsessed with border security and the legal treatment of current and future illegal immigrants. While both discussions are important, we're missing the forest for the trees if we limit the entire immigration debate to these issues. Finally getting some headlines this week is that the immigration reform legislation will increase the numbers of legal immigrants that America absorbs to 36 million over the course of the next 20 years. That's a pretty eye-opening number, and the specifics of that legal immigration surge and its impact on our economy should be front and center in the debate over this legislation.
To the limited extent this topic is discussed, there are strong arguments to be made on both sides. On the pro-immigration side, it's undeniable that cities and neighborhoods in America that have seen significant in-migration by immigrants have healthier economies than do places like Detroit, Philadelphia, or the average lilly-white rural community in Middle America that has not seen new arrivals in decades. Furthermore, the whiz-kid immigrants brought in to be employed largely in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields where America is severely lacking really stand out as success stories for those calling for an aggressive pro-immigration policy.
On the other hand, I found it quite telling that apostate immigration reform supporter Grover Norquist from the country club faction of the GOP responded to the inquiry about the impact deporting illegal immigrants would have on the economy, and his response was "it would lower GDP". Yes, I imagine that reducing the country's population by 11 million through a preposterous deportation pipe dream would be a net drag on GDP, but I think we know that the part of GDP that Mr. Norquist is most concerned about being reduced is the bloated profits that his corporate clients enjoy as a result of having more low-skill workers in the economy than are needed and thus keeping wages artificially low.
Make no mistake....I'm fully onboard with legalizing however many illegal immigrants are in America and getting them on as accelerated as possible path to citizenship. And I suspect most Americans are onboard with that. But instead of fighting about the illegal immigration policy of the past, is it too much to ask we have a public hearing on the illegal AND LEGAL immigration policy of the future? I'm sure there's language in the bill specifying who these 36 million new legal immigrants over the next 20 years will be, but I haven't heard anything about it. Will they disproportionately be more STEM students who will be taking unfilled technology jobs and earn $100,000 per year salaries? Or will they disproportionately be the family members of low-skill immigrants already living in America who will be competing with existing Americans of all races for a dwindling number of low-skill jobs? Again, it would be really nice if we could have that discussion rather than endless talk about how immigration reform will impact the 2016 election or pie-in-the-sky proclamations of new border patrol agents being hired.
The answer to this question that isn't being asked will have an impact on my own level of support for this legislation in the short-term, and a much more profound effect on the American economy and its underclass long-term. As Paul Krugman constantly points out, the biggest crisis in America today is the level of long-term unemployment, and the profile of the long-term unemployed tends to be middle-aged blue-collar males of all races, many of whom are considered to have "dropped out of the labor force" as a result of the diminished demand for their limited-to-modest job skills. Any immigration policy that will inflate the percentage of the population whose job skills are not in demand--at least not above poverty wages--is an immigration policy that will not serve America well. And the public deserves to know if the immigration policy that Congress is currently debating is or is not that kind of immigration policy.
But going back to Norquist's calculation connecting immigration rather clinically to GDP, the natural conclusion of that logic is that if all of the world's 6.5 billion residents moved onto American soil, it would be a net positive because of the growth of GDP. Few would agree with that conclusion, acknowledging that there's a point of diminishing returns. But the biggest question for me from this immigration reform proposal is whether 36 million new legal immigrants over 20 years crosses that tipping point of diminishing returns. At this point I can still be persuaded either way.....at least if anyone gets off the political horse race and the "human border fence" debate long enough to give the economic impact of new legal immigrants a public hearing.