[This post has been revised to reflect that the Perryman Group report was commissioned by Americans for Immigration Reform rather than the American Immigration Council.]
Fox News reported this week that FAIR – an organization which favors immigration restrictions – has released a study finding that illegal immigrations costs taxpayers $113 billion a year. As news organs do, Fox solicited a response from an organization on the other side, the American Immigration Council, which is touting an earlier report (commissioned by another open borders group, Americans for Immigration Reform) finding illegal immigration a net fiscal plus. You know, the usual stuff: one side says x, the other side says not-x.
Except that, in this case, both sides says X! For it turns out that AIR’s report, though intended to bolster the case for amnesty and open borders, in fact supports in virtually every respect the case for immigration restriction. To wit:
1. Enforcement works. Pay no heed to those who say that you can’t enforce immigration restrictions. “If an ‘enforcement-only’ strategy is fully implemented,” says AIR’s study, “it would effectively eliminate the undocumented workforce.” According to AIR, the risk is not that enforcement would never work but that (in its view) it would work all to well. Indeed, it would “effectively eliminate” the problem of illegal immigration.
2. Immigration depresses wages. Again and again, the AIR study states that, without illegal immigration, wages would have to rise to fulfill industry needs:
If all undocumented workers were removed . . . Americans would have to be induced into the labor pool or provided incentives to take jobs far below their current education and skill levels. For this phenomenon to occur to a meaningful extent, substantial wage escalation would likely be necessary, thus eroding competitiveness in global markets.
The responses [to removing undocumented workers] would include actions such as increasing wage escalation and other strategies to encourage domestic workers to fill the labor void.
God forbid that Americans should endure “wage escalation” (i.e., better pay) or have to be “induced” to “fill the labor void” (i.e., be offered more jobs)! Not even the most pitiless robber barron would openly state that the people should be kept poor and desperate for work. Yet, bizarrely, to uphold this view today makes you enlightened, while to reject it makes you a horrible reactionary.
At the time of AIR’s report (2008), “the unemployment rate is [was] relatively low.” Well, that’s obviously no longer the case. Maybe it’s time we resorted — grudgingly of course – to inducing domestic workers back into the workforce.
3. Immigration increases inequality. AIR’s study tells us again and again that immigrants take low-wage, low-skill jobs. “Of adult immigrants, 29% do not have a high school diploma compared to only 8% of the native-born population.” “A much higher percent of the native-born worker population is employed in white-collar jobs . . . compared to undocumented workers.” “As the domestic workforce becomes older, more stable in number and better educated, the US production complex increasingly requires foreign, low-skilled workers.” And on and on. Not only does AIC not mind swelling the ranks of the lowest classes, but it sees doing so as an economic imperative. Goodbye democracy, hello caste system! It now falls to “conservatives,” whose tradition is replete with annoying paeans to inequality and aristocracy, to defend equality of condition.
4. Immigration subsidizes dubious industries. ”Certain industries,” claims the AIR study, “are especially dependent on the undocumented workforce and would be particularly hard hit if it were removed. In fact for the agricultural and construction sectors, the initial effects [of enforcement] would be extremely disruptive.” Yes, that food industry: the same one – dubbed Food Inc. by writer Michael Pollan – that delivers ever more calories at lower cost, so that Americans (and people the world over) can become more and more obese. Yes, that construction industry: the same one that built all those houses that people couldn’t afford, so as to profit from the bubble whose collapse brought the global economy to its knees. These are the industries that AIR wishes to see propped up by favorable immigration policy.
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the least socially responsible industries are also the most dependent on illegal immigration — but I doubt it. They thrive by extracting rents from the government in the form of imported cheap labor. One hardly expects them to have much regard for the public interest in other areas.
5. The fiscal costs and gains of immigration are ambiguous. The AIR report claims that undocumented workers pay “far more in overall taxes than they receive in benefits from various governments.” (But what about their descendants?) Nonetheless, many “state and local public entities experience a net deficit.” Further, “It is true that 33% of immigration households use a major welfare program, significantly higher than the 19% of native born families nationwide, but most of those are not from the undocumented population (which is generally only eligible for public education and emergency medical services).” In other words, if the undocumented population is legalized, the fiscal burden would increase. It would seem, then, that the fiscally prudent policy is to prevent that from happening — i.e., through enforcement first.
6. Today’s immigration has no precedent. The percentage of the population consisting of immigrants is nearly as high now as at the late-19th century peak, and, admits AIR, “the current pattern is definitely upward.” Further, “the composition of the countries of origin has changed over time,” so that “[n]early 59% of immigrants entering the US post-2000 have come from Latin America, while only 9% have come from Europe.” The AIR report does not address the question of assimilation. Nonetheless, these numbers raise doubts whether, this time, the melting pot will work. (And, let us not forget, it’s not as if assimilating the last wave of immigrants was duck soup.) It was one thing to assimilate new-comers from another continent before the age of electronic communications. Geographic distance severed their loyalties to their countries of origin. It is quite another to assimilate them from neighboring countries today. Further, the ideology of Americanism that dominated in the 19th century has crumbled. In its place has risen multiculturalism, which preaches ethnic solidarity of minorities against the traditional European majority. Increased numbers of immigrants feed multiculturalism, which in turn rationalizes further increases numbers of immigrants, and so on a vicious cycle.
Not only does the AIR report inadvertently support the case for immigration restriction, but it does not even bother to make any case against it. At one point it states that “there are currently approximately 8.1 million undocumented workers in the US economy.” On the very next page, it continues that “eliminating the undocumented workforce would” result in “8.1 million jobs lost.” In other words, no undocumented workers, no jobs for them either. The effect on Americans is precisely zero. Similarly, AIR measures the loss of gross product and personal income if the illegal workforce disappeared. All other things being equal, however, gross product and income will decrease if the population decreases. AIR fails to separate out the net effects the enforcement would have on native born Americans independent of the mere loss of population. It provides no evidence, in other words, that restricting immigration would harm the public.
Instead, AIR’s report comes across as economically illiterate. Low-skill labor is presented simply as an absolute “need” independent of price. “Immigrants, including those who are undocumented, are important to filling needs in the less skilled labor force,” claims AIR. But employers don’t have a “need” for any given amount of unskilled labor. They hire a lot of unskilled workers only because so many of them are available who will work for lower wages. Take those workers away, so that the price of labor increases, and employers will simply buy less labor. In other words, no shortage.
Economists have found that one cause of unemployment is the “stickiness” of wages downward: for whatever reason, workers are unwilling to accept a job that pays less money, even when no better paying job is available. A temporary job shortage results. I have never heard, however, of stickiness of wages upward. When an employer offers a job at a higher wage, workers tend to take it. AIR even seems to recognize this point when it assumes that labor markets will swiftly adjust upon removal of the illegal immigrant workforce. If that’s true, however, then the labor shortages of which AIR warns will not in fact materialize.
Even by the standards of studies commissioned for partisan political purposes, AIR’s is a highly tendentious, uninspiring piece of work. It brims with question-begging statements. At one point, the Perryman Group, from whom the report was commissioned, writes that “Others [in contrast to those who support enforcement-only] support a more moderate approach to immigration reform which confronts the inescapable fact that the US is critically dependent on this workforce for sustainable prosperity.” Not content to say it once, it says later “It is imperative that any rational policy recognize the basic and inescapable reality that the resource represented by undocumented workers is an absolutely essential element of the modern US economy.” It is hardly an “inescapable fact” that the US can’t prosper without illegal immigrants. The pre-1965 dearth of immigration also coincided with the post-war economic boom. Prosperity clearly does not depend on cheap labor.
In sum, a prominent immigration lobby has not only commissioned but championed a study that unwittingly makes a devastating case against open immigration. Can a case for open immigration ever be made? Maybe – but not, evidently, by its own hired advocates.