Reform the system while welcoming the contribution of immigrants
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Unfortunately, the now-defunct 113th U.S. Congress that once looked forward to fix our broken immigration system, instead opted to turn backwards.
While this author has no idea what Kierkegaard would say about Congress’ inability to embrace our future, it is clear that the U.S. business community and all the rest of us should be dismayed and angered at Congress’ collective failure to learn from the mistakes of our past.
Our 20th century immigration system utterly fails the 21st century needs of our businesses, communities and families and is an affront to who we claim to be as Americans. What’s more, failure to address these flaws imposes a profound opportunity cost dragging against our economy’s effort to recover from one of the worst recessions in a century. At just the time when we should be wholeheartedly nurturing our frail recovery, Congress, and in particular the House more than the Senate, seems intent on grasping defeat from the jaws of victory.
Facts, according to John Adams (a conservative), are stubborn things. And the fact is we have known for some time that reform which offers a pathway to legal status for the 11 or so million undocumented presently in the United States would not create a net financial burden. A 2010 study by Hinojosa-Ojeda at UCLA conclusively demonstrated that such a reform would increase net U.S. GDP by at least 0.84 percent per year creating $1.5 trillion in additional GDP over 10 years. Furthermore, mass deportation (i.e., an enforcement only approach) would actually reduce U.S. GDP by 0.44 percent per year costing $2.6 trillion in cumulative GDP loss over 10 years.
The price of Congress’ failure to act is also well documented in Manual Pastor’s 2010 University of Southern California study which found that, without documentation, immigrants find their wages and benefits suppressed as compared to documented workers in California. In one year, the study calculated this collective loss to workers, just in California, to be $2.2 billion. What should concern Congressional opponents of reform even more is the fact that this loss decreased the disposable income and consequent spending by these people, ultimately causing some $3.25 billion in lost economic activity in the single study year, again in California alone. These lost wages and benefits also meant a loss of $310 million in income tax to California and $1.4 billion to the federal treasury. Given that this study was conducted in a year of deep recession, one can imagine the much greater opportunity costs incurred today.
Closer to home, the Perryman Group study in 2008 determined that removal of all unauthorized immigrants from Illinois alone would cost Illinois $25.6 billion in economic activity, $11.3 billion in state GDP, and approximately 119,214 jobs.
By contrast, coupling a legalization process with a wholesale revision of immigration quotas to allow the numbers of legal immigrants to rise and fall with the economy, among other comprehensive reforms, would best meet the needs of our economy according to the Hinojosa-Ojeda study. This reality was largely the foundation of the 2013 Senate Immigration Reform Bill (S.B. 744). When the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office scored S.B. 744, it concluded that it would not only not negatively affect native U.S. workers but it would also result in $905 billion in deficit reducing budget savings over 10 years. According to the CBO, S.B. 744 would boost the U.S. GDP by 3.3 percent or $700 billion by 2023.
Unfortunately this bill has died an ignoble death. Opponents of real immigration reform in the House, like most of Rep. Davis’ Republican Party, only want to focus on border security and deportations. But we have heard this song before. In 1996 Congress passed “get tough” enforcement reform called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The act was jam packed with draconian penalties for unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. but it didn’t address the many systemic failures of our immigration law. In the face of these tough enforcement measures, the numbers of undocumented people living among us grew even faster. Clearly an enforcement-only or enforcement-first strategy is a failed idea that should be discarded.
Of course, border management and a deportation system that teeters near collapse deserve attention and S.B. 744 devoted enormous resources to those issues. But alas, the prospect of a future that offers hope and acceptance to those who already work and worship and live side by side with us seemed a bridge too far for some to cross.
Somehow, we have to see past this fear. My son, who just turned five in October, will grow up in a world where his competition will not be the kid growing up next door. My son’s competition in adult life will be the kid who is today growing up in China, India, Europe or some other far-flung place. As businesses today know all too well, we live in a global economy. For my son’s future to be bright, the United States must remain at the top of its game and the leader of world economies. To do so, the U.S. requires a 21st century immigration system that acknowledges and welcomes and attracts the contribution of immigrants, at all economic levels. St. Louis University’s own Dr. Jack Strauss’ work on “The Economic Impact of Immigration on St. Louis” proves the advantage of being a community that welcomes and integrates all immigrants. His work establishes that the St. Louis “region’s relative scarcity of immigrants largely explains our poor economic growth” and fall from the 10th largest region to 20th in economic growth from 1970 to 2010.
Extrapolate this conclusion to the entire United States and it is obvious that our immigration system must be reformed from top to bottom to meet the needs of our country. To be successful these reforms must include acceptance and a pathway
to legalization for a great majority of the
11 million aspiring Americans living among us.
Ken Schmitt is an immigration lawyer in St. Louis and a recent past chair of the Missouri/Kansas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He has represented businesses and individuals in a wide variety of immigration-related matters for more than 15 years.