Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Tuesday that the U.S. Senate would not be considering immigration reform in the upcoming work period, immediately prompting accusations of political cowardice on the part of senate Democrats. Although this might certainly be the case, Reid perhaps can see what his colleagues cannot.
The architects of the plan supported by President Barack Obama, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), outlined the plan for reform in a Washington Post op-ed. They put forth four main goals: Increased border and interior enforcement of immigration laws, mandatory biometric identification cards for all U.S. workers, a path to amnesty for current illegal immigrants and a temporary worker program.
However, this proposal is flawed, as its cost outweighs its likely benefits.
If immigration reform is to effectively and meaningfully decrease the entry of illegal immigrants, it cannot be done cheaply. During the 90s, there was a substantial increase in the resources spent policing the United States-Mexico border. Between 1990 and 2003, the man-hours spent on “linewatch” increased by nearly 400 percent and the budget for U.S. Customs and Border Protection has risen to $11.5 billion in the current 2010 budget. Places like Prince William County, Va., which was highlighted by the Annabel Park and Erik Byler film “9500 Liberty,” shown recently on campus, have begun instituting “probable cause” policies for checking the status of anyone based on appearance alone. The racial profiling implications of these measures suggests that, at the very least, resources must be dedicated to measurably reduce illegal immigration in other ways.
Perhaps even more costly is the plan to introduce new ID cards with biometric information. These cards would be required for any person seeking a job in the United States and would necessitate that employers purchase machines to read them. The cost of this program would likely run in the tens of billions of dollars and the cost burden would be passed on to the workers who must apply for a card and to the businesses mandated to purchase scanning hardware — effectively an economy-wide tax. On the other side of the balance sheet, the benefits of substantially reducing the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States are ambiguous at best.
Proponents of immigration restriction hold that illegal immigrants, who are mostly unskilled, depress the wages and reduce employment of similarly skilled natives. If this is the case, however, the effects are small. In a survey of existing studies, economists Rachel Friedberg and Jennifer Hunt found only a miniscule impact of immigration on wage levels. At most, a 10 percent increase in the fraction of immigrants in the population reduces wages by one percent, with negligible effects on employment. These results indicate that illegal immigrants may not directly compete with native labor, and instead fill certain economic niches distinct from those of current American citizens, reducing their effect on native wages. A more salient cause for immigration reform is the fiscal cost imposed by illegal immigrants, which is the difference between the benefits they receive living in the United States and the taxes they do and don’t pay. The fiscal effect of illegal immigrants is almost impossible to measure accurately but most studies find that although state and local governments might lose money because of illegal immigration, at a national level these immigrants generate a negligible net cost and possibly even contribute a substantial benefit. Other research concludes that even if immigration — legal and illegal — does impose a net fiscal cost, the long-term benefits of an increased labor force likely make up for it.
Therefore, we should be thankful that Reid has decided not to pursue immigration reform — at least as the current proposal suggests — in the upcoming months. Any benefit is predicated on the assumption that reform will actually stem the tide of illegal immigrants, which may not be the case.
The Schumer-Graham proposal is eerily similar to prior attempts at reform, the success of which we know all too well.
E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]