Despite a particularly contentious campaign process, the Republican base has apparently reached a consensus that immigration is bad. Given the variety of candidates, this is particularly noteworthy. Donald Trump’s notorious comments on Mexican and Muslim immigrants, Ted Cruz’s “Invasion” ad calling immigration an “economic catastrophe,” and recent anger towards Nikki Haley, the Republican tea party governor from South Carolina for praising legal immigration are only a few examples. This rhetoric does not merely attack illegal immigrants, but also attacks immigrants in general, from all countries and of all skill levels.
After all, a legal immigrant can steal a job and cost taxpayers money as easily as an illegal immigrant. However, a cursory examination of basic facts and established economic principles reveals that these arguments against immigration, legal and illegal, are unfounded. Once these principles and facts are accepted, common sense should allow for a comprehensive, conservative immigration program so evidently in accordance good governance and economic wisdom that even liberals might accept it.
This article will not argue why immigration is a moral imperative that improves immigrants’ lives or and increases American diversity. It will not rely on moral claims, whether they are found in the Statue of Liberty’s message “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free” or Jesus in Matthew 25.31-46, who promises to send to “everlasting punishment” all those who failed to take in strangers, or on the words of the American president that advocated for and signed an amnesty law for millions of immigrants, who said, “They brought with them courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom.” After all, what did Ronald Reagan understand about conservatism?
Resting a case for legal immigration solely on moral and philosophic appeals is not sufficient. Republican voters will not (and perhaps should not) support an immigration policy unless it can be proven with certainty that it will help the economy and make America stronger. When it comes to immigration: “It’s the economy, stupid,” so no policy conclusions can be drawn until the effects of immigration on the American economy as a whole, and on Americans individually, are unveiled.
Immigration of both skilled and unskilled workers stimulates economic growth. A 2013 study by the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies shows that immigrants, legal and illegal, contribute 11% to the U.S. GDP. Thus, the United States is 11 percent (almost $2 trillion) richer than it would have been without immigration. It may sound simple, but it makes sense; the more people there are in the United States working to produce goods and services while simultaneously using their earnings to spend at American businesses, the larger the economy will be. A recent report suggests that continued immigration would increase the American population by over 100 million by 2050. More importantly, the percentage of Americans who are of working age will increase, which will mean more people paying into American Social Security and Medicare. As our population ages and a greater percentage of Americans will be living off entitlements rather than paying taxes for them, the growth of the working-age population will be even more important. More workers and a larger economy equates not only to a wealthier America, but also to a more powerful one. The U.S. will be able to afford a larger, more technologically advanced military, will be more influential with regard to international economic policy, and will have a greater cultural and moral influence. America will be better equipped to inspire fear in its enemies, security in its allies, and hope for lovers of freedom throughout the world.
However, Republican voters will not be firmly convinced by national-level statistics alone. We must also examine immigration’s per-capita effects of working class Americans. As Ted Cruz reminded us in his ad, immigration “is a very personal economic issue.” But the truth is that immigration of highly educated, high-skilled workers benefits individual Americans. In a recent survey of leading economists, not one disagreed with the proposition that, “The average US citizen would be better off if a larger number of highly educated foreign workers were legally allowed to immigrate to the US each year.” This too makes sense. An influx of trained professionals lowers the cost of professional services, from legal services to medical care to technological development to financial consulting, through increased supply. Furthermore, these workers will spend their salaries in America, augmenting consumer spending, allowing businesses to hire more Americans across all skill levels, ultimately resulting in a rise in wages. Regardless of how one feels about illegal, oppressed or impoverished immigrants, all of whom this article addresses below, legal immigration of high skilled workers is unequivocally beneficial.
The main targets of anti-immigration campaigns are not professionals, but rather the perceived millions of low-skilled Mexican immigrants who cross the border each year. These are the people who, supposedly, (if not selling drugs, committing crimes, and raping American women) steal American jobs and drive down American wages. This particular assault on immigration also rests on unstable grounds. First, immigration from Mexico, legal and illegal, has rapidly declined in recent years to less than 25 percent of its peak, reaching about 100,000 immigrants per year, below the levels of immigration from both China and from India. In 2015, only 25.5 percent of total immigrants were Hispanic, and more Mexicans are leaving the United States than are entering, with a net loss of 140,000 Mexicans in the last 5 years (most leaving of their own volition, rather than through coercion or deportation). Furthermore, the long-held notion of swaths of uneducated and unskilled immigrants is becoming increasingly less accurate. According to a Pew Research study, 41 percent of immigrants have a college degree and 18 percent have a postgraduate degree, both well above the average American percentages.
The chart featured above was developed by the US Census Bureau. The original chart can be found here.
But even if immigrants are not all uneducated, though the well-educated immigrants are a benefit to the U.S. economy, are the low-skilled immigrants not harmful by lowering American wages? Wrong again. Economists hold by a wide margin (52 percent to 9 percent) that immigration of low-skilled workers (whether they enter legally or not) benefits the average American. For example, though an inflow of immigrant farm workers may put some existing American farm workers out of work, it would benefit all other Americans--including poorer ones--because food would be less expensive. In the same way, more immigrant lawyers would create competition, and thus drive down wages for existing lawyers, but benefit everyone else. By facilitating the immigration of people with varied experience and skills, each specific industry might experience lower wages but would reap a more than commensurate benefit of a much larger drop in the price of goods and services from other industries.
Because the case that immigration harms American citizens is weak, many anti-immigration advocates focus on immigration as a fiscal drain, which they believe to be more solid ground for argument. They claim that because most immigrants are poor, they use more government services than they pay in taxes, and thus will increase the deficit. We would do well to remember a few facts when analyzing this argument. First, as has been shown above, almost half of all immigrants have at least a college education. Even the staunchly conservative Heritage Foundation concedes that college-educated immigrants each pay about $25,000 more in taxes than they receive in services. The services that low-skilled immigrants receive largely consist of healthcare and education for children. Providing such services in not an overwhelming drain; if all immigrants were provided with and took advantage of all government services, the result would be a net federal fiscal loss of $106 billion, a small price to pay for an almost $2 trillion increase in GDP. In addition, primary and secondary education are good investments in human capital, not wasted money. This is because children who get an education will become more productive adult citizens. One study suggests that government gets $3 for every $1 spent on childhood education. Immigrant children who are educated at the public expense will learn skills and later contribute more to the economy and to society than they otherwise would have, and thus society will reap the rewards. Finally, there is no rule inherently linking immigrants with health benefits; one can be against providing immigrants with health benefits without being anti-immigrant.
Taking into account the facts, rather than the fiction, of immigration, the conservative politicians in Congress should take the following steps:
First, Republicans should demand a secure border. There is no reason why the United States should not be able to screen those entering the country to ensure immigrants have no connection to the drug trade or terrorism. A wall would be a wasted expense, however, costing tens of billions of dollars and would be limited in efficacy. Hispanic immigrants are a minority of immigrants, and there are many ways for Hispanic immigrants to enter the United States other than the southern border, but increased border security is a reasonable request with more fencing, patrolmen, and a better screening and background check process.
Second, Republicans should advocate for policies that increase high-skilled immigration, which has been shown to benefit most American workers and their families. American employers can apply for H-1B visas that allow them to hire highly qualified foreigners. Unfortunately, last year only 85,000 of 233,000 visas requested were granted because of an arbitrary cap, . Representing the rapidly anti-immigrant wing, Ted Cruz has called for a temporary halt to the entire H-1B visa program and restrictions on high-skilled immigration. However, as has been shown, highly-skilled immigrants overwhelmingly benefit the overall American economy and help reduce the deficit. The average wage of an H-1B recipient $70,000 per year is especially high given that most of them are young. Young, wealthy workers are the optimal demographic for increasing fiscal solvency, as they will ultimately contribute far more in taxes than they will receive in benefits. The United States should therefore replace the H-1B visa program with one that welcomes any and all well-educated immigrants to this country to work. They should then be able to acquire citizenship after a certain number of years in residency, contingent on good behavior. This is not a matter of supporting the progressive, liberal agenda of the elite over the working class. This policy would benefit Americans of all economic standings.
Additionally, foreign students who come to school in the United States should be given the same treatment as other highly skilled workers. Because American higher education is the best in the world, many foreign students, who have the financial and intellectual capability to study in the United States, do so. Last year, the number of foreign students studying at American colleges universities rose 14 percent to 1.13 million. The US should capitalize on this massive inflow of talent. For conservatives concerned about immigrants mooching off of American beneficence, the fact that a million foreigners are educated at American universities but are then forced to leave rather than contribute to the economy should be deemed tragic. Given their high-skill level, these American-educated students have much to offer to the American economy and should therefore be allowed to remain and embark on a quick and easy pathway to citizenship in the same manner that highly-skilled adults will under this plan. These foreign students have a further advantage of already being assimilated to American culture and ideas through their university study. There should be no limit on American-educated citizens working in the United States.
Third, Republicans should propose legislation that permits immigrants who entered the United States illegally or have overstayed their visas to stay on the condition that they be denied government benefits and services, required to pay taxes and a retroactive fine, and prevented from acquiring citizenship. Any more stringent punishment (like deportation) is costly, unfeasible and insuperably unpalatable to Democrats. However, any immigrant caught evading their fair share of taxes or committing felonies should be deported. These immigrants benefit most Americans, and, denied of government benefits, they will certainly not be a fiscal drain. Thus, they can still benefit the American economy without being rewarded for breaking immigration protocol. In lieu of deportation, they will face financial penalties that will compensate the American people by growing the U.S. economy.
Fourth, the United States should allow for universal legal immigration, subject to appropriate background and health checks to screen out criminals, potential terrorists, and those carrying serious communicable diseases, but deny low-skilled immigrants access to government benefits. This open policy will discourage illegal immigration, because immigrants would know they will be granted access to the United States, which will also be fiscally beneficial because it would massively reduce the cost of having to patrol the border. As has been shown, low-skilled immigrants help the American economy overall, make America stronger in the world and benefit most Americans. Besides providing benefits to the children of immigrants, from whom the United States will ultimately reap benefits when they become productive members of the society, immigrants working in low-skilled professions with an income under a certain threshold should not receive medical, unemployment or other welfare benefits; this is the price they pay for being allowed to live and work legally in the United States. In this case, low-skilled immigrants would not be fiscal burdens, removing the one remaining valid reason for not wanting greater immigration, and winnowing out those few who may come in the hope of living a life of luxury from the largess of the American taxpayer. These immigrants could apply for citizenship and thus acquire the benefits of citizenship after at least five years, but the number of those granted should be limited to prevent a fiscal drain (perhaps to 500,000 per year). Allowing low-skilled immigrants to come and work in America will only benefit the American economy.
The Republican candidates’ proposals, light on evidence and economic foundation, talk of mass deportation, border walls, restrictions on H-1B visas, and restriction based on religion. These proposals will not only never pass, leading to a missed opportunity for incredible growth, but also, they will harm Americans. These policies would lower American GDP, reduce living standards for most Americans, and even add to the deficit. Furthermore, proposals on immigration should not begin with past, failed attempts at reform. This will only cause the discussion to revert to old battle lines, and the debate will stagnate. True conservatives should jettison old prejudices and begin from basic principles. They should propose a plan that upholds conservative values while maintaining economic common sense that can win the support of at least a few moderate democrats willing to compromise.
The immigration policy in this article would promote economic growth, increase American strength, and promote a higher standard of living for Americans of all economic standing. It will do this without forcing a Republican surrender on key points like not ‘rewarding’ illegal immigrants and not granting benefits to an unlimited number of low-skilled immigrants. It is, however, a viable immigration plan that could be supported by Republicans and even some pro-growth Democrats, eager for some form of comprehensive immigration reform. It would be a plausible compromise in which unskilled immigrants would be allowed to live and work in America without granting them the full benefits of citizenship.
The Republican Party faces a choice. It can attempt to push an economically unjustifiable nativist immigration law that will not only fail to pass (regardless of who wins in November), but also earn the Republican Party condemnation and derision. This approach will do nothing to stop illegal immigration or diminish the threat of terrorists entering the country. It will, however, decrease American economic growth and harm individual Americans. The other option is for the Republican Party acknowledges its use of bogus economics. Only with this recognition can the Republicans present a truly conservative proposal that has a chance of becoming law.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Adam Chan is a third-year Fundamentals and Economics double major. This summer, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation. Previously he was an intern at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam was a Senior Writer in his first year and the Opinion Editor last year. On campus, Adam is also President of the UChicago Political Union, is Vice President of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.