Watching the GOP presidential debate last week, it was easy to conclude that the greatest threat facing the U.S. is an influx of undocumented immigrants. Most of the candidates were, as arch-nativist Tom Tancredo put it, trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo. And every time they did, they seemed to get raucous applause from the audience. Why is it, I wondered, that so many people think that having millions of people come to the United States seeking a better life for themselves presents such a massive threat to this country?
Obviously it is wrong for anyone to break the law, but the desire of foreigners to come here to work seems like the most benign sort of lawbreaking imaginable. Lots of other laws are broken routinely -- prostitution laws, speeding laws, tax laws -- and yet they are not the subject of heated exchanges at presidential debates.
What makes illegal immigration so bad? There is no question that an influx of illegals puts pressure on public services, especially in the border states, and that issue needs to be addressed, perhaps with greater assistance from Washington. But it is hardly unmanageable, especially because illegal immigrants, while making use of some government services, also contribute a lot to society via sales taxes and other means without collecting Social Security, unemployment or other benefits available to legal residents. Studies of the net economic effect of illegal immigration show mixed results.
Aside from the cost to government, opponents of immigration claim its biggest downsides are lost jobs and lost identity. Neither argument strikes me as especially compelling.
We constantly hear that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans. Yet over the past quarter-century, even as illegal immigration has remained high, the U.S. economy has outperformed the rest of the industrialized world. Although a recession may be on the horizon, our economy has been booming since the early 1980s, with consistently low unemployment (currently 4.7%). Per-capita income in the U.S., when adjusted for purchasing power, is $41,399, or the third-highest in the world. Per-capita income after taxes has risen by 12.7% since 2001. We have seen 8.3 million jobs created since August 2003 -- 50 straight months of job growth.
It is hard to see how immigration, legal or otherwise, has put a damper on the economy. Quite the reverse: Immigrants contribute significantly to economic growth.
The economic arguments against immigrants reflect a zero-sum mind-set that holds that there are only a given number of jobs to go around and that they will go either to "foreigners" or "Americans." The reality is that the job market is dynamic, and that newly arrived Americans can create more jobs for native-born Americans or can free up low-wage jobs allowing the native-born to take more skilled (and higher-paying) positions.
The cultural argument against immigrants is that they will destroy America's identity as an Anglo nation. A new survey from the Pew Hispanic Center of 14,000 Latinos living in the U.S. shows the falsity of that logic. It found that while "fewer than one in four (23%) Latino immigrants reports being able to speak English very well . . . fully 88% of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. Among later generations of Hispanic adults, the figure rises to 94%."
Another Pew survey finds that, although most "Latino immigrants maintain some kind of connection to their native country by sending remittances, traveling back or telephoning relatives ... [o]nly one in 10 (9%) do all three. ... A much larger minority (28%) of foreign-born Latinos is involved in none of these activities and can be considered to have a low level of engagement with the country of origin." Most Latino immigrants, the survey found, "show moderate attachment to their home country," which declines the longer they spend time in the U.S. In other words, the age-old process of assimilation is alive and well.
This isn't meant to suggest that we shouldn't do more to police our southern border. But the best way to do that would be to assure millions of Latin Americans and others who want to come here to work that they will be allowed in legally. We also need a mechanism for legalizing the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already here, because there is no prospect of rounding them up and sending them home. That would make dealing with drug smugglers, terrorists and other criminals crossing the border a much easier task than it is today, when the genuine bad guys are lost in a sea of migrant job-seekers.
That reality is apparent to many sensible Republicans, from President Bush to John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani, but they are having a hard time convincing Republican voters, who seem unreasonably riled up about illegal immigration. As a Republican myself, I can't help thinking there are bigger issues to be concerned about.