The work of the nativist Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) is focused on grinding an anti-immigrant ideological axe, not on gathering evidence and employing rigorous analysis. A case in point is CIS’s recent report on the hypothetical cost of processing an “amnesty application.” It is difficult to discern what the point of the report actually is. It would seem to be that unauthorized immigrants are bad for the U.S. economy (which is false), and that legalizing them would offer no benefits for the U.S. economy (which is also false), so there shouldn’t be a new legalization program, but if there is going to be a new legalization program, it should be so expensive that lots of unauthorized immigrants can’t afford it, which would presumably leave a large unauthorized population in the United States, which would presumably still be bad for the U.S. economy. Needless to say, this is a rather convoluted analysis.

Do the recommendations of the CIS report create an economic situation any better than the nightmare scenario which the report claims is now the case?

Most of the CIS report is devoted to enumerating the likely administrative costs of processing an application for legal status under a new legalization program. But the foundation of the report is an immigrant-bashing economic diatribe that is unsubstantiated and contradictory. Without citing any evidence, for example, the report proclaims that unauthorized immigrants are an economic drain, creating ruinous job competition for natives and dragging down wages. In fact, empirical research indicates that immigrants and natives fill complementary roles in the U.S. labor market, which increases the productivity and wages of natives.

Aside from its fact-free assertions, the report also contains some inexplicably contradictory statements. For instance, the report notes that recipients of legal status will “be able to get legal, and probably somewhat better paid, jobs than they have now.” But in the very next paragraph, the report argues that: “Given the lack of a benefit to the public, and a huge benefit to the individuals, clearly the aliens should pay substantial one-time costs for the life-long benefits they are about to receive.” But getting legal, better-paid jobs—and therefore paying more in taxes and spending more in U.S. businesses—is a “benefit to the public” because it increases government revenue and creates new jobs. Legalization would be a stimulus to the U.S. economy; not a drain.

Similarly, the report claims that: “To be cost-free to society, the illegal aliens would have to have had a history of not working, not using the school systems, and, of course, not using any part of the welfare system, a highly unlikely combination.” This makes no sense. Working enables a person to earn income, spend income, pay taxes, buy a home, and start a business. Education generally enables a person to get a higher-paid job with better benefits. Individuals without income or education are the most costly to the society as a whole, not the least.

The report’s mish-mash of economic proclamations is just rhetorical window dressing for the assertion that unauthorized immigrants applying for any future legalization program should fully pay, on average, $2,000 apiece in order to cover the administrative costs of the program. According to the report’s faulty logic, if unauthorized immigrants take so much and give so little, $2,000 is a small price to pay. The report cynically suggests that legalization applicants be allowed to pay half of this fee with a credit card or perhaps secure a micro-loan through the Office of Refugee Settlement.

Aside from the fact that the report’s claims about the economics of unauthorized immigration are wrong, the demand for a $2,000 price tag leaves a few key economic questions unanswered: If millions of unauthorized immigrants are unable to afford legalization, what then? Will they all magically “self-deport”? Will we spend billions of dollars tracking them down, rounding them up, and forcibly removing them from the country? Or will they be driven further into the margins of the U.S. economy, where they will earn less, and pay less in taxes, and spend less? In other words, do the recommendations of the CIS report create an economic situation any better than the nightmare scenario which the report claims is now the case?

All of which brings us back to the most central question: What exactly is this report trying to say?

by Walter Ewing

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