Nativists are rarely encumbered by facts. By its very nature, nativist rhetoric is based on stereotype and mythology, not empirical evidence. Regrettably, some of our elected leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate have embraced the mirage of nativism as they embark on a crusade to derail any meaningful reform of the U.S. immigration system. More precisely, anti-reform politicians have been issuing doomsday predictions about what will happen to the nation if a legalization program is created for unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States. It comes as little surprise that these predictions have no basis in reality.
For instance, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) recently proclaimed that “amnesty will not help balance our budget. In fact, a large-scale amnesty is likely to add trillions of dollars to the debt over time, accelerate Medicare’s and Social Security’s slide into insolvency, and put enormous strain on our public assistance programs.” That statement might be very alarming if not for the fact that it is completely unfounded. Sessions ignores two inconvenient facts:
- Legalized immigrants are upwardly mobile and contribute to the U.S. economy. Immigrants who achieved legal status under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) improved their socioeconomic status over time, and thereby increased their contributions to the U.S. economy. A report by Rob Paral and Associates found that “between 1990 and 2006, the educational attainment of IRCA immigrants increased substantially, their poverty rates fell dramatically, and their home ownership rates improved tremendously. Moreover, their real wages rose, many of them moved into managerial positions, and the vast majority did not depend upon public assistance.”
- Immigrants are crucial to the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. The baby boomers are now aging into retirement and someone will have to replace them in the workforce and the tax base. As renowned demographer Dowell Myers of the University of Southern California has written, the rapidly increasing number of older Americans “will precipitate not only fiscal crises in the Social Security and Medicare systems, but workforce losses due to mass retirements that will drive labor-force growth perilously low. Immigrants and their children will help to fill these jobs and support the rising number of seniors economically. At the same time, immigrant homebuyers are also crucial in buying homes from the increasing number of older Americans.”
Like Sessions, Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) flirted with nativist fantasies when he said that “any time you start waving a carrot such as American citizenship without securing the borders, that number [of undocumented immigrants] that we have today I believe will double or triple.” This bold yet baseless statement ignores a couple of historical details:
- Unauthorized immigrants come when jobs are available. Unauthorized immigration, especially from Mexico, has long been tied more to conditions in the U.S. labor market than changes in U.S. immigration policies. When jobs are available, yet sufficient avenues for legal immigration are not available, immigrants come without authorization. When no jobs are available, they stay home, regardless of what immigration policies are in place in the United States.
- Unauthorized immigrants did not flood the country during the 1986 legalization. Border apprehensions and unauthorized crossings into the United States did not surge as the IRCA legalization program was put into place. Why? Aside from the fact that unauthorized immigration is driven mainly by economics, the fact is that IRCA included a cut-off date of 1982, meaning that anyone who arrived later than that was not eligible for legalization. The only way Barletta’s prediction could even possibly come true is if a new legalization program had a cut-off date sometime well after the enactment of the law, which is rather unlikely.
Bringing the discussion back to reality, it is clear that a carefully crafted legalization program would not provoke one-fifth of the Mexican population to uproot themselves en masse and dash for the border. Nor would a new legalization program spell disaster for the U.S. economy. In fact, there is a mountain of evidence that legalization would produce a fiscal windfall and an economic boost for the United States. A team of researchers led by Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda of UCLA estimates that in just the first three years following legalization, the “higher earning power of newly legalized workers translates into an increase in net personal income of $30 to $36 billion, which would generate $4.5 to $5.4 billion in additional net tax revenue. Moreover, an increase in personal income of this scale would generate consumer spending sufficient to support 750,000 to 900,000 jobs.”
That doesn’t sound very disastrous.
by Walter Ewing