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The full scope of what America’s dumb immigration system costs us

UNLOCK CONGRESS, 06 / 25 / 2018


(The following is an excerpt from Unlock Congress, published in 2015 by Why Not Books)

Near universal agreement exists that our approach to both legal and illegal immigration is causing the country pain. The last major immigration legislation Congress passed was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (Simpson-Mazzoli Act) — a law whose consequences remain controversial nearly thirty years later. Yet no major reform package has been delivered by Congress in the intervening decades. Our immigration mess and all of its associated problems persist.

The reality is that America actually needs more immigrants to come to our country. The challenges described earlier in our social insurance programs are to a great degree driven by demographics. Strengthening these safety net systems will require an increase in our workforce that cannot be achieved without substantial inflows of new immigrants. At the same time, the U.S. is struggling to recruit and maintain a workforce that is highly skilled and technically proficient. But year after year, Congress shoots blanks on reform.
In their book Immigration Wars, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R) and Stanford University’s Clint Bolick present the dual problems posed by the status quo:

“Our immigration laws are so complex, cumbersome, and irrational that millions of people have circumvented them and entered our country illegally, inflicting grave damage to the rule of law that is our nation’s moral centerpiece. Others have either given up or tragically abandoned their hopes of becoming Americans or have gone home, and we have lost their energy and talent forever.”

Losing this “talent and energy” directly affects our ability to fill both low- and high-skilled jobs essential to our economy. The challenge is critical enough to the semiconductor company Intel that it actually employs a “director of immigration policy.” His name is Peter Muller, and in a 2013 editorial in the National Journal, Muller explained the effects of the interminable wait for congressional action on immigration: “In the high-skilled arena, our ability to compete in the global marketplace is compromised. The information-technology industry struggles to find enough qualified U.S. workers to fill the key jobs necessary for continued innovation. Employees who obtain temporary visas must wait years before they can get a green card to allow them to live and work here permanently.”

More broadly, the administrations of both President George W. Bush and Barack Obama have touted the positive effect that immigrants have on the American economy. In 2007, the Bush Council of Economic Advisers released an immigration report stating: “Our review of economic research finds immigrants not only help fuel the nation’s economic growth but also have an overall positive effect on the income of native-born workers … They make up 15 percent of all workers and even larger shares of certain occupations such as construction, food services, and health care.” The Council went on to assert that immigration would likely have a positive long-term effect on our country’s public budgets.

Of course, the real issue holding back effective immigration legislation is the population of illegal immigrants in the United States and the political challenges they pose. In fact, the issue is so controversial that advocates disagree over whether to use the term “illegal” or “undocumented” in describing them. By any label, as of 2014, this population totaled 11.7 million. U.S. Census data indicate no real decrease over the last few years, in spite of the Obama administration’s increased border enforcement and record new levels of deportations between 2009 and 2012 (roughly 400,000 per year).

Overwhelming majorities of the American people support common-sense immigration reforms. But every year, without fail, Congress fails. And every year that real reforms elude us continues to cost us. Possibly the best measure of the economic harm caused by inaction on immigration can be seen in what we are forecast to actually lose over the long term without it. In July of 2013 the CBO analyzed a comprehensive immigration reform bill originating in the Senate. The CBO projected that if passed into law, the reforms would increase GDP by $700 billion over the next ten years and by $1.4 trillion over twenty years (in today’s dollars). The CBO also stated that the federal budget deficit would decrease by $850 billion over the next two decades. Additionally, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration projected a $300 billion influx to the Social Security Trust Fund by 2023.

Beyond long-term economics, America’s antiquated immigration laws have immediate effects on our society. The conservative Heritage Foundation observes, “Even though they pose no direct security threat, the presence of millions of undocumented migrants distorts the law, distracts resources, and effectively creates a cover for terrorists and criminals.”

In general, high rates of immigration, including undocumented immigrants, do not contribute to a higher crime rate. But in those infrequent cases where illegal immigrants do intend to inflict terrorist acts on American citizens, the holes in our current immigration system make it easier for them to do harm.

The most high-profile example of this weakness being exploited was the Al Qaeda attack on our country in 2001, as Lee Hamilton and Slate Gordon, both members of the 9/11 Commission, articulated before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2004. They explained that the U.S. government had not treated border security as a matter of national security. Hamilton presented specifics:

Al Qaeda was very skillful in exploiting the gaps in our visa entry systems … The Commission found that many of the nineteen hijackers were potentially vulnerable to detection by border authorities, for all kinds of reasons. Some made false statements on their visa applications, some lied, some violated the rules of immigration. One failed to enroll in school; two over-stayed their time. But neither the intelligence community nor the border security agencies nor the FBI had programs in place to analyze and act upon that intelligence on their travel tactics.

A good share of the responsibility for these and other failures of identifying dangerous illegal activity belongs to intelligence and law enforcement departments within the executive branch. Ten years later, information sharing continues to be a problem across these agencies. But it is also true that Congress writes the laws that govern immigration and enforcement. Congress also has the oversight authority and responsibility to ensure that the policies are being properly executed.

Our messy immigration situation has left more than 11 million people in the country without documentation. This creaky system subtracts from our economy by thwarting legal immigration, weakening our workforce, and wasting billions of dollars in federal resources. You can hear members of Congress acknowledge these facts and wrangle over solutions daily. And yet it has been nearly thirty years since a major bill has reached the president’s desk and been signed into law.