Lackluster Immigration Deal

Democratic and Republican Senators and the White House have apparently reached a deal on immigration. Since the deal was reached by Senators across the political spectrum — ranging from liberal Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to conservative John Kyl (R-AZ) — it stands a good chance of passing the Senate.

Too bad it’s not a better deal. It primarily serves the interests of Latino advocacy groups, rather than the needs of business or the interests of taxpayers or consumers. That’s not surprising, given that the Senate’s Democratic leaders gave those special interest groups a veto over any bill they didn’t like.

The country badly needs more skilled immigrants to maintain the competitiveness of America’s high-tech sector. Moreover, skilled immigrants pay much more in taxes to government at all levels than they consume in government welfare and services. And skilled immigrants are much more likely to form businesses than native-born Americans.

The need is less acute for unskilled immigrants. They still are valuable to the industries that employ them (indeed, they are often more dependable employees than their native-born counterparts), reducing costs in those industies, and thus the prices charged to consumers. And some ultimately do manage to start their own businesses.

But unskilled immigrants, like unskilled native-born Americans, also consume more services from state and local governments than they pay in taxes to those governments, driving up local school and hospital costs. (A typical poor family receives many thousands of dollars a year more in government services than it pays in taxes). And as Robert Samuelson has observed, mechanization can often replace unskilled workers, at a bearable cost.

The cost to taxpayers is radically increased when unskilled illegal aliens are legalized. When that happens, they suddenly become eligible for a host of government benefits that are not eligible to illegal aliens. (Illegal alien children are entitled to free public schooling, and the citizen children of illegal aliens are entitled to food stamps and Medicaid; but illegal alien adults are not entitled to much in the way of government benefits, except perhaps emergency medical assistance.)

The compromise apparently doesn’t do that much to increase the opportunities for skilled immigrants to come to America. It leaves largely intact existing provisions of immigration law that allow people to immigrate largely based on their family connections to others who have already immigrated, rather than based on having in-demand skills. That means that scarce immigration slots can be used up by previous immigrants’ family members, rather than people with vital skills.

At the same time, the Senate deal apparently allows the 12 million illegal aliens who already in the United States — not just those who have jobs, but also their dependents — to stay here legally. That legal status opens the door to them receiving far more in welfare and government services than they receive now.

And the deal apparently commits Congress to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to hire thousands of additional border security agents, which may be futile and wasteful. It’s always difficult to attempt to police a 2,000 mile border to keep people from entering the country in search of a better life.

But it’s well nigh futile when you’ve just amnestied the 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here, giving future would-be illegal aliens a powerful incentive to sneak across the border in hopes of being amnestied themselves in a future amnesty.

All the increased border security will do is make it slightly more difficult for illegal immigrant workers to sneak into or out of the United States, encouraging them to bring their families with them to live permanently in the U.S., rather than traveling to and from Mexico. (That has already happened to some extent as a result of beefed-up border security in the past). That in turn will drives up the cost to public schools and hospitals, which are currently required to educate and provide emergency medical treatment to illegal alien children.

If the government really wanted to cut illegal immigration, it would reduce subsidies and other attractions for illegal aliens, rather than trying to close the borders (which is costly and difficult to do, and inconveniences travelers and legal immigrants as well in the process). For example, it would get rid of the benefits that illegal aliens receive for their U.S.-born children, such as food stamps, work with state governments to deport illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, and discourage funding of taxpayer-funded centers for unskilled illegal-alien day laborers. But none of these measures seems to be in the deal.

Instead, the deal vastly increases the burdens on federal immigration officials. Right now, they already have difficulty processing legal, skilled immigrants’ applications to stay in the United States in a timely manner. For example, it has been many months since my lawful immigrant wife applied to have her permanent residency (green card) finalized. She’s still waiting.

But soon, if the Senate immigration deal is enacted, federal immigration officials will be swamped with a wave of applications by illegal aliens — many of them unskilled — seeking to take advantage of the deal.

America needs more skilled immigrants. And it can also use more unskilled immigrants whose families won’t take advantage of welfare programs. But the immigration deal doesn’t do much to satisfy either of those two needs. Its main effect may be to increase the amount of government spending on illegal aliens who are already present in America today.