“Give me your tired, your poor … your huddled masses … wretched refuse … the homeless,” implores the Lady in New York harbor. Little can she know that 11.4 million of these “tempest-tost” souls are already here, having arrived illegally, most from Mexico and points south. Some 4-5 million of those illegal, or “undocumented” immigrants to use the description preferred by pro-immigration advocates, no longer are threatened with deportation orders. President Obama has told officials not to enforce the law against parents with children who, having been born here, are American citizens, and to grant them the “green cards” necessary to seek jobs in the legal workplace. Temporary but similar treatment is to be given “for the benefit of the U.S. economy” to entrepreneurs, investors, and researchers.
Lawyers are doing what they do best, disagreeing with one another as to the legality of the president’s decision to by-pass Congress, a squabble that will eventually be settled in the Supreme Court. Economists are engaged in a more productive exercise, trying to determine the impact of immigration in general and the president’s edict in particular on economic growth and the labor market.
There seems to be as general agreement as economists are capable of mustering that increased immigration has a positive effect on the rate at which the U.S. economy can grow. As Diana Furchtgott-Roth, formerly chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, puts it in a comprehensive paper to be released on Monday by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank: “Immigration, on net, boosts economic growth. … It expands America’s work force and encourages business start-ups … [and] increases economic efficiency by supplying more labor to low- and high-skill markets.” Obama’s recent decision, say many economists, will add a bit of zip to the economy, already growing at an annual rate of 3.9 percent. A group at UCLA projects that in the short term the president’s action will add $6.8 billion to labor income, $2.5 billion to the tax collectors’ coffers, and create 160,000 jobs. The White House estimates that by the stroke of his pen Obama has added somewhere between 0.4 and 0.9 percent to GDP, or between $90 billion and $210 billion over ten years.
Why, then, the outrage by Republicans and many Democrats? In part because, as the old jazz ditty goes, “’T’Aint What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It.” Most Americans have no desire to deport illegal immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens. But most Americans also worry that unilateral action by the president represents the exercise of just the sort of power that the drafters of our Constitution sought to deny any president lest they be faced with a homegrown version of King George III. Remember: the Americans who finally resorted to revolution originally sought to be ruled by parliament rather than the monarch. For “parliament” read “Congress,” and for “the monarch” read “the president.”
Then there are the political consequences—an eventual increase in the Democratic party’s core voters. The millions now safe from deportation will be augmented by another wave of illegal immigrants, hoping for similar generous treatment at some future date. That’s what happened after Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty. These immigrants, when given the opportunity, will overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, who generally favor expanding the welfare entitlements that did not exist as a lure for earlier waves of immigrants. Republicans are uncomfortable with the reduction in the portion of votes cast by their own core—whiter, older, married, richer Americans—which will surely occur when the immigrants’ eventually granted path to citizenship leads into the voting booth.
But it is not only richer Republicans who worry about the consequences of the president’s move. Lower-income groups are also uneasy with allowing the beneficiaries of Obama’s largesse to enter the legal work force. George Borjas, the Harvard professor widely described as “America’s leading immigration economist,” says that immigration lowers the wages of American workers, including blacks and U.S.-born Hispanics. Other studies show that there is a ripple effect, as low-paid immigrants receiving work permits move into better-paying work. After Reagan’s 1986 amnesty, only 4 percent of until-then illegal immigrants remained in farm jobs, the bulk moving into better-paying construction work. Good for them, not so good for Americans faced with new competition. Borjas concludes that “immigration makes the U.S. economy (GDP) significantly larger, with almost all of this increase in GDP accruing to the immigrants themselves as payment for their labor services.”