On Immigration, It's the Economy, Stupid

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 8, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- A new effort to clear this country of illegal immigrants comes courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which this week began asking more than 450,000 people who are in violation of deportation orders to come forward, get their personal affairs in order and volunteer to return to their home countries.

Coincidentally, a new report by a think tank that advocates for restricting immigration into the United States shows that hundreds of thousands of people here illegally already have been self-deporting because of increased immigration-enforcement efforts. From August of last year until May, according to calculations by the Center for Immigration Studies, the illegal immigrant population declined by about 11 percent, from 12.5 million to 11.2 million. At that pace, the CIS argues, the current number could be cut in half in five years.

But don't hold your breath -- immigration and demographic experts are not buying into such a scenario. They agree that there has been some increase in the number of undocumented people leaving the country, but they don't believe you can say with any certainty what those numbers are.

CIS' figures are based on an extrapolation of U.S. Census data that does not specify legal status. Critics contend this is not enough for a sound scientific measure. Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego, described the CIS metric as so "grossly imprecise" that it renders the rest of the analysis "essentially useless."

Moreover, claiming that the fluctuation is due to enforcement is little more than wishful thinking, say academics who study immigration. Based on surveys and other research, they conclude that if undocumented immigrants are indeed "self-deporting," it is more likely due to a softening U.S. economy. "They have access to less work ... and their living expenses in the U.S. have risen due to higher fuel and food prices," said Cornelius.

The ICE deportation program and the CIS report are symptomatic of an immigration debate gone awry. Indeed, no amount of enforcement at the border or the workplace can counter the draw of available jobs with better earning potential.

A recent report by the Center for Global Development found that even by the most conservative estimates, a 35-year-old Mexican male with nine years of education would make 132 percent more working in the United States than in his home country. For a Bolivian, the increase would be closer to 270 percent; and for a Haitian, more than 740 percent.

Of course, those who advocate an enforcement-only approach also offer economic arguments to support their position. One of their key sources has been Harvard professor George Borjas, who has argued that cumulative immigration over the previous 15 years contributed to a 3 percent decline in the wages of U.S. workers.

This spring, however, Borjas revised his previous research to conclude that the effect on the average wages of U.S. workers from all immigration, documented and undocumented, was exactly zero percent. An immigration policy that continues to obsess over an impact that may be close to zero is one that has lost perspective.

If you were to coolly assess the economic impact of immigration, you'd think that more significant facts and figures would inform the debate. Then as a consequence, Hispanic immigrants might feel more welcome than they do today.

According to a report issued last month by the New York-based Council of the Americas, it makes economic sense to help Hispanic workers fully integrate into the U.S. economy. English-speaking immigrants earn 17 percent more than non-English speakers; the average immigrant's lifetime tax payments exceed the cost of services he or she will use by $88,000; and, in 2010, there will be 3.2 million Hispanic-owned businesses generating a total of $465 billion in revenue.

At a Capitol Hill event to launch the report, Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez, D-Texas, regretted how immigration advocates "lost our way" by allowing opponents to define immigration as something to be deterred rather than welcomed. Without the U.S. business sector becoming more outspoken, he added, it will be hard to put the issue on the right track.

Bob Merchent, vice president for New Orleans operations at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, agreed, saying that U.S. companies should lead the charge. It "is to everyone's benefit to embrace all of the folks ... who are willing to work," he said in an interview. "If you got businesses out there doing it," the rest will follow.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But at least there appear to be more substantive and scientifically sound data to back it up.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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