Cold facts and hot words on immigration

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Sunday, December 20, 2009

You would think that with unemployment running at 10 percent, economics would play a role in deciding how many immigrants to let into the country and what to do with the unauthorized ones here.

Think again.

What we have instead is the slugfest of name-calling, cynicism and hypocrisy that passes for policymaking in Washington these days.

The latest fury surrounds a comprehensive immigration reform bill submitted to Congress last week by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). The measure, which among other things calls for legalizing unauthorized immigrants, has the support of the Hispanic, black, Asian and progressive caucuses and is the first shot in what President Obama promises will be a push in the coming months to fix the nation's broken immigration system. Republicans, however, are already calling the bill dead on arrival.

The Census Bureau, meanwhile, has just reported that one in six workers in the country is foreign-born. That is the highest this figure has been since 1920 and is the result of both legal and illegal immigration since 1965, when restrictive quotas were dropped and a temporary worker program ended. The nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants show little sign of leaving, and more than 100,000 immigrant workers continue to come into the country each month -- legally. They arrive with permanent residency or temporary work visas, at levels determined years ago and with no regard for the nation's economic conditions.

So, how much in fact do these immigrants contribute to unemployment, wages, the economy and taxes?

I run an immigration studies project at Harvard University, so let me see if I can't cut to the chase. There are no absolute, hard measures of immigration's economic impact (a dirty secret), but after hundreds of estimations using different methodologies, a consensus has grown among economists across the political spectrum that allows us safely to draw a few conclusions.

Immigration generally has only a limited impact on unemployment, and no impact on it over time. That's right: no impact. Today's immigration into the United States, however, does undercut wages for low-skilled workers and also some high-skilled ones. The impact of immigrants on total taxes paid by Americans is probably slightly negative. Regardless, it is offset by an equally slight positive impact on economic growth, creating essentially a wash.

This doesn't count considerable long-term benefits, especially by entrepreneurial immigrants with advanced degrees, but also by high school dropouts who later move into the middle class. Some of the children of poor immigrants fail to move up and remain a fiscal burden. They are, however, a distinct minority.

There are differences over the precise numbers behind some of these statements, but for all the chest-beating economists like to do (it's an alpha-dog profession), their differences are minor and almost irrelevant.

What matters are the trade-offs that policymakers must manage between the costs and gains to achieve the indisputable long-term benefits. The operative word here is "manage," which is different from taking the blustery positions all sides in the debate are guilty of.

Third-quarter census data mined by the Center for Immigration Studies show that unemployment among native-born Americans without a high school diploma was an astounding 30 percent, and underemployment much higher. Because so many factors are at play, including race and ethnicity, no one knows exactly how many of those are jobless because of competition from the large number of legal and illegal immigrants also lacking a high school education. Clearly, however, some are. It is irresponsible of pro-immigrant activists to call anyone who focuses on the concern a "nativist."

By the same token, many of the anti-immigrant activists, especially in Congress, are the same people who voted against the extension of unemployment benefits and are generally opposed to social welfare safety nets, suggesting more than some hypocrisy in their sudden defense of the underclass.

They also deny the free-market principles they claim to uphold on other issues. International labor flows work like trade: Over time, they increase productivity and wealth for everyone. The issue is managing the transition of "over time." But the American economy proves again and again to be remarkably able to quickly absorb immigrants and reach a new, richer equilibrium.

We need policymakers to stop their infighting and work on those balances.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is

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