Upon hearing Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement of the Trump administration’s plan to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, I was incensed. His shameless presentation misled, lied and implicitly — and, of course, falsely — tied immigrants to violence, crime and terror.
As an economist, my knee-jerk response was to counterattack based on the economic falsehoods that the administration continues to push: e.g., the evidence-free claims that DACA recipients take jobs from native-born workers. I’ve talked about immigrants’ contribution to labor supply, a particularly important dimension of the economic argument, as our aging workforce is responsible for 70 percent of the predicted slowdown in potential economic growth, according to the Congressional Budget Office. I’ve cited statistics about how DACA “dreamers” appear to contribute more than they receive in benefits from the tax and Social Security systems, and how they pay a higher effective state/local tax rate than households in the top 1 percent.
These are all important, germane arguments that must be brought to bear. But they are woefully incomplete. They reduce the issue of immigration to a simplistic, incomplete cost/benefit analysis that omits much more than it includes. In addition to assuming knowledge of lifetime contributions from immigrants, which are of course unknowable, these arguments’ biggest flaw is that they draw a very narrow circle around what matters. They suggest that your worth to our country and society is your net contribution to our fiscal accounts and the fact that you didn’t take someone else’s job, which, to be clear, is actually a pretty meaningless concept, as I’ll explain in a moment.
Again, I’m not at all distancing myself from my original counterarguments, which I will continue to make. But I’m very strongly asserting that the path to enlightenment on not just DACA but on immigration policy in general requires us to get beyond such reductionism.
First, let me explain what I mean by “woefully incomplete.” Ben Spielberg and I produce a podcast called “On the Economy,” and we recently interviewed Erica Williams and Meg Wiehe about these issues. They took us through the economic and revenue arguments above, focusing on some of the same facts as above on undocumented immigrants’ contributions to the economy.
But when I asked Wiehe the “on net” question — Do undocumented immigrants use more in public resources than we spend on them? — her response was simple and straightforward. For me, at least, it was also mind-expanding. She said, “I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to draw ‘balance lines’ under anyone, under undocumented immigrants, under you or me.” That’s because we can’t plausibly quantify the value of the public services we provide, especially the spillovers. Wiehe mentioned her own child in public school and asked: How can our net metrics accurately pick up the benefits to society and community from educating another kid? Or the costs of not doing so?
The costs of providing public education, for example, are clear, but the benefits are diffuse and show up in myriad ways that advanced societies have long agreed are worth it. I guarantee you that those making net calculations do not go to future employers and ask them about the benefits of an educated worker. We have no surveys that talk to patients about the quality of the help they get from immigrant health care professionals, and how much that improves their well-being. We don’t “cost-out” the inherent cultural benefits of diversity in our schools, as our children learn essential lessons that may, if we’re lucky, lead future generations to live with each other a lot more peacefully than we do today.
Even the standard economic analysis is flawed. Undocumented workers are already here, and if they’re working, they’re doing so in the shadows, often with none of the standard labor protections. That puts both native-born workers and legal immigrants at a disadvantage as well, incentivizing employers to race to the bottom. In fact, there’s research showing that imparting DACA-type status on undocumented workers raises not just their pay, but also the pay of those with whom they compete.
The taking-our-jobs “analysis” is equally flawed. It’s the updated version of the old “lump of labor” fallacy, the idea that there’s a fixed number of jobs to go around and, if you’ve got one, that’s one less for me. But anyone who’s here, whether an immigrant or a nonimmigrant, doesn’t just create labor supply. They create labor demand. They consume housing, food, transportation, and so on. That’s all embedded in that CBO statistic above about the contribution of labor force growth to GDP. Instead of substituting (i.e., replacing) other workers, their work often complements the jobs of other workers (allowing, for example, other workers to move up the occupation ladder).
At the end of the day, it is impossible to quantify people’s economic value. All we can know is if someone wants to be here among us — a revealed preference given that they’re here — and if they agree to play by the rules. DACA recipients pass both these tests with flying colors.
I also must admit, playing against type, that there’s more to life than economics. Do we want to be the kind of people who evaluate — with incomplete metrics — whether others are “worth it,” or do we want to recognize everyone’s inherent worth and welcome them with compassion?
In the case of DACA, it’s good that the economic and budget statistics are favorable. Such facts should not be overlooked. But neither should they decide the case. My initial reaction to Sessions was motivated by anger at his inhumanity, and in this context, that’s an emotion that should preempt the spreadsheets.