On Tuesday, Kansas Secretary of State (and vice-chair of President Trump's voter fraud commission) Kris Kobach went on MSNBC to defend the president's decision to end DACA, the President Barack Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative that allowed undocumented immigrants to stay in the country if they were brought over as minors.
The interview drew widespread notice after Kobach, asked what he would tell immigrants who face deportation despite living almost all of their lives in the United States at a young age, responded: “I would suggest go home and get in line, come into the United States legally, then get a green card, then become a citizen.”
Beyond the humanitarian questions of deporting people to a country with which they have little or no connection or experience, the interview also moved into questions of the economics of immigration — specifically related to immigrants protected by DACA.
Kobach put forward a number of economic arguments in support of his case against DACA. We've fact-checked them below.
Claim: DACA recipients take jobs from American workers
“Why in the world would we legalize an additional 1.7 million people to compete against our own citizens who can't get a job or who are working part time with a college degree?” Kobach asked.
For starters, that 1.7 million figure is an upper-bound estimate of how many immigrants might be eligible for DACA, produced by the Pew Research Center in 2012. The current number of DACA recipients is closer to 800,000, or less than half of the number Kobach cited.
The argument that DACA immigrants take jobs from American citizens is “more complicated than it seems and lacks evidence to back it up,” according to PolitiFact. There does not appear to be any research to support Kobach's claim directly.
Looking into the effect of all immigrants — not just DACA recipients — on the labor market, a massive 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found “little evidence that immigration significantly affects the overall employment levels of native-born workers.”
Immigration analyst Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute points out that the jobs market is not a zero-sum game, as many opponents of illegal immigration argue. “If immigrants 'take' jobs from Americans, then so must any new entrant in the workforce also take a job from another American,” Nowrasteh wrote in 2013.
He noted that, in reality, the opposite has been true: As women and immigrants dramatically expanded the U.S. labor market between 1948 and 2012, the number of available jobs grew at a concomitant rate.
“Immigrants tend to buy goods and services that, in effect, create jobs, which can be good for U.S. citizens,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars fellow David Shirk told PolitiFact. “They rent our houses, buy our gas, eat at our restaurants, etc.”
Kobach's office did not provide any evidence to back up his claim when asked by The Washington Post.
Claim: DACA recipients will cause per capita gross domestic product (GDP) to fall.
Told by host Hallie Jackson that some research had indicated rescinding DACA would eliminate over $433 billion in economic activity over the next 10 years, Kobach had this to say:
“You have to look at GDP per capita. You can bring in two million, three million, five million illegal aliens tomorrow, and it will increase our GDP because you have more bodies in the United States. But per capita, per person GDP will go down, wealth with go down in America.”
GDP per capita is a measure of how much wealth there is per person. Kobach argues that by allowing immigrants protected under DACA to stay, the country is dividing up its economic pie by more people, and therefore will leave a smaller slice for each person.
But there's another possibility: These immigrants also create economic value with their labor, innovations and investment, and if they do so at a high enough level, the group as a whole could end up raising the country's GDP per capita.
A definitive study on that is not out yet, and for this particular group, it's too soon to measure their lifetime economic impact, given their relative youth.
There is, however, considerable economic research suggesting immigrants make large economic contributions, even up to the point of raising GDP per capita. In fact, “immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth,” as the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering concluded earlier this year. Examining a range of recent studies, that report found strong evidence that immigration boosts innovation in the economy overall, “very likely raising per capita GDP growth.”
For instance, 2017 analysis by economists at the International Monetary Fund found that in advanced economies, a one percentage point increase in the share of migrants in the adult population results in a 2 percent boost to per capita GDP.
Similarly, a 2008 study by a trio of European economists analyzed per capita GDP and foreign-born population levels across a number of countries and found “robust evidence” that immigration is “non-negatively causally related to per capita income.”
In other words, “immigration gives rise to a gain that can — in principle — be used to make the native population better off without excluding the immigrants from the redistribution scheme.”
Claim: DACA recipients are “net takers” from the system.
“The vast majority [of DACA recipients] do not pay enough in taxes to compensate for the benefits they are receiving from the government, so they are net takers from the system,” Kobach said.
This may be true of DACA recipients — Kobach's office did not respond to repeated requests for the source of the claim — but it's also generally true of the population overall. A 2012 analysis by the Tax Foundation found that at the federal level, 60 percent of households receive significantly more in transfers and benefits from the federal government than they pay in income taxes. Another 20 percent paid in roughly the same amount as they took out.
Only 20 percent of American households pay significantly more in taxes than they receive in federal transfers and benefits, the Tax Foundation analysis found.
On a number of other economic indicators DACA recipients compare favorably to American citizens. A survey of over 3,000 DACA recipients conducted in the summer found that roughly 91 percent of them are employed at a median annual salary of $32,000. The survey found that 36 percent of DACA recipients have received a bachelor's degree or more, slightly higher than the percentage among the general population (32.5).
The narrow focus on taxes and benefits also obscures the bigger-picture findings economists on the left and right have made about immigration and economic activity: More immigration means more GDP, both at the aggregate and per capita levels. That means more income for the government to tax, which means more benefits to distribute to those, both native and foreign-born, who need them.
Overall, Kobach's remarks in support of the DACA repeal flout mainstream economic thought about immigration, which is best summarized in a letter signed by 1,470 economists on the left and right, including six Nobel laureates, earlier this year. That letter asserts a “near universal” agreement among economists on the “broad economic benefit that immigrants to this country bring.” They summarize those benefits as follows [wording is directly from the letter]:
- Immigration brings entrepreneurs who start new businesses that hire American workers.
- Immigration brings young workers who help offset the large-scale retirement of baby boomers.
- Immigration brings diverse skill sets that keep our workforce flexible, help companies grow, and increase the productivity of American workers.
- Immigrants are far more likely to work in innovative, job-creating fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math that create life-improving products and drive economic growth.
Under Trump's order, unless Congress takes action, the DACA program will be phased out in six months.