I’m reluctant to write about immigration reform, given that when the topic of illegal aliens comes up in posts on labor policy, too often there’s an upsurge of xenophobic, even racist, comments and a dearth of thoughtful discussion. So let this introduction serve as a warning: I’d like to use this piece to serve as a point of departure for discussing what a good immigration reform policy would look like, so we can have benchmarks for measuring what comes out of Obama’s promise that he would move immigration reform reform forward in an address Thursday evening.
But bear in mind that Obama’s speech and proposal for immigration reform is almost all public relations to cover up an action that is hard to swallow: making a bad situation worse by suspending deportations for illegal immigrants. Of course, cynics might argue that we’ve had flagrant non-enforcement of the law as far as elite bankers were concerned; why not extend that privilege to the other end of the food chain?
Obama’s pretext is that this action is a forcing device to get the Republicans to pass a “responsible” immigration reform bill. But the real political calculus is all too obvious. Given the Democratic Party’s floundering performance in the midterms, securing the loyalty of Hispanic voters is the best and most obvious shot in the arm the party has available to it. It also has the advantage of being one of the few places where, in large measure, playing the identity politics card also provides some tangible economic benefits (the Democrats found, much to their dismay, that trying to woo women solely on reproductive rights, sexual harassment, and other gender issues wasn’t a compelling sale; many women turned against Democratic party candidates over the party’s poor performance as far as middle and lower class economic issues were concerned).
The fact that the Democrats have so much to gain from getting an immigration reform bill passed means that the Republicans will make sure that it is dead on arrival.
So on the one hand, it means we can expect a lot of political sturm und drang with not much in the way of additional results. Like it or not, Obama appears to be well within his rights to suspend deportations. And that will likely buy enough loyalty with Latino voters to prove beneficial in the 2016 elections. Whether this is enough to rescue the Democrats’ flagging fortunes remains to be seen.
However, despite the certain non-passage of an immigration reform bill, we’ll be subjected to a huge amount of discussion on a charged issue. I hope NC readers will manage to keep their eyes firmly on the ball of what is factual or a reasonable inference, given the lack of good data about illegal immigrants. And I also hope readers will discuss policy proposals. Even if this one is dead on arrival, this issue is not going away, and it would help to have some criteria for assessing what would make for a decent proposal, given that the complexity of this situation means any remedy will still leave a lot of parties mighty unhappy.
Some things to keep in mind as this debate heats up: a lot of people take position using a hidden bogus counterfactual, that we could get rid of illegal immigrants. That’s at the root of the argument “Illegal immigrants take American jobs and hurt wages.” The fact is that these workers are now part of the economy and throwing them out (even if that were possible) would be insanely disruptive. For instance, Alabama passed the toughest anti-immigrant law in the US. The result? Much of the next peach harvest rotted because farmers couldn’t hire migrant workers or find legal replacements. Police were overburdened by the requirement to arrest people who didn’t have the right documentation (particularly when some of those people included German executives visiting the state), which undermined fighting crime. Routine government activities, like renewing licenses, became huge time sinks. Utilities worried they needed to cut users off if they couldn’t prove they belonged here. Hispanics felt persecuted and quit attending church and reporting suspect activity to police. And an appeals court blocked a provision supporters most wanted to see go into effect, that of requiring schools to investigate students’ legal status.
Ironically, an objective of the Alabama law was to reduce the number of Spanish-speaking students. Instead, the proportion of Hispanic students increased.
Another charge that is exaggerated and has good odds of being untrue is the notion that illegal immigrants don’t pay their worth in taxes. The big reason they might not is due to the low wages they make. They most assuredly do pay taxes: sales taxes, gas taxes, and property taxes through their rents. One reader reported that Treasury estimated that illegal aliens pay $30 billion a year in Social Security taxes when they will never get Social Security benefits (Treasury can tell because certain Social Security numbers are used repetitively, meaning they clearly don’t represent the activity of one person). Another charge is that illegal immigrants use emergency rooms, which is a cost to hospitals and therefore to other users. While narrowly true, undocumented aliens are almost certain to be chary users of hospitals, given the risk of exposure and deportation. And for those who make these arguments, I never see them make the same complaint about homeless people or other impoverished individuals, who are as a group much heavier users (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Million Dollar Murray). I’d take these complaints more serious if they were a component of a general discussion of hospital economics, instead another stick for beating immigrant workers.
One big reason to favor immigration reform is getting these workers out of a black economy would help low-wage workers generally. Illegal immigrants often wind up in sweat-shop type work like meatpacking plants which are subject to frequent safety violations. Workers who are afraid of deportation don’t complain about labor abuses. It’s reasonable to assume that a high proportion of illegal immigrants are subject to all sorts of other mistreatment: below minimum wage pay, wage theft, hours violations. Giving these laborers legitimate status would end employers’ ability to take advantage of them easily. That would amount to an actual or effective wage increase. It would mitigate the “they are undercutting American workers” argument by setting a higher base for the workforce pool.
Having said that immigration reform has the potential to be beneficial, let us not harbor delusions that anything good is likely come out of Obama’s push for immigration reform. This is a cynical play for the Hispanic vote, and the Democrats have toyed with that voter bloc far too long to get away with not doing anything for them on the immigration front between now and 2016. Money in politics maven Tom Ferguson pointed out that Obama promised the Latino community immigration reform in the 2012 election and failed to deliver; leaders are now making threats to withhold support.
Let’s look at what Obama proposed in his speech last night. Here is the key section:
First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over.
Second, I’ll make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders proposed.
Third, we’ll take steps to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already had live in our country.
As Lambert points out by e-mail, there is a lot not to like about Obama’s first two points:
“First” is money for the police state
“Second” is add-on to H1-B visas, <-- and fuck Obama, there are plenty of techs on the beach. This is a wage and control thing.
Enhanced border control, and all the pork that goes with it, is central to this scheme. It looms large in the speech. For instance, here is Obama’s first mention of his accomplishments, such as they are, on immigration:
When I took office, I committed to fixing this broken immigration system. And I began by doing what I could to secure our borders.
Today we have more agents and technology deployed to secure our southern border than at any time in our history. And over the past six years illegal border crossings have been cut by more than half.
Although this summer there was a brief spike in unaccompanied children being apprehended at our border, the number of such children is actually lower than it’s been in nearly two years.
Overall the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s. Those are the facts.
The White House fact sheet on the speech shows that the talking point about “high skill immigrants” is to let spouse of H1-B visaholders work (note there is no guarantee that they are high-skilled), to allow for an entrepreneurial visa category (note Australia had one and shut it down because they found it was abused too often) and allowing foreign graduates of STEM programs to get more “on the job training” which is tantamount to displacing US graduates in already-scarce entry-level jobs.
But let’s focus on what is the truly thorny issue, which is what to do about foreigners now working in the US. The Obama promise that he’ll handle the issue “responsibly” is already a big red flag. His high concept proposal:
So we’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve with been in America more than five years. If you have children who are American citizens or illegal residents. If you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. That’s what this deal is.
How many people will actually pass this bar? The fact sheet suggests that the number that will qualify is five million (although the , out of a total estimated illegal immigrant population of 11 million. And the main mechanism is the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program:
DHS will expand the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to include more immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. DHS will also create a new deferred action program for people who are parents of U.S. Citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) and have lived in the United States for five years or longer if they register, pass a background check and pay taxes.
Notice this differs from past amnesty programs which required applicants to pay back taxes, an almost impossible bar (I have one acquaintance, an illegal immigrant of 15 years with his own Social Security number who has consistently paid taxes who said he’d be the only person to qualify) in requiring taxes to be paid prospectively. But how many people who have been under the radar can prove they’ve lived in the US for five years?
Oh, and as details are rolled out, be sure to look for the exemptions. For instance, you can bet there will be a provision to let “seasonal” as in migrant farm workers, to obtain entry. That could actually be positive if they come in though with a short-term visa and some sort of tax registration, since that has the potential to reduce employer abuses (particularly wage level abuses). But as in other cases, the devil lies in the details.
Obama may have given his presidency a short-term boost by scoring a win for the Democrats outside the legislative process. But the open question is whether this maneuver so enrages the already uncooperative Republican so as to change cross-party dealings in the Beltway from toxic to radioactive. That difference may not prove to make any difference in practical terms over the next two years. But my bet is that this may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for Obama. His lame-duck status has gone from probable to certain.