Immigration Politics: More Than Jobs

What is striking about the Republican candidates' rote denunciations of the "illegals" and the federal government is how completely fact-free the campaign rhetoric has become.
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The perpetual rabble-rousing issue of Republican politics -- illegal immigration -- is making its way through the primary season. In largely predictable ways, candidates mold their view to the particular contours of each primary state -- vicious toward undocumented workers in places like South Carolina, more nuanced in Hispanic-rich Florida.

Mostly, Romney, Gingrich and Santorum pile on the old tropes about job-stealing Mexicans, criminal gangs of Latinos, the porous border that may be infiltrated by no less than al Qaeda, and, of course, President Obama's craven incompetence in securing America from all these terrible things.

What is striking about the rote denunciations of the "illegals" and the federal government is how completely fact-free the campaign rhetoric has become. It's not only detached from what we know about immigration, but is counter-productive with respect to the two putative goals of the GOP's fire-and-brimstone -- economic growth and the sizable number of illegal immigrants who have settled in the United States.

If there is such a thing as consensus among economists, it can fairly be said that they have concluded that illegal immigrants are a net plus for the U.S. economy. The stories of native Americans not filling jobs that illegals will do are legion, and indeed we have many "natural experiments" where a factory or farm was emptied of foreign workers by a federal raid and could not be replaced by American citizens.

But the evidence runs much deeper than anecdote. Recent studies, in fact, suggest that immigrants -- including "out of status" workers -- actually increase jobs for native workers as a result of reducing "offshoring" (sending jobs overseas) and making firms more efficient.

Some economic activity is simply forfeited by the loss of illegal workers. Consider the case of Alabama. Like Arizona and a number of municipalities and states passing laws empowering police, schools, and other state agencies to demand proof of legal status, Alabama enacted one of the most far-reaching laws to dissuade illegals from coming to or remaining in the state. This is what Mitt Romney recently called "self-deporting." And, in a sense, it works, because the small fraction of the Alabama workforce -- one half of one percent -- that was comprised of illegal immigrants up and left.

Well, it turns out that the agricultural sector in Alabama is suffering mightily as a result. Reportedly, crops are rotting in the fields and attempts to hire native workers have failed. The tens of thousands who fled not only provide labor that is otherwise hard to find, but they spend their paychecks at the local grocery, pay rent and utilities, and so on -- the "multiplier effect" that creates economic growth. If taxes are withheld from their paychecks, they will never be able to file for refunds (like the majority of taxpayers), meaning that they are subsidizing schools and hospitals and such at a higher rate than many Alabamans.

The two criminal complaints -- gangs and terrorists -- don't hold water, either. Immigrants generally and illegal immigrants particularly are more law abiding than the American population as a whole. And for all the talk about terrorists coming across the Mexican border, there is not one documented case of such an occurrence.

Anyone who has actually witnessed the southern border, as I did a year ago in Arizona, would think the charge of non-enforcement is laughable. Where I was, southwest of Tucson, there was the border fence, a tall tower with infrared night vision scanners, constant flyovers and a considerable presence of federal agents.

In fact, one of the ironies of the tighter border has been a higher cost to immigrants to enter the U.S., both in money and risk. So the result over the past several years, as Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey has documented, has been more illegal immigrants staying in the U.S. rather than crossing to-and-fro as seasonal or occasional workers. They settle, have families, and for the most part don't go back.

Unless they're deported, of course, and here's the rub for the GOP candidates accusing Obama of spineless incompetence on this issue. He has deported more illegal immigrants than any president, about one million, a number which should please the right wing but of course cannot be acknowledged.

So we have in the campaign thus far an almost total misrepresentation of the immigration quandary. Obama himself seems of two minds, speaking constructively but doing little besides tighter enforcement. Nor has any reform been proposed. To be fair, the right wing would crush any reform attempt just as they did with President George W. Bush's not-too-bad reform effort in his second term.

Reasonable reform is off the table because the anti-immigrant forces are agitated by more than phantom job theft or phantom crime. This issue is fundamentally about identity -- keeping America pure -- and as a result is impervious to empirical evidence. One nice turn in the debates would be to ask an immigration question or two that doesn't just tee up a chance to bloviate about tougher enforcement, but addresses the matter of America's self concept, particularly with respect to ethnic diversity, which is at the root of the emotionalism about immigration.

For example, within Arizona's jihad against Hispanic immigrants is the recent abolition of Chicano Studies statewide, a move aimed at Tucson's impressive program that resulted in significantly higher achievement for Hispanic students. I would like to ask the GOP candidates if they, too, would have banned the curriculum. If they said "yes," we might ask them what other educational reforms they would propose to achieve as much for the underclass.

Instead, the debate season will continue to bid up each candidate's macho cred, perhaps rising to Herman Cain's memorable line -- lustily cheered by the GOP crowd -- that he would not only build a fence but electrify it with deadly current. However loathsome, that may be the only new idea on immigration reform any Republican will offer this year.

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