Republican support for immigration reform focuses mainly on political self-interest. Since 71 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of Asians voted Democratic last November, it’s easy to see why smart Republicans are so concerned.
As Ron Bonjean, a prominent GOP strategist, told Reuters: “If Republicans refuse to pass comprehensive immigration reform, we will become obsolete as a party within 10 years.”
But there is another compelling reason for Republicans to get behind the immigration bill now on the Senate floor. That measure — which would eventually legalize millions of undocumented foreigners and attract thousands of highly-educated scientists and entrepreneurs — strongly encourages economic growth. And that’s exactly the goal Republicans say is their top priority.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and possible presidential contender, made this precise point in a recent speech. “Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans,” he said. “Immigrants are more fertile … and they bring a younger population. Immigrants create an engine for economic prosperity.”
He’s right. We need immigrants as much as they need us. Reforming the current system is not just an act of charity or humanity. It is an act of national self-interest.
A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau forcefully reinforces this point. For the 12 months ending July 1, 2012, more non-Hispanic whites died in America than were born. That has not happened in at least a century and signals a long-term shift in the structure of the American economy. “Today’s racial and ethnic minorities will no longer be dependent on older whites for their economic well-being,” William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times. The census data, he asserted, “makes more vivid than ever the fact that we will be reliant on younger minorities and immigrants for our future demographic and economic growth.”
Republican hardliners continue to repeat the same old tired slogans: that a path to citizenship rewards lawbreakers, hurts American workers and drains the Treasury.
If they want to commit the sort of political suicide Bonjean describes, then fine, that’s up to them. But they are wrong on the facts, and their position threatens the economic well-being of the rest of us. Here’s why. Start with the nature of the immigrant workforce. As the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank put it: “Immigrants have different skills and job preferences from native-born Americans, so they … complement rather than substitute for native-born workers.” Specifically, immigrants earn fewer high school diplomas than established Americans, but more doctorates, particularly in the sciences. Lots of fruit pickers and computer programmers. As a result, the report concludes, “Immigrants increase economic efficiency by reducing labor shortages in low- and high-skilled markets.” True, there is some competition for entry-level jobs between newcomers and natives, but “the economy as a whole gains, with substantially more winners than losers.”
When immigrants become legalized, they earn higher incomes and pay more in taxes. Once they no longer have to hide, they can go to school, improve their language skills, qualify for better jobs, move more freely to seek work and bargain more effectively with their employers.
A study from the Center for American Progress, which leans left, estimates that legalization would increase immigrant incomes by 15 percent over 10 years. That translates into $392 billion in additional earnings and $109 billion in additional taxes. The Congressional Budget Office says this surge in economic activity would cut the federal deficit by close to $1 trillion over the next two decades. And that’s not the only benefit. Young immigrant workers can help shore up Social Security as aging baby boomers start retiring and stressing the system. “If undocumented immigrants acquire legal status,” reports the Center for American Progress, “they will contribute far more to the Social Security system than they will take out and will strengthen the solvency of Social Security over the next 36 years.”
As Jeb Bush points out, immigrants are far more likely to create businesses than established Americans. Attention focuses on the most visible examples — Google, Intel, eBay — but Korean greengrocers and Mexican landscapers also hire workers and generate economic activity.
Finally, the Senate bill would vastly increase the visas available for foreign-born scientists and engineers. These folks are so valuable to any economy that Canada recently erected billboards in Silicon Valley, urging discontented techies to move north if they were having legal troubles in the U.S.
If Republicans are really serious about what they say, if they really believe in economic growth, then they should enthusiastically support immigration reform.
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Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.