Immigration Is an Economic Issue

By Tate Watkins

Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign manager now laments his former boss’s hard right turn on immigration during the GOP primaries, a move that included Romney’s now-infamous “self-deportation” stance. “I regret that,” Romney’s campaign manager Matt Rhoades said at a recent Harvard conference when asked about the decision to run to the right of Rick Perry on immigration issues.

In touting “self-deportation,” Romney claimed that as president he would advocate immigration policies to make economic conditions so unbearable for undocumented immigrants that they would choose to leave the country themselves. The stance appears to have done little to endear him to minority voters, who traditionally value immigration as an important electoral issue. President Barack Obama beat Romney among Latino voters 71 percent to 27 percent. In 2008, John McCain won 31 percent of that vote; George W. Bush garnered 44 percent of Latino votes in 2004.

While his stance appears to have hurt him in the presidential election, Romney may have unwittingly shown his party the way forward on immigration: approach the issue in terms of economics. Treating the issue as an economic one may be Republicans’ best bet to control the message and, ultimately, legislation relating to it. But the GOP will have trouble winning political points on immigration as long as they eschew economic sense.

Since election day, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been outspoken about his party’s approach to and rhetoric about immigration. “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on healthcare if they think you want to deport their grandmother," Rubio said at a forum in Washington, D.C., the week after the election. “I mean, it’s very difficult to get people to listen to anything else you are saying.”

“In order for this economy to grow dynamically,” Rubio recently told Politico, “this country is going to need a 21st century legal immigration system.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a long-time immigration reform advocate, echoed Rubio’s emphasis on the economy to Politico. “I think Democrats realized that our economy needs immigration reform,” Graham said. “You can’t get the workers you need; illegal immigration hurts us economically, politically and socially.”

Renewed focus on immigration post-election led Republicans to introduce two bills in Congress over the past two weeks. One, which passed in the Republican-controlled House, would have granted up to 55,000 visas to non-citizens who earn advanced degrees at in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math.

But Democrats in the Senate blocked the bill, partly because it would have also eliminated the diversity visa program. That program grants visas each year for up to 55,000 people “from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States,” immigrants who are generally low-skill workers. Congressional Democrats criticized the bill as one tailored to do little more than pander to minority voters who favored President Obama in the election and denounced it as a move that could actually reduce legal immigration. “It is alarming that Republican supporters of this bill view immigration as a zero-sum gain where we can only grant STEM visas by eliminating Diversity Visas," Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) said on the House floor.

The bill’s zero-sum approach not only cost Republicans in Congress, it didn’t make sense economically. Economist Madeline Zavodny of the American Enterprise Institute has found no evidence that immigration leads to fewer jobs for U.S.-born workers, and her work has shown that both highly-educated immigrants as well as low-skill ones with temporary work visas correspond with more job opportunities for U.S. natives. She specifically found that adding 100 low-skill H-2B visa workers corresponds with an additional 464 jobs for natives in a given state. Zavodny notes that some of the positive correlation between immigrant workers and native jobs could be attributed to a state’s strong economic performance. But the results, she writes, support the idea that employers “use guest workers not to replace American workers but to fill critical needs, allowing operations to continue or expand, which in turn creates additional jobs for Americans.”

Similarly, research by Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California-Davis, suggests that immigration has a small effect on wages for native-born workers, and that the effect on average wages is positive. Peri has examined inflows of migrants from 1990 to 2007 and found that immigration over that period was associated with about a $6,000 increase in yearly income for the average American worker, in 2012 dollars. He attributes the income gains to increased economic efficiency and productivity spurred by immigration, concluding that “immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity.”

There’s widespread agreement that the U.S. could use more STEM workers and that issuing more visas for workers in these fields makes policy sense. As it stands now, many foreigners educated at U.S. public universities are forced to return home after graduating instead of being permitted to remain in the country and work. But benefits to the U.S. economy from high-skilled immigration needn’t come at the cost of sacrificing what are essentially low-skilled visas.

Over the past two years, a handful of states have served as test laboratories for how immigration policy can affect a 21st-century U.S. economy. In the summer of 2011, a Georgia law designed to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state resulted in a shortfall of more than 10,000 agricultural workers, according to the state’s Agriculture Commissioner. After 2011’s fall harvest in Alabama, a similar law that had been sponsored by Republicans in that state was credited with producing meager crop yields due to labor shortages. University of Alabama economist Samuel Addy has estimated the law could cost Alabama as much as $10.8 million in GDP.

Art Carden, a professor of economics at Birmingham’s Samford University, says Alabama’s law is undoubtedly a negative for the state. “Proponents of the law say it’s about creating jobs for Alabamians,” Carden wrote in The Birmingham News last month, “but immigrants don’t ‘steal jobs.’ Immigrants are usually near the top or the bottom of the global skill distribution, while most Americans are in the middle. This means they bring skills that are complements to rather than substitutes for Americans’ skills.”

“If Alabama leaders are interested in long-run economic growth,” Carden continued, “their enthusiasm for increasingly-burdensome immigration restrictions is the exact opposite of wise policy.”

In a state very different from Alabama, Teddy Chery sees similar opportunities for foreign-born workers to complement natives. Haiti-born Chery works for the Cambridge Mayor’s office and is active in Boston’s Haitian American community. “If you’re looking at increasing the immigration pool for the job market,” he says, “because we know there are certain jobs that an American individual, he or she will never do because of too much pride—but when you’re talking about a Haitian person or someone from a third world country … they have no problem doing it as long as it’s a respectable job, they’re working hard, and they just want to save money to help their family.”

“They will do it,” Chery adds. “Why wouldn’t you allow these people to come in?”

As some GOP leaders recognize the party’s need to shift its immigration approach and tone, one way forward is to embrace it on the party’s bread-and-butter terms—economics. Policy can be crafted to power the U.S. economy at both the high- and low-skill ends, but for Republicans to make political headway on immigration, they may be stimied from sacrificing economic sense by an unlikely crew—Congressional Democrats.

Tate Watkins is a 2012 Phillips Foundation fellow. He lives in Port-au-Prince.

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