February 3, 2013

Think again: Fallacies about immigration

As the president and a bipartisan group of senators champion comprehensive reform, it's a good time to clear up misconceptions about benefits and costs.

By SHANNON O'NEIL Foreign Policy

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"Immigration hurts U.S. workers and local economies."

Most studies suggest the opposite. Nearly all economists agree that immigration helps the U.S. economy overall. Where the debates begin is how these benefits are distributed -- who wins and who loses.

The most careful studies show that women, those with college degrees and those with any advanced education (degree or not) come out ahead, even if they live in areas with high levels of immigration. U.S.-born men with a high school degree or less fare worse, though the average effect amounts to only a few dollars a week (some 1 percent of total wages).

Those hit hardest are other immigrants, who directly compete with newcomers. In economic parlance, U.S.-born workers of almost all stripes tend to "complement" rather than "substitute" for immigrants.

Studies also find that restrictive immigration laws -- such as those passed in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina -- hurt local workers and local economies. By scaring away immigrants, not only do farms and factories suffer, but so do main street businesses and public tax rolls, as restaurants, grocery stores, malls and laundromats sit empty.

A study out of the University of Alabama estimates the state's annual GDP may shrink by up to $11 billion, or 6 percent, in the wake of its reforms. Others find similar economic effects when conducting state-level estimates of deporting unauthorized immigrants in Arizona and California. More broadly, reports by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and Brookings Institution find that restrictive immigration laws actually reduce the number of jobs in local economies by shrinking both production and the local consumer base.

Other studies show that it is the illegal aspect -- not immigration per se -- that hits lower-skilled U.S.-born workers the hardest. The vulnerable nature of illegal immigrants allows unprincipled employers to underpay and underprotect their employees. If these immigrants were legalized, wages for all workers on the lower-skilled rungs would rise. 

"We can't pass immigration reform until we secure the border."

It doesn't and can't work that way. Over the last 12 years the number of border-patrol agents has doubled -- making the Customs and Border Patrol one of the largest police forces in the nation. The federal budget for border enforcement has also grown to more than $18 billion dollars a year.

The added money has gone to fund boots on the ground, some 700 miles of physical fencing, sophisticated border technology and a growing number of detention centers. Prosecutions for illegal entry are at an all-time high -- now representing half of all federal crimes.

With all these resources and manpower, the border has arguably become the securest it has ever been. Apprehensions have declined from a high of some 1.7 million in 2000 to now just a fifth of those levels. Crime rates are also down. Despite sharing a border with Ciudad Juarez, one of the deadliest cities in the world over the past few years, El Paso reported only 16 homicides during 2011. The numbers for less-reported crimes, such as kidnapping, have also fallen.

The much-discussed threat of spillover violence has not only failed to materialize in El Paso, but also in other border-linked cities -- including San Antonio, San Diego and Austin -- all of which boast safer records than similar-size cities far from the Rio Grande.

In the end, U.S. politicians must recognize that the border can't be sealed; it can only be managed. And with more than a billion dollars' worth of legal goods, 400,000 people, 13,000 trucks and 1,000 railroad cars crossing each day, the costs of more enforcement go beyond Homeland Security budgets, as billions in revenue and an estimated 6 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico.

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