May 19, 2013

Barney Frank: Immigration a good problem to have

As Congress debates reforms, it's important to remember the people our democracy attracts.

I began writing this as a discussion of immigration. Then came the news of the outrageous behavior by the IRS, choosing groups for audit based on their political views. Especially as a supporter of the Obama administration, I have an obligation to begin the column by strongly condemning this assault on democracy.

Those who perpetrated it, and any officials who knew of it and didn't stop it, should be fired. And the results of audits of those selected on a political basis should be negated.

Now, on to immigration. Three points are important to keep in mind as the congressional debate proceeds.

First, the fact that we need to regulate the flow of people coming into to our country is a good thing, not a bad one. It is the result of the United States continuing to be one of the most desirable places in the world to live.

The time to start worrying that migration is a serious problem for America is when, like a variety of other nations, we have to worry that too many of our most talented and ambitious citizens want to leave, not when too many want to join us.

While I was skeptical in Congress of some of the most expensive proposals to build an impenetrable barrier on our southern border, I disagree strongly with some of my liberal friends who likened it to the Berlin Wall. A wall to limit the number of noncitizens a free society absorbs is the diametric opposite of a barrier erected by an oppressive regime to prevent its citizens from escape.

Second, while the bad news is that the number of people wishing to move to America is more than we can accept, the very good news -- outweighing the bad -- is that they are very much the kind of people who will help our society thrive.

The single most important aspect of immigration is that lazy people don't emigrate.

Immigrants are self-selected individuals whose desire to improve their own and their families' lives drives them to leave their homes, their friends -- even temporarily some of their family members -- to go to a foreign country where they have no guarantees of success, may not know the language, have no supporting network or contacts and limited, if any, legal rights. They do this believing it will increase their incomes.

Those volunteering to take this kind of risk are the most energetic, entrepreneurial, hardest working segments of any society. This is of course the historical pattern that has made America one of the most successful nations in history.

It's as if we brain-drained virtually every other country in the world, to send us their most adaptable, ambitious citizens to make up our population.

This is the single biggest reason our economy has over time been the most vibrant and prosperous in history.

The third point directly relates to this one. A major effort to prevent congressional Republicans from supporting comprehensive immigration reform has been launched by the right wing.

Its manifesto is an article written under the auspices of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation objecting that providing legal status to millions currently working here without the legal right to do so will cost us trillions of dollars because they will then be eligible for public benefits.

But this is contradicted by the fact that immigrants have come to work -- often at the low end of the wage scale.

And it is even more strongly in conflict with the assertion by the harshest anti-immigration critics -- namely that millions of immigrants are illegally receiving welfare for which they are ineligible.

If people who are illegally in our country are already getting welfare, how can letting them achieve legal status increase welfare costs?

True there is one cost that will come when some people now working are granted legal status.

Those who are employed under false Social Security numbers are paying into the Social Security fund and are not collecting benefits, helping to sustain that program.

But this recognizes that these immigrants want to work, not that they are welfare seekers.

America is a unique country made up entirely of immigrants and their descendants. This is not entirely a good thing because the first immigrants, in their drive for wealth, plundered and slaughtered the indigenous residents.

But the question facing public policy today is what the economic impact in America of immigration will be. It has been wholly positive historically, and there is every reason to believe that this will continue.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

 

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