Even Illegal Immigration Is Asset, Economists Say

<i> Stephen Moore is a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. </i>

Hyperbole, emotion and the yearning for quick fixes often obscure rational discussion of public policy, and the debate on immigration is no exception. Yet, since most Americans express concern about immigration in terms of how it affects their wallets, this is one issue that lends itself to the perspective of a dispassionate question: Can we as a nation afford to allow legal and illegal immigration to continue in its present magnitude?

Nearly every participant to the debate seems capable of providing an answer. For instance, the Federation for American Immigration Reform stresses the urgency for tighter immigration laws by contending that illegal immigrants “represent a net tax drain of between $4 billion and $8 billion a year.” In contrast, Latinos and many labor-intensive businesses argue that illegal immigrants are economic bargains, because they take jobs that citizens don’t want while paying their fair share of taxes.

A look at the debate record, however, reveals little testimony from the one group that should be in the best position to assess the economic costs and benefits of immigrants--namely, economists.

In an effort to infuse the debate with a greater contribution from this field, last summer I polled past presidents of the American Economic Assn. and those who have served on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers on the economic consequences of immigrants. The consensus that emerged may serve to clear the air of much of the unsubstantiated rhetoric: Immigrants--both legal and illegal--have been and continue to be net contributors to the nation’s economy.

The 28 economists in the survey stand at the top of their profession; their qualifications to speak on issues that involve the nation’s economic well-being are unrivaled. In fact, it would be difficult to compile a list of more distinguished economic scholars. They represent a broad spectrum of economic disciplines and philosophies, from the Keynesian John Kenneth Galbraith to the champion of the free market, Milton Friedman.

The survey asked four questions of relevance to immigration policy:

On balance , what effect has 20th-Century immigration into the United States had on the nation’s economic growth? This question was raised to put the current immigration issue in historical perspective.

The result: 82% responded that the effect of these immigrants has been “very favorable” and 18% answered “slightly favorable.” None of the respondents gave “unfavorable” or “slightly unfavorable” as an assessment.

What level of immigration would have the most favorable impact on the U.S. standard of living? This, of course, is the policy question of the greatest long-run consequence to U.S. growth, since illegal immigrants, for the most part, live and work here on a temporary basis, while legal immigrants and their descendants add to the permanent stock of citizens.

The result: 57% of the economists favored admitting more legal immigrants, while 32% felt that the present number is optimal. Not one of the 28 economists advocated lowering the level of legal immigration, as recommended in past attempts at immigration reform by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.).

What impact does illegal immigration, in its current magnitude, have on the U.S. economy? That is, what is the net effect of illegal immigration? The most forceful objections to illegal immigrants have tended to be economic. Simpson has consistently maintained that reform is necessary because illegal immigration “depresses the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.” Another active player in the immigration debate, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach) asserts that “somewhere between 20% and 40% of illegal immigrants displace American workers.”

Result: A surprising 75% of the economists surveyed said that illegal immigrants have a net “positive impact” on the U.S. economy, against 11% who said that they have a “negative” effect.

Do you feel that recent immigrants are qualitatively different in economic terms than immigrants in past years? This question is of particular interest because public opinion polls since at least the turn of the century that American citizens have favored the immigrants who had come before, but have felt antagonism toward the immigrants entering at that time.

These sentiments continue to prevail. The country’s most recent immigrants--who come mostly from Mexico, the Caribbean and the Far East--face the now familiar charge of being less desirable than immigrants of past decades.

Result: The economists dismiss this contention altogether. Only 7% of the respondents believed that the “recent immigrants have a more negative impact than past immigrants.”

The overall results of this survey lead to another question: How important are the views of economists in crafting a more rational and just immigration policy?

The purpose of this survey was certainly not to suggest that economic matters should be the sole policy concern. But when Sen. Simpson and anti-immigration groups contend, for instance, that employer sanctions will stimulate the economy by freeing up jobs for American workers, it should be recognized that the economics community almost universally rejects this notion.

On an issue as important as immigration, it would be a shame to base policy on false contentions.