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Turning down temperature on illegal immigration

The great virtue of the last year’s hysterical debate over healthcare -- possibly its only virtue -- was that it shoved another hysteria-inducing issue to the back burner.

That issue is immigration. But now that healthcare reform is a reality, immigration has reemerged to slake our communal thirst for hallucinatory political discussion.

The two extremes of the immigration debate line up like this: One side says legalizing the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants will produce an economic boom -- $1.5 trillion added to U.S. GDP over 10 years, says UCLA; $16 billion for California from legalizing undocumented adult Latinos alone, according to USC.

The other side maintains that illegal immigrants steal jobs from native-born Americans and contribute mightily to our huge state budget deficit. The cost of taxpayer-funded benefits for “illegals,” says Steve Poizner, who’s running for the GOP nomination for governor, has sent California over a cliff. (His latest TV commercial shows a car plunging into a ravine, which seems like a rather spendthrift way of making the point, for someone who’s all about economic responsibility.)

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Given the prevalence of overheated rhetoric on the topic, the Public Policy Institute of California should be lauded for its effort to lower the temperature. The institute stated in a report released this month that legalizing most currently unauthorized workers would have no appreciable effect on the labor market -- giving the legalized workers neither a huge boost in earning potential nor the chance to shoulder aside native-born workers in their communities.

The PPIC is a nonpartisan research organization whose board members range from former Democratic Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg to Republican lawyer Steve Merksamer. So when it speaks, its words are worth heeding.

The group’s study doesn’t directly address the projections of an economic boom from legalization or assessments of illegal immigration’s costs.

“But it provides evidence that this doesn’t need to be such a hot emotional issue,” Laura Hill, one of the report’s authors, told me. “We’re not talking about taking things away from people and giving them to others. It’s a more neutral story.”

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That story is that illegal workers in the U.S. are neither a massive threat to native-born or legal workers nor a vast untapped driver of economic expansion.

The study is based on data from the New Immigrant Survey, a multiyear study of newly legal immigrants funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It found that immigrants’ job prospects and earning potential have less to do with their legal status than with the same characteristics of educational attainment, family economic levels, language skills and length of time in the workforce that govern job mobility for everyone.

Wholesale legalization for low-skilled farm or construction workers, therefore, won’t make them suddenly more competitive with native-born workers with the same skills, not to speak of legal workers higher on the employment scale.

“In the short term, we don’t expect the low-skilled unauthorized immigrants to move up in their types of jobs, nor earn more,” Hill says.

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“We don’t expect to see a negative effect on native workers either.”

The study casts doubt on expectations that tax revenues would surge after legalization, whether because workers would move out of the underground economy or because they would raise their economic status. The data suggest that the vast majority of illegal workers already file tax returns or pay taxes through workplace withholding.

What does this mean for policy? It should help us focus on the important points of the debate by eliminating the unimportant, such as labor market impacts. The PPIC’s findings accommodate plenty of reasons to create a path to legal status, perhaps by requiring illegal workers to meet requirements such as language proficiency and to wait in line for a green card. Legalization, the report argues, could encourage active participation in the community, bring workers out of the shadows, discourage their abuse and mistreatment and improve immigrant education by helping to stabilize their families -- all positives for society.

There will be costs, and as usual these will fall most heavily on state and local governments. Federal welfare reforms have already helped to wipe out access to relief even for many legal immigrants, but if a legalization program requires English proficiency, educational systems will need federal help meeting that need.

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It would be encouraging if the PPIC findings feed the recent trend in California away from immigrant-bashing as a state sport. A USC/Los Angeles Times poll this month showed strong majorities favoring a guest worker program or a path to permanent legalization, and a shift away from depriving illegal residents of state services. The latter course was strongly favored by registered Republicans, though.

That makes Poizner’s decision to place an anti-"illegals” pitch front and center in his campaign seem very 1994. (Republican Gov. Pete Wilson rode Proposition 187, which denied state services to undocumented residents, to reelection that year; a federal judge later nixed the initiative.)

Meg Whitman, who is handily outdistancing Poizner for the nomination, deserves credit for taking a sensible stance on immigration. During a trip to the border, she acknowledged (according to the San Diego Union-Tribune) that it would be “not practical” to deport the nation’s illegal immigrants, and spoke in favor of a path to legalization.

Unfortunately, she made those remarks in October, before Poizner started sliming her as soft on illegal immigrants. And that was that. Today you won’t find any mention of a path to legalization on Whitman’s website. Its immigration issues page is all about raiding factory floors, calling out the National Guard to keep illegals out, and denying undocumented immigrants admission to the state universities. She sounds like a Stevie-come-lately.

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Of course, when you’re trying to appeal to a narrow constituency, narrow-mindedness is often the key. Let’s hope that whoever prevails in the upcoming election falls more into step with the entire electorate.

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Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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