As an absolute number, the number of immigrants in America has never been greater. Previously, the number of immigrants in the United States had peaked near 15 million around 1930, about 15% of the population at the time, but declined steadily through 1970 to less than 10 million, fewer than 5% of the population, due to the Great Depression, new legislation, and World War II. However, the immigrant population began increasing rapidly in the 1970s, surpassed the 15 million mark in 1980, and baring severe policy reform shows no sign of slowing down.
In 2012, the Census Bureau reported that there were 40.8 million foreign born people living in the United States, up 1.1% from 2011, and accounting for 13% of the total population. These people include both legal and illegal residents, naturalized citizens, refugees, and those on certain temporary visas.
As a political issue, immigration hasn’t been this hot in decades. Although most headline ideological positions on the issue haven’t changed, the economic impact of immigration has changed rapidly. As the immigrant population grows, so does its economic footprint, and it appears now to have reached a tipping point. As the White House so neatly summed it up, “America’s immigration system is broken,” and things only get worse when a broken system is overloaded, which means that the cost of doing nothing is enormous.
The cost is so enormous, in fact, that policymakers have been compelled to act. Notably, in April of 2013, a bipartisan “gang of eight” Senators led by Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S.744). The act, among other things, would create a more cogent path to citizenship, increase border security, increase the number of work visas granted, and invest in jobs programs for youth. Ambitiously, the bill seeks to reduce illegal border crossings by 90%, while simultaneously offering amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
These reforms would, ostensibly, address the economic imperative to fix the system. According to the Congressional Budget office, relative to current law, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that S.744 would:
- “Increase the size of the labor force and employment,
- Increase average wages in 2025 and later years (but decrease them before that),
- Slightly raise the unemployment rate through 2020,
- Boost the amount of capital investment,
- Raise the productivity of labor and of capital, and
- Result in higher interest rates.”
S.744 came out of committee in May and was passed by the Senate at the end of June, but the 113th Congress adjourned before ever taking it up. Though president Obama took executive action regarding immigration, the bill is still awaiting action. Although the bill has gained the support of some Republicans, many on the right remain sternly opposed to the legislation.
It’s worth stepping back at this point to understand why there is conservative opposition to S.744. As Princeton profession Helen V. Milner and Harvard professor Dustin Tingley observe in a working paper, “In principle, conservatives should support unrestricted immigration. Interfering with the flow of people means government interference with the market. However, many immigration policies involve the question of who pays for the costs of immigration and its control, and conservatives are also opposed to higher taxes for the same reason.”
To many on the right, the perceived costs of immigration are so great that they actually flip the economic argument around. Instead of being an economic boon, immigration instead agitates deep-seated disagreements about redistributive fiscal policy. Milner and Tingley quote Republican Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia as saying “I think that there are two great political issues that face this country. One is welfare reform and the other is immigration reform. Unfortunately, the two of them are inextricably linked together. … if we do not address one, it is going to be almost impossible to address and solve the other.”
Positioned this way, criticisms about the bill take on new light. For example, it’s unclear (and maybe even unlikely) that the bill would actually increase border security or institute more effective enforcement. The CBO itself estimated that S.744 would only reduce the inflow of illegal immigrants by 25% while the bill promises a much more severe reduction. Moreover, many conservatives believe that granting amnesty will increase the net fiscal burden of the government, and thereby the taxpayers.
Implicit in the strong conservative position is the idea that because immigration and welfare are “inextricably linked together,” immigrants lean toward the liberal side of the political spectrum. This means that amnesty as well as more easily traversal roads to citizenship would increase the liberal political base, which in turn would agitate the welfare issue.
“As the fiscal costs of immigration rise, one should expect increasing numbers of conservative groups to oppose it,” Milner and Tingley write. “Thus, we expect conservative legislators to support an open immigration policy to the extent that the policy does not pose a significant tax burden, but to oppose legislation involving public spending for immigrants. We also expect them to oppose legislation that places the burden of immigration restriction on employers. Further, if an immigrant group is expected to join liberal political groups, they might also oppose increased visas since this may increase the number of liberal voters in the future.”
The opposite is true on the other side of the fence. “If immigration is seen as economically beneficial, or in some way fulfilling a desirable set of political goals (e.g., expanding the coalition of groups that favor redistributive programs), then left-wing legislators may favor less restrictive immigration policies, such as higher visa limits and less border control.”
The headline Democratic position definitely sees immigration as economically beneficial, and while S.744 promises increased border security, many on the right believe that the effort is insincere because of the political goals described. Further, a left-wing policymaker is expected to ask employers to bear more of the cost of immigration control than a right-wing policymaker typically would. Asking businesses to shoulder increased costs in this way violates the anti-interventionist position at the heart of the conservative fiscal agenda.
From here, it’s easy to see why there is conservative opposition to S.744, and why there is liberal support. The political and economic reasoning is clear. Unfortunately, it’s also ideologically divisive. While both groups agree that the status quo is outrageously costly, one party’s solution is another party’s poison.