Immigration Reform Critics Not All Crazy Bigots

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I knew it was you, Marco. You broke my heart. You broke my heart. Photo: Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

Earlier this week, when the Heritage Foundation released its much-anticipated paper claiming the immigration bill would cost a bazillion dollars, something unusual happened: Large numbers of Republicans widely, though not uniformly, denounced it as shoddy, agenda-driven bunkum. This had never happened before — not when Heritage predicted the Bush tax cuts would deliver far more revenue than anybody expected, or when it projected Paul Ryan’s budget would push unemployment below 3 percent, or that poor people have it great because manufactured appliances are cheap.

The Heritage paper was expected to be a moment when the forces of rebellion within the GOP rallied, when a prestigious conservative institution connected the measure to the bugaboo of big government. Instead, something like the opposite seems to have happened. The party Establishment, which has calculated that it needs to suture off the immigration wound, struck back hard and fast. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a leading Republican economist, said the report “misleads.” Arch-conservative Republican Senator Jeff Flake assailed it. “I don't believe their report is really legitimate,” added Marco Rubio. By the normally prevailing standards of party unity, these are fighting words.

The release of the Heritage report signaled that, even if this effort at immigration reform ends the same way as the failed 2007 overhaul, it will transpire differently. Republican advocates will not be cowering before the baying mobs of the right but asserting themselves confidently, inflicting damage of their own. For an outfit like Heritage to find its intellectual bona fides questioned by fellow Republicans is the sort of reputational harm that might give it, and other conservatives skeptics, pause about throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the rebellion.

The Heritage study debacle has marginalized the anti-immigration wing of the party, with all the Democrats and many of the Republicans piling on. The trouble is going to be significantly worsened by Dylan Matthews’s explosive revelation that a co-author of the Heritage study argued that Latino immigrants have inherently lower IQs than white Americans, having once written, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” That is not going to play well on Univision, and is going to only hasten the GOP’s panic to pass a bill and put the issue behind them.

But the political optics of this have thrown off a slightly misleading impression about the underlying policy debate. The Heritage immigration study is, indeed, a horrendously shoddy piece of work. (Here’s one thorough debunking.) By the low, low standards of Heritage Foundation work, on the other hand, it’s actually rather sturdy. As commentators like Andrew Biggs and David Frum have pointed out, the cooking of the books exaggerates, but does not wholly concoct, a certain underlying truth. The legalized immigrants disproportionately have low levels of educational attainment. Hard-working though they may be, they are more likely to reside in the bottom half of the income distribution, the half that pays lower tax rates and receives a higher share of benefits.

What’s more (conservatives haven’t pointed this out), the hardening class divisions in American society render it less certain that these immigrants will follow the path of upward mobility that previous generations had. It is far more difficult for working-class families to propel their children upward today than it was during most of the twentieth century.

Higher levels of immigration do create more dynamism, more wealth, for the economy as a whole, but those gains are not equally shared. As the Congressional Budget Office concluded, higher levels of unskilled immigration would “slow the growth of the wages of workers already present in the United States with whom they most closely compete.” (Keep in mind that those working-class Americans suffering from increased wage pressure includes a healthy dose of recent immigrants themselves.)

Affluent Americans would continue to benefit from the availability of cheap labor, of course. By contrast, letting in more high-skill immigrants would both increase economic growth and reduce inequality, by subjecting educated American workers to wage competition. (And guess what: college-educated workers don’t like the prospect of cheaper foreign competition any more than the working class does.)

This argues for tilting the balance of the bill toward a higher ratio of skilled to unskilled labor. Remember, the immigration bill isn’t only about finding a way to handle undocumented immigrants. It also reforms future avenues of legal immigration. Frequent Republican adviser Yuval Levin sensibly proposes that the bill be amended to let in fewer low-skilled legal immigrants and more higher-skilled legal immigrants:

Amending the bill to significantly reduce the scale of low-skill immigration (by eliminating the guest-worker program and changing the merit-point system to place far greater value on education and skills) would be a major change, of course, but not one that undercuts the fundamental compromise of the bill, which is about a balance between border enforcement and legalization rather than high- and low-skill immigration.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out how this would help the bill pass. The only constituency for a change like that would be labor unions and liberals. Business wants as much cheap labor as it can get, and social conservatives want as little immigration as they can get. The politics of the immigration bill are ugly, and the compromise currently on offer has taken its current form because it is the best remedy the willing supporters could find, and the only way to get a law past the yahoos of the right. Still, the stupidity of the political opposition shouldn’t obscure the fact that the best intellectual critiques of the Gang of Eight bill are more substantive than you might think.