The Other Side of Immigration

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The California Supreme Court recently upheld the granting of instate tuition at state colleges to illegal immigrants. In a letter printed June 17 in the Independent, Bill Dunlap took umbrage at this decision and used it as an occasion to call for immigration reform. I also think we need reform, but suspect Mr. Dunlap and I part ways on how to accomplish that.

First things first, why shouldn’t we overreact to this particular court decision? To be sure, there have been a number of studies to show that illegal immigrants cost state and local taxpayers more in government services than they pay in taxes. Overall, this seems true, though the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that “the impact is most likely modest,” while conceding that Federal aid doesn’t make up the difference.

But another study by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank split immigrants into two camps: The educated and undereducated. Their study shows each undereducated illegal is a net drain to the tune of $89,000 over his/her lifetime. However, the educated illegals (high school or better) are net contributors, adding $105,000 more in taxes than they collect in benefits over their lifetimes. Net, the rest of us are winners in this narrow cost-benefit analysis if illegal immigrants educate themselves and we help them do it. Parenthetically, the FED found that educated illegals are more likely to become entrepreneurs than their native born counterparts, which, of course, is a much lauded virtue in our economy and a key to job growth.

Like many things in life, I suspect the whole issue of illegal immigration is more complicated than quick sound bites would have us believe. For example, most studies focus on government revenues versus expenditures. Unfortunately this ignores the benefits of the labor these workers add to GDP. It also ignores the benefits they add as consumers of goods and services produced by the private sector. If these benefits are added in, the conclusion of a drain on the economy may be false. The Dallas FED even concluded that well-managed immigration might help solve our fiscal problems. Hence, I lean towards immigration reform that focuses on managing the process more effectively, reducing new immigration, but including a path to citizenship for those already here.

However, given the controversy, I went looking for more information and sought out a pioneer in the field of illegal immigration. Here’s part of that conversation.

Me: “So help me out here, are illegal immigrants really a drain on the economy or do they contribute more than they cost?”

Moses: “Well, it depends on how you employ them. They’re very hard workers. If you use them on growth projects, they really pay off. The Pharaoh figured that out early on. Couldn’t have finished all those big public works projects in his stimulus package without them. The problem comes when you use them to do things you could do yourself.”

Me: “Could you give me an example of that?”

Moses: “Hmm, sure. Take housework. You could do all that on your own, so, when you use illegal immigrants to do it, it’s not so much of a gain.”

Me: “So we should all start doing our own cleaning and yard work?”

Moses: “Whoa, be careful what you wish for, son. That might be sound economics, but there are unintended consequences.”

Me: “For example?”

Moses: “Well, what happens when a million households in California run out to buy their own lawnmowers? Parking lots at Home Depot would be jammed for months. And everybody would want to mow their lawns on weekends. Newport Beach thinks leaf blowers are noisy. Wait till 25,000 lawnmowers crank up at the same time on Saturday morning. Not to mention the time it would take away from everybody’s golf game.”

Me: “What about efforts to control our borders, the fences and so forth?”

Moses: “Save your money, son, use it to pay down the deficit. Red Sea didn’t work back in the day, and folks will always find a way over, under, or around a fence when it comes to the promised land. Coast Guard is already complaining about the increased boat traffic.”

Me: “Are there any hidden dangers to all this immigration?”

Moses: “Well, there is the risk they’ll want to take over and throw the rest of you out. You might want to give Sitting Bull a call on that one.”

Me: “But, on balance, you’re on the side of the illegal immigrants?”

Moses: “Naturally. After the Plague, we couldn’t wait to get out of Egypt.”

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