Immigration / Politics

Immigration Reform: Whom Does America Want?

Following through on one of his core campaign promises, President Trump ended DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) last year, the Obama era executive order that gives work permits to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children.   Starting September 5th, 2017, Congress had six months to come up with a replacement before the 800,000 DACA recipients, referred to as DREAMers, lost legal protection.  The March 5th deadline is now long gone, with all four bills the Senate took up to address the issue voted down.  Thanks to a federal judge in California earlier this year, the Trump Administration must maintain the program nationally until legislation changes.  The program is taking applications from previous recipients for renewal, but few are applying for fear of changes in policy that may lead to deportation.

At the root of the DACA debate, and following the lack of Congressional action, is the growing need for, and paralyzing controversy over, comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.  If Congress and the Executive Branch cannot agree to protections for the most sympathetic group of immigrants, those who came under the age of 16 and have a high school diploma, GED certification, or are still in school, then the prospects of wide reform is not looking good.  The question becomes, whom does America want?

One debate centers on the skill and economic contributions of immigrants and whether immigrants compete for jobs and unfairly take advantage of American resources.  National Economics experts overwhelmingly agree that the average U.S. citizen would be better off if a large number of highly educated foreign workers were legally allowed to immigrate each year.[1]  This demographic of immigrants is, in fact, largely welcomed by the United States.  H-1B visas for high-skilled foreign workers accounted for 24% of all temporary visas for employment issued in 2016.[2] Under the Trump Administration, however, the number of H-1B applications challenged by the federal government increased, and the administration has considered restricting the number of years foreign workers can hold H-1B visas.  In opposition, Congress continues their efforts to expand the program.

Looking at low-skilled immigrants, the issue becomes slightly more complicated.  Still, national experts agree that the average U.S. citizen would be better off if a large number of low skilled foreign workers were legally allowed to enter the U.S. each year.  However, these economists also agree that unless they were compensated by others, many low-skilled American workers would be substantially worse off in this case.[3]  Since the average citizen would be better off with this influx of immigrants, a solution would be for them to pay in taxes enough to compensate those low-skilled Americans, resulting in a net increase in wealth across the board.  The reality is that this distribution rarely happens.

From an economic standpoint, immigration can benefit all Americans with compensation for low skilled Americans available.  It follows that the government should be less concerned with targeting entire categories of immigrants such as low skilled or high skilled, even if they came illegally, and focus on effective screenings for potential drug traffickers or terrorists entering the country and posing an immediate threat with no economic value.

The government should know who is here, and devote resources to welcoming all those with positive contributions, and better screen and block those who threaten national security.  The inadequate screening process has had major consequences: all nineteen September 11 hijackers entered the United States legally.[4]  Now with the threat of opioids and other illegal drugs entering the country, resources devoted to more effective targeting should be initiated.  Custom and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations confiscated a combined 102,000 pounds of cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl this year, yet officers are leaving their posts faster than they can be replaced.[5]  Border Patrol agents report that they need more technology and additional personnel to curb the illegal traffic, not a wall that will drain capital and not come fast enough.  Last year, Customs and Border Protection spend $20 million on border wall prototypes, but this inconceivably expensive effort to block all illegal immigration does not address the screening question that allows threats to enter the country in the first place.[6]  Additionally, 224 tunnels have been identified on the Southwest border primarily to move large volumes of marijuana that government proposals don’t address. Other tactics of smuggling drugs that have adapted to circumvent a wall include catapults, ultra-light aircrafts, drones, air-guns and more—all of which are best addressed through better detection technologies than a wall. [7]

The controversy over immigration should avoid nationalist rhetoric and focus on targeting and ameliorating the immediate threats to American citizens.  With overdoses as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, resources should be devoted to the location and eradication of illegal trafficking of fentanyl and carfentanil. Increasing the effectiveness of federal institutions instead of increasing spending will foster trust in the government dovetailed by positive economic growth coming from immigrant contributions.