Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Terrorist Babies Attack, ctd.

Clearly, there is much more to be said on immigration. Right after finishing up my article on the topic, I check Matthew Yglesias' blog and he points me to a cool study about the effects of immigration on the labor market:
"Data show that, on net, immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity. Consistent with previous research, there is no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs for workers born in the United States."
In a subsequent post, he theorizes that allowing more immigrants in the US would be good for the housing market. Makes sense to me, although I can already see the hysterical headlines:

Foreigner Demand for Houses Pushes Out Americans!

Terrorist Babies Attack!

While last summer US Democrats were conspiring to kill off sick seniors, this summer, flocks of pregnant foreign females are flying all over the US and dropping babies, which upon touchdown start sucking up public resources and multiplying at an astonishing pace! Depending on who you believe, these offspring are either created to eventually provide US citizenship for their parents, or they are being planted as terrorist sleeper cells only to blow up when they reach the age of 18 or when they are fed after midnight, whichever comes first. It’s August in America and everything is possible!!

"People come here to have babies. They come here to drop a child. It's called “drop and leave.” To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case." These were the words of Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, who at the end of July suggested that Americans should rethink the 14th Amendment of the Constitution which grants US citizenship to anyone born in the US. And thus the principle of birthright was brought into the spotlight, creating much ado during these hot summer months.

This debate is as inconsequential as it is unsurprising. It’s lack of consequence is twofold: procedurally, it is impossible in the present political climate to amend the US constitution, so any suggestion to do so is unlikely to go anywhere; substantively, the number of children born to two foreign parents on the US soil - let alone to parents who come here specifically for the purposes of giving birth - is so comically small that the amount of attention it receives is wildly disproportionate. In other words, the debate is a ridiculous waste of time and attention span for everyone involved.

And yet no one should be surprised that it surfaced now. Ever since the state of Arizona passed a stringent immigration law in April, immigration has gone from being just another big national problem (next to health care, financial crisis, climate change, national debt, etc) to being a hotly debated issue. And any time a major complex issue comes to the forefront of collective consciousness, someone, somewhere manages to cut out a tiny sliver of the problem and completely blow it out of proportion - often reducing the entire complex issue into this one pseudo-controversial bit.

Those who paid attention to the health care reform debate last year will recognize a pattern. Back then, after months of committee hearings and negotiations on various aspects of the health care overhaul, some opponents of the proposed bill picked up on a paragraph which called for paying physicians for end-of-life counseling. This provision was distorted and portrayed as a “death panel” which will decide whether or not we should “pull the plug on grandma.” Very quickly, the hysteria over death panels became the defining element of the debate, and almost killed the nascent reform entirely. Anchor babies are the new death panels.

The amount of attention that the narrow issue of birthright receives is unfortunate because it takes away from other critical aspects of the immigration debate, namely: what should be done with roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already in the US? And how should the law governing immigration be revamped and modernized to reflect the realities and needs of the country? For a nation of immigrants, the US has a fairly spotty record in the its treatment of foreigners, and for every wave of immigrants, there is a corresponding wave of anti-immigrant backlash - anti-Chinese laws in the late nineteenth century and depression-era deportations of Mexicans are just a few examples.

But no matter which way the winds blow at any given time, immigrants are a vital component of the US, not just conceptually, but also economically: according to a landmark study by the National Research Council, the average immigrant and her immediate descendants contribute $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits. The reason for this is twofold: even though they are not eligible to use benefits due to their status, most illegal immigrants actually pay income and social security taxes - the tax authorities have smartly figured out that there is no harm in collecting money from them and don’t ask too many questions of those using fake documentation. Legal immigrants, on the other hand, have to earn above-average incomes in order to be eligible for work visas or permanent residency (so as not to compete with natives on the basis of lower pay), so by design they actually end up on the top end of the income scale, paying a disproportionate amount of taxes relative to the rest of the population.

Despite these contributions, when the economy goes south and millions of Americans lose their jobs, immigrants are almost inevitably portrayed as an existential threat. The current recession is no exception. It is one of the great ironies of this debate that while rising unemployment seems to inflate the anxiety about foreigners, immigration - legal and illegal - has actually been on the decline: according to the Department of Homeland Security, the number of illegal immigrants dropped almost 1 million in 2009, the second consecutive annual drop and the largest such drop in three decades. And it is not just illegal immigration that has been on the decline - the demand for work visas for foreign workers has dropped so much when the current recession began that in 2009 the quota for visa applications was unfilled - for the first time since 2004. So, while the opponents of immigration reform often talk as if the country was bursting at the seams with an ever-growing influx of foreigners, the recent experience - largely due to the weak economy - has been quite to the contrary.

An ever greater irony is that the US not only benefits from immigrants - it needs them desperately. The population is aging due to the generation of baby boomers growing older and reaching retirement age. What that means is that the number of people who qualify for benefits like Medicare and social security is rising dramatically - and much faster that the number of young productive people who pay for these benefits with taxes. The situation is getting even grimmer with the birth rate is dropping to the lowest level in US history in 2009, according to recently released statistics from National Center for Health Statistics. What these trends add up to is roughly $100 trillion (as in, $100,000,000,000,000) in unfunded liabilities - the difference between projected payments to beneficiaries and projected tax payments by working adults. Of course, the situation could be remedied by cutting benefits or raising taxes. But neither one of those seems possible or likely. Benefit cuts are a political suicide in a country with such a large - and politically active - senior population. Tax increases are not a slam dunk either - with one party opposing them religiously and the other party scared to do anything that might hurt the economy. In fact, it seems like replenishing the population with productive immigrants who can support the burgeoning geriatric class is the most viable option.

So while Americans are passionately debating the pros and cons of birthright citizenship, they are entirely misguided: the challenge is not how to reduce immigration - something which is happening on its own - but rather how to bring in immigrants as fast as possible. The steps taken in Congress so far demonstrate this confusion: earlier this month, Democrats in the Congress passed a bill which finances $600 million in border security funding through substantially higher visa fees for companies that hire foreign workers. Because border security is a big concern for Republicans, these anti-immigrant measures are being interpreted by some as a negotiating tactic by the Democrats to facilitate broader reform down the line. That would make sense, but only if I had been asleep during the year-long health care reform negotiation: time and time again, we saw such strategic concessions by the Democrats yield no results except to move the debate further to the right. So while it might be unwise to write off immigration reform at this point, I worry that given the direction in which this debate is going the final reform - if it ever happens - will totally miss the point.