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Opinion: Dispensing with a new 'dagger' against immigration reform - The Hill

Opinion: Dispensing with a new 'dagger' against immigration reform

By Juan Williams - 02/18/13 06:00 AM ET

There’s a new “Dagger” of an argument against immigration reform being heard on Capitol Hill and it needs to be dispensed with quickly.

But first some history:

In 2007, the “Dagger” of an idea that killed President Bush’s effort at reforming the immigration system was lax border security. Talk radio fired up the opposition by claiming that the borders were so porous that reform was just a reward for people who had already broken the law and a magnet for others to follow them and illegally enter the U.S.

In 2013, that argument has lost its edge. There are a record number of border patrol agents in place, along with electronic surveillance and even walls to seal off the borders. Illegal border crossings are now so low that some estimate more people are leaving than arriving.

So opponents of reform have turned to a new argument to fire up the far-right talk show crowd, scare Tea Party politicians and block GOP support for reform. 

It goes like this: Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are “Takers” not “Makers.”

This latest “Dagger” aimed at killing reform is a pointed look at the cost of allowing the 11 million estimated illegal immigrants in the U.S. to have a pathway to citizenship.

“When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith [R-Texas].

Or as one visitor to my Facebook page described illegal immigrants last week: They are “just more liberals leeches looking for handouts. Typical democRAT voters.” He also added: “Screw ‘em.”

Much of this scurrilous attack is based on a study released last August by The Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration group. It found that 39 percent of households led by legal immigrants used welfare programs, specifically food assistance and Medicaid.

The report also claimed that 57 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants get welfare of some sort, such as free school lunches, food stamps, public housing and rent subsidies. Another report, done by Kaiser Health News, found emergency hospital visits by illegal immigrants with injuries, illness or pregnancies cost about $2 billion annually.

This argument is no dangerous “Dagger.”

The factual reality is that the vast majority of immigrants – legal and illegal -- contribute more to this country than they take out in social services.

And the cost of doing nothing about a broken immigration system is the far greater threat to the economy.

According to the independent National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), immigrants will contribute $611 billion to the Social Security system over the next 75 years. Indeed, immigrants are a key force in keeping the Social Security trust fund solvent for older Americans who are at or near retirement. NFAP also found that halting all immigration into the United Size would explode the size of the Social Security deficit by at least 31 percent over 50 years.

Jeffrey S. Passel and Michael E. Fix, two respected demographers, recently compared the welfare participation rates of legal immigrants to native-born American citizens. Controlling for income, they found that immigrants had nearly identical -- and in some cases lower -- participation rates than citizens in the three big social programs: welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. They found that 32 percent of natural-born citizen families at the 200 percent poverty line received food stamps, compared to only 22 percent of immigrant families.

Their findings complement those of another pair of demographers, James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, for example, who found last year that immigrants actually receive less in Social Security and Medicare benefits than do native-born American citizens.

Some opponents of immigration reform claim that giving citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States would set back the fragile economic recovery. Once again, the truth is the opposite of what the critics contend.

Professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda of the University of California-Los Angeles has researched this very question and found that immigration reform which includes legalization of the 11 million would add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over a decade.

These big gains occur because legalized workers earn higher wages than undocumented workers, and they use those wages to buy things and stimulate the economy through commerce. Professor Hinojosa-Ojeda also calculated that the tax benefits alone from legalization would be between $4.5 billion and $5.4 billion in the first three years.

For the first time since 2007 there is political momentum behind fixing the immigration system. President Obama in his State of the Union speech reached out to the right wing by saying illegal immigrants seeking citizenship will have to pay taxes, learn English and get in line behind people who are trying to enter the U.S. legally. In the GOP response to the president, Sen. Marco Rubio [R-Fla.] – offering a singular moment of agreement with the president – also called for immigration reform. He said it is necessary to allow bright people to come to America and grow the economy.

At this critical moment, politicians on Capitol Hill cannot allow false claims of immigrants as “Takers” to become a new “Dagger” of accepted truth when it is a weak blade, an outright lie.


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