The Immigration Reality: We Need Workers, Not a Wall

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised an open debate on immigration policy this week. If congressional leaders and the Trump administration truly want a successful compromise, they need to recognize three big realities:

First, a solid majority of Americans, both inside Washington and across the country, want to see the so-called "Dreamers" legalized.

These are the young people who were brought to the United States illegally as minors — 690,000 of whom have been given temporary legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

By definition, DACA recipients have finished high school and are in the workforce or college. They’ve undergone criminal and security background checks. They are almost all fully Americanized and fluent in English. For many, America is the only country they have known.

For all those reasons, a new poll by Quinnipiac University finds that 82 percent of Americans favor permanent legalization of the DACA population, including 68 percent of Republicans.

President Trump himself has put forward a proposal that would legalize as many as 1.8 million unauthorized immigrants who meet the general DACA criteria, which includes the option to become a citizen after 10 years.

Yet, the Trump administration has also set a March 5 deadline as the expiration date for DACA as it currently exists. To avoid the mass deportation of Dreamers, which would be a human and economic tragedy, Congress needs to act now. 

Second, any major overhaul of the legal immigration system must factor in the current and future labor force needs of the U.S. economy. President Trump is demanding major reductions in family-based immigration, so-called chain migration, in exchange for any DACA legalization.

But reducing family immigration without any offsetting increase in employment-based immigration would condemn the United States to demographic decline. 

The U.S. economy needs more legal immigrants, not fewer. Our annual labor force growth has dropped to only 0.5 percent, from more than 1 percent as recently as the 1990s. The pool of native-born workers with native-born parents will shrink by 8 million in the next 20 years.

Without immigration, our overall workforce will soon begin to decline, reducing the potential growth rate of the economy and imposing huge strains on federal retirement programs at a time when millions of baby boomers are leaving the workforce every year. 

The U.S. economy benefits from family-based immigration, but we gain even more from employment-based immigration, especially when the new immigrants possess college-level training in technical fields. Skilled immigration fuels our economic growth by spurring innovation and entrepreneurship.

While making up 17 percent of the workforce, immigrants are responsible for one-third of all patents filed in the United States. Any reduction in family-based immigration must be combined with an equal or greater increase in skills-based immigration. 

Third, building a huge wall along most or all of the U.S. border with Mexico would be a colossal waste of U.S. tax dollars. The border is already heavily guarded with 700 miles of fencing, more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents and the latest drone and sensor technology.

Apprehensions at the border have dropped to record lows. Today, more than half of new illegal immigrants each year arrive here legally but then overstay, so a wall would do nothing to keep them out.

The Trump administration’s new 2019 budget contains $18 billion to build a border wall. With the federal budget deficit rising toward $1 trillion, this is especially foolish. Despite President Trump’s claim, there is no way that Mexico will be made to pay the bill.

The cost will fall squarely on U.S. taxpayers who, according to the same Quinnipiac University poll, understandably oppose the wall by a 59 to 37 percent margin.

The responsible approach on immigration is to pass a compromise package this month that would legalize the 1.8 million young immigrants eligible under the DACA guidelines. Any DACA compromise could be combined with an increase in spending on border security in ways that, unlike the wall, would be cost effective.

After fixing DACA, Congress should turn its attention to longer-term reform of the U.S. legal immigration system. Any permanent changes in the future flows of immigrants should be made after thoughtful debate in Congress, not under the pressure of an artificial deadline imposed by the administration.