Debating the Heritage Foundation's Immigration Study

Two radically different theories are raging across the conservative movement about amnesty for illegal aliens and its effect on our economy.  How could the same movement grounded on the same conceptual principles come to two totally different conclusions?

I was honored to interview Derrick Morgan, Vice President of the Heritage Foundation, on May 8 as a co-host of the Conservative Commandos radio show.  I asked Derrick Morgan these questions, and the Heritage vice president made the entire issue crystal-clear.

So, would immigration reform under the "Gang of Eight's" proposal cause our economy to expand, increase wages for everyone, and more than pay for the added costs to the government?  Or would amnesty cost $6.3 trillion, drive down wages, throw citizens (and especially minorities) out of work, and wreck our economy? 

Well, it depends.  Naturally...

The Heritage Foundation is explicit, in detail, that their study is based upon the actual population of illegal aliens who would become legal immigrants in reality.  Heritage carefully considers the composition of the actual candidates at issue -- that is, it used hard data.

Amnesty proponents have visions dancing in their heads of private chartered jets arriving with perfect English-speaking rocket scientists, inventors, engineers, surgeons, and computer programmers who understand American corporate culture well and fit right in.  Amnesty proponents are imagining Werner Von Braun, who emigrated from Nazi Germany -- and who designed the Saturn V moon rocket -- among their broad brush strokes.

Heritage absolutely agrees with all of the arguments made by, and conclusions of, amnesty advocates -- if we are talking about the highly educated, high-skilled workers that the amnesty proponents implicitly assume.  This dispute, once you think things through, becomes far more about education and the urgent need to improve our nation's schools than it is about immigration.  Education reform is what will grow the economy, no matter what happens with immigration.

Business reporter Larry Kudlow, a CNBC host, just published a column, "Immigration Reform is Pro-Growth."  The CATO Institute, Chamber of Commerce, and many others are insisting that the "Gang of Eight" immigration reform plan will grow the economy. 

The Heritage Foundation released its long-anticipated, 102-page study on May 6 finding that amnesty for illegal immigrants would cost the U.S. Treasury $6.3 trillion more than the status quo.  That is, those granted amnesty would receive $9.4 trillion more in government benefits than the status quo but would pay an additional $3.1 trillion more in taxes after receiving amnesty.

Destroying Heritage's credibility is vital to amnesty proponents.  That's because a similar analysis by Heritage in 2007 is credited with killing the push for amnesty threatened from 2004 to 2007.

Yet Heritage's study is explicit that the analytical result changes dramatically based on whether a population of immigrants is substantially less educated and less skilled than the existing U.S. population or more educated and more skilled.  The impact on the economy depends significantly on the education and skill level of the immigrants compared with the country as a whole.

The Heritage Foundation explained the reasons for its analysis, which its critics entirely overlook:

Only 10 percent of unlawful immigrant households are headed by college graduates.  [And  t]he high deficits of poorly educated households are important in the amnesty debate because the typical unlawful immigrant has only a 10th-grade education. Half of unlawful immigrant households are headed by an individual with less than a high school degree, and another 25 percent of household heads have only a high school degree.

Heritage found that "The low wage level of unlawful immigrant work­ers is a direct result of their low education levels."  And "in the U.S. population as a whole, households headed by persons without a high school degree, on average, received $46,582 in government benefits while paying only $11,469 in taxes. This generated an average fiscal def­icit (benefits received minus taxes paid) of $35,113" per year.  Heritage found that "lawful immigrant households receive significantly more welfare, on average, than U.S.- born households."

Heritage's analysis explains that in most of America's history, immigrants were about equal to the existing U.S. population in skills and education.  That was true in part because the USA was a more agricultural and simpler nation at the time. 

Now, however, amnesty would be granted to 11 million to as many as 33 million poorly educated, low-skilled workers, often with severe English-language obstacles and poor orientation to working within U.S. business cultures -- not to mention their contempt for following U.S. laws.  Adding this particular group to American society would severely drag down and harm our economy, especially involving such large numbers.

If we enforced U.S. immigration law, high-skilled immigrants would be selected and given preference.  But we don't enforce the law.  Those who hike across the hot desert or crawl over barbed wire fences are the ones who will be receiving amnesty, not German rocket scientists like Werner Von Braun.

As a lawyer, this author has won a green card for highly educated experts under the EB-1 "Extraordinary Ability" program.  It's really not rocket science for a rocket scientist to get a green card.  (In fact, for me, as the lawyer, processing an EB-1 was easy money.)  An "extraordinary ability" applicant can qualify for their superior training, accomplishments, or experience in art as well as science, strangely even including chefs, musicians, and ballet dancers.

There really is no problem with bringing in highly skilled people...except that the CIS (formerly INS) is a horribly incompetent bureaucracy that takes ten times longer than necessary to do its work.  So what we need is bureaucracy reform, not immigration reform.

The $6.3-trillion price tag calculated by Heritage is probably too low, because Heritage estimates that 11 million illegal aliens would apply for the amnesty, even though the number is probably higher.  And those granted amnesty could bring family members also into the USA.  Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) estimates that the total will be 33 million, not 11 million.  Moreover, in past amnesties, there were an extra 25% fraudulent applicants (using falsified paperwork) who received citizenship, based on estimates.

Furthermore, the argument that amnesty will expand the economy assumes a shortage of workers.  If the economy does not have enough workers, then fixing the problem will cause the economy to expand.  But a country that has too many low-skilled workers already will not be improved by making the surplus worse.

The economy will not expand by getting more of what it already has too much of.  And that of course is a failure of America's educational system.  Many in politics want to avoid fixing our nation's schools and taking on the education bureaucracy by instead importing foreigners. 

Overall, the pro-amnesty crowd offers sentimental anecdotes and bumper-sticker history from another bygone era.  Whereas Heritage openly reveals its data and analysis for anyone to double-check its work, amnesty promoters appeal to Mom and apple pie.  Quite simply, "this is not your grandfather's immigration."