Peter Skerry’s Critique of the Bush-Bolick Immigration Reform Proposal

by Reihan Salam

Peter Skerry dismantles Immigration Wars, focusing on the incoherence of its call for a “market-driven system of immigration”:

[E]ven if we assume that allowing high-tech firms to hire as many skilled employees as they claim to need would help achieve the 4 percent annual growth in GDP that Bush and Bolick set as their goal, would affording similar latitude to landscapers, restaurants, and hotels to hire unskilled laborers result in commensurate growth? The answer depends, in part, on the fiscal demands such unskilled immigrants put on public services. Addressing this point, Bush and Bolick emphasize that America needs high levels of immigration precisely because “the diminishing ratio of workers and those whose social services depend on them is shrinking alarmingly.” To back this up, they cite an authoritative 1997 study by the National Research Council reporting that “immigrants on average pay $1,800 more in taxes than they consume in services.”

Unfortunately, Bush and Bolick misinterpret this finding. Piling error upon error, they cite a Brookings Institution study that, itself, misinterprets the 1997 research. The original study does conclude that the average immigrant pays more in taxes than he receives in government benefits. But it then clearly notes that “most people would find this figure misleading .  .  . because it does not include the fiscal impacts of the immigrants’ young children born in the United States.” When such impacts are factored in, the $1,800 fiscal surplus turns into a $370 fiscal deficit.

Skerry’s broader concern is that Bush and Bolick appear to be more concerned about the short-term interests of potential employers of immigrant labor, like American apple growers, than the long-term costs associated with a dramatic increase in less-skilled immigration. Having defended one core aspect of Immigration Wars, I found Skerry’s review illuminating.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.