Coming Soon: A Column on the CBO Analysis of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill

by Reihan Salam

My Reuters Opinion column this week will be on the comprehensive immigration reform bill, so I’ll have more on the subject soon. But first I want to address the following from Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas in this morning’s edition of Wonkbook:

Ultimately, the CBO report rips a layer of artifice from the immigration debate. Few critics of immigration reform really base their opposition on concerns about the deficit or the economy. Their real concern with immigration is cultural and sociological. But that’s dangerous political ground. It’s easier to frame opposition using the bloodless language of the budget than the combustible language of national character and composition.

That’s the real damage the CBO did to the anti-immigration caucus. It took the bloodless language of the budget away from them. It left them only with their real concerns — the ones they’d prefer not to emphasize. That will perhaps lead to a slightly more truthful debate about immigration reform, but one that is much more dangerous for the anti-reform side, and for the Republican Party.

I can’t speak for all critics of immigration reform, or rather all critics of this particular legislative proposal (blurring the distinction is, for obvious reasons, useful to proponents of the Senate bill, but also highly misleading). But my view, as a conservative who is for the record less exercised about near-term deficits than most, is that the economic, the cultural, the sociological, and the political are interrelated. Ezra and Evan really mean to suggest, as far as I can tell, that opponents of this immigration reform bill are uncomfortable about the prospect of a U.S. population that is more Latin, Asian, and African. That may well be true. I tend to think that opponents of the bill really are concerned about the wisdom of allowing a large increase in less-skilled immigration, regardless of its source. 

For example, I consider it highly unlikely that given the extremely high poverty levels of the unauthorized immigrant population, and the fiscal burdens facing state and local governments, Congress won’t take steps to expand eligibility for programs like SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, and the subsidies for the purchase of medical insurance established under the Affordable Care Act to include legalized immigrants. The U.S. contains many mixed-status households, and most legalized immigrants are not so socially and culturally isolated that the larger public will be indifferent to reports of hunger, a lack of access to medical insurance, and other maladies that means-tested transfers might help address. This reflects the cultural and political reality that while Americans are ideologically conservative, they are operationally liberal. That is, U.S. voters oppose “big government” in the abstract, but in practice they’re often moved by compelling stories of hardship to back expansions of means-tested transfers. It could be that the fact that most of the legalized immigrant population will be drawn from minority groups will lead the median voter to oppose the expansion of programs aimed at hunger alleviation and subsidizing medical coverage. But determining the answer to this question requires that we draw on cultural, political, and sociological insights. 

So we find ourselves in this funny position: advocates of the comprehensive immigration reform bill, including many who like Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono believe that “the restrictions on federal safety-net programs make the pathway even more treacherous” for legalized immigrants, are delighted by the CBO’s determination that it is deficit-improving, despite the fact that it may well be substantially less so if the restrictions on federal safety-net programs were removed.

My view is very basic: I both believe that we ought to be more selective about immigrants we allow to settle in the U.S. — I’d suggest that we admit immigrants likely to pay very high lifetime net tax rates – yet that we ought to be relatively generous to those who join our political community. The contrasting view, that we ought to be much less selective while also strictly limiting access to safety net programs, is embraced by libertarians, but my guess is that it is not terribly popular among liberals or conservatives or moderates, either because they favor a smaller immigrant influx or because they find the idea of a sharp increase in domestic poverty levels and self-reported hunger very unattractive. 

Moreover, it is worth recalling that the CBO’s analysis looks to this decade and the next. A focus on lifetime net tax rates, in contrast, looks both to the taxes paid over a working life and public expenditures on retirement and health security programs and human capital investment, among other things. I don’t fault the CBO for doing its job as well as it can given its limitations, including its statutory limitations. It is not clear to me, however, that the CBO’s analysis has settled much of anything.

The Agenda

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