The Liberal Case Against the Senate Immigration Bill

by Reihan Salam

Very impressively, every single Senate Democrat and Democratic-leaning independent voted for the Senate immigration bill on Thursday of this week. What is even more impressive is the almost complete absence of skepticism among center-left intellectuals, with the notable exception of Mickey Kaus, who writes for a right-of-center publication and is famously iconoclastic. John Judis has raised questions about the wisdom of the Senate immigration bill, and so has T. A. Frank, a regular New Republic contributor who has just published a liberal case against the bill:

The country I want for myself and future Americans is one that’s prosperous, cohesive, harmonious, wealthy in land and resources per capita, nurturing of its skilled citizens, and, most important, protective of its unskilled citizens, who deserve as much any other Americans to live in dignity. This bill threatens to put all of that out of reach, because it fails to control illegal immigration. The problem is not that it provides 11 million people eventual amnesty (I don’t object to that, in theory); the problem is that it sets in motion the next waves of millions.

What I’ve found most striking about the immigration debate is that I suspect that many of my left-liberal interlocutors don’t share Frank’s working premise, as they believe that income per natural rather than wealth in land and resources per capita should guide us. That is, even if a substantial less-skilled influx depresses U.S. GDP per capita, it should be embraced if it raises incomes for discrete groups of immigrants and natives. My view is that this objective, while coherent and morally praiseworthy, is in tension with the goals of achieving a cohesive and harmonious society, two of the other goals Frank identifies, as less-skilled immigration will tend to increase domestic poverty, and this in turn will tend to increase the “strains of commitment.”

Jim Pethokoukis, drawing on an excellent new article by Michael Strain and Alan Viard, reminds us that there are many factors that will likely force higher taxes on middle-income households over the next two decades, including the aging of the 1945-1970 birth cohort. Because less-skilled immigrants tend to earn low incomes, and because low-income households tend to rely more heavily on means-tested transfers, it is not unreasonable to believe that their net fiscal contribution will be smaller than that of skilled immigrants over the lifecourse. This in turn suggests that less-skilled immigration might contribute to the net fiscal burden on U.S. middle-income households, which is already expected to increase substantially. The important question, of course, is how this scenario compares to various counterfactuals, as an emphasis on skilled immigration will tend to increase the cost of immigration enforcement and a shortage of less-skilled immigrant labor will presumably raise the price of various labor-intensive services consumed by middle-income households. Moreover, much depends on how demand for less-skilled labor will change over time and how the descendants of less-skilled immigrants will fare in a changing labor market. If the Congressional Budget Office is right in assuming that a large influx of less-skilled immigrants will lead to a dramatic increase in total factor productivity (TFP), the Senate immigration bill may well be wise policy. But the evidence for such an effect is limited and the downside risks are substantial. 

Another issue, which I’ve touched on only briefly in the past, is cultural cohesion, and whether an increase in the size of the less-skilled influx will tend to retard the progress of integration, assimilation, and intermarriage, forces that tend to bind a society together and to facilitate cooperation across regions and cultural groups. The U.S. has proven relatively successful at achieving a high level of cooperation in a diverse society, but it is not clear that this capacity is limitless and there is at least some reason to believe that it is eroding, though of course this erosion can be reversed with effort. Though my priorities are different from Frank’s, I hope his article is widely read.