The Agenda

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

Things Speaker Boehner Should Keep in Mind on Immigration Reform


Benjy Sarlin of MSNBC reports that Speaker John Boehner has hired Becky Tallent, an advocate of comprehensive immigration reform based most recently at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies suggests that Boehner’s decision to hire Talent, who led Sen. John McCain’s push for regularizing the status of unauthorized immigrants during President Bush’s second term, demonstrates he is committed to a bipartisan immigration deal. Tallent has the support of a broad array of immigration advocates, many of whom believe that the U.S. must admit a much larger number of less-skilled immigrants:

“The speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms – the kind of reforms the American people understand and support,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “Becky Tallent, a well-known expert in this field of public policy, is a great addition to our team and that effort.”

At least one progressive expert agrees. “I think it’s a clear signal that the speaker is serious about getting this done,” Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, told msnbc. 

Ana Navarro, a GOP consultant and former aide to McCain who has advocated for reform, said in an email that Boehner “could not have made a better hire,” adding that his decision was encouraging.  

“You don’t hire Becky Tallent if what you want is someone to twiddle her thumbs and just buy you time,” she said. “You hire Becky to help craft solutions and turn them into law.”

A few common-sense principles for immigration reform going forward:

1. Given the political success of the DREAM Act effort (which I opposed, but which now appears to be a fait accompli), some kind of regularization of the unauthorized immigrant population seems inevitable. The notion of “earned legalization” — that unauthorized immigrants will have to jump through various hoops to secure legal status, like paying back taxes and demonstrating English language fluency — has always struck me as mirage, as a serious earned legalization system would require (a) more administrative capacity than the U.S. immigration enforcement bureaucracy has or will have and (b) the political will to deport unauthorized immigrants who fail to meet the requirements, which is largely absent. Peter Skerry’s proposal to legalize the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants while barring those who entered the country as adults from citizenship seems like the best way forward, as it acknowledges the gravity of the decision to violate U.S. immigration laws while being coherent and administrable in a way the earned legalization proposals are not. Critics of Skerry’s proposal make a number of valid points, e.g., it is possible that liberal immigration advocates will use a campaign for granting permanent non-citizen residents citizenship to build support among voters of recent immigrant origin. But my guess is that legalization without citizenship is so transparently reasonable that such campaigns won’t make much headway.

2. Yet because the unauthorized immigrant population is extremely poor, we ought to recognize that integrating this population into the mainstream of U.S. economic life will entail costs as well as benefits. The benefits, often touted by immigration advocates, are that the formerly unauthorized will find it easier to accumulate assets and to climb the economic ladder more generally, and perhaps a greater attachment to U.S. civic institutions. The costs reflect the fact that U.S. institutions will in effect take responsibility for raising the living standards of a population that is imperfectly adapted to flourishing in an affluent, highly-urbanized market democracy. There are, of course, unauthorized immigrants who are skilled workers with a high degree of English language proficiency, but these immigrants are very much in the minority, in large part because such people have a great deal to lose from being unauthorized. Recently, the OECD Survey of Adult Skills found that 36 million U.S. residents, or one in six U.S. adults, lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. This finding prompted Mary Alice McCarthy of the New America Foundation to observe the following:

The threat this represents is clear – low-skilled adults earn significantly less money than their better-skilled counterparts, have poorer health outcomes, are more likely to depend on public assistance, and their children are less likely to achieve academically. But all is not lost, particularly for the 12 million younger adults who are active in the labor market. Their age leaves enough time for them (and us) to reap the significant economic and inter-generational rewards that come with higher skills. As the OECD researchers attest, low-skilled working adults are generally much better positioned to learn basic skills than unemployed adults because they have an immediate context to apply new skills. With a little cooperation from employers, postsecondary institutions, and policymakers who can provide time, resources, and opportunities to skill up, millions of young adults could advance along the skills spectrum. [Emphasis added]

That is, low-skilled adults generally fare less well than skilled adults, and the same is generally true of the children of low-skilled adults. But if we devote substantial resources to upgrading the skills of low-skilled younger adults, we might be able to mitigate at least some of the problem. Essentially, regularizing the unauthorized population will mean that we will be obligated to devote more resources to upgrading the skills of a large number of low-skilled adults, or we face the prospect of a lasting increase in poverty as the children of low-skilled adults struggle to make their way in the world. I would thus argue that the (apparent) political imperative to grant unauthorized immigrants legal status strengthens the case for limiting future less-skilled immigration, as less-skilled immigration will increase the number of low-skilled adults. One rejoinder is that less-skilled immigration needn’t increase the share of low-skilled adults if we also greatly increase the number of skilled immigrants. This is true. But the global supply of potential less-skilled immigrants is much higher than the global supply of potential skilled immigrants, so it is not clear that a favorable ratio could be maintained indefinitely if the size of the less-skilled influx is truly substantial.

3. Skilled immigration ought to be increased. But as a conceptual matter, it is worth broadening our understanding of what it means to be a skilled immigrant. The central issue is whether or not an immigrant in question will pay a substantial lifetime net tax rate. The lifetime net tax rate of a low-skilled adult is likely to be lower than that of a skilled adult of the same age, as the former is more likely to consume public services and to pay relatively little in taxes. (The lifetime net tax rate framework will also lead us to favor younger immigrants over older immigrants.) So the real question is not whether an immigrant has more than X years of educational attainment. Rather, it is whether or not the immigrant has high earning potential, as demonstrated by past earnings. I would be extremely lax about admitting immigrants to the U.S. who have earned more than, say, 4x the median U.S. household income in four of the last five years (this will be a relatively small group), and I would apply progressively greater scrutiny the further you get down the earnings distribution (still not a lot at 3x, somewhat more at 2x, more still at 1x). The “place premium” — the fact that identical workers earn more in high-productivity countries than in low-productivity countries — suggests that even immigrants who have consistently earned the median U.S. household income will earn more in the U.S. We could capture this effect by adopting a stringent version Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor’s “assimilation bond” proposal. The idea is that immigrants will post a bond (he arbitrarily chooses $10,000 as the amount), and this amount will be repaid in the form of a credit against federal income tax liability, etc.

4. Family reunification immigration needs to take the concept of sponsorship far more seriously. If a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident sponsors a relative, she ought to bear full (or close to full) fiscal responsibility for some substantial period of time if the relative in question accesses social transfers. Under the logic of the Affordable Care Act, it also makes sense that sponsorship should entail financing the purchase of a qualified health plan, featuring a full complement of essential health benefits, for the sponsored relative(s). Families willing to provide this level of sponsorship should be fast-tracked, as is the current practice under Canada’s “super visa.”

If Boehner and Tallent are thinking along these lines, more power to them. If they intend to increase less-skilled immigration without acknowledging that doing so will mean that public social expenditures will have to increase commensurately, they deserve vigorous opposition.


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