Immigration and the Crisis of Opportunity

by Fred Bauer
The Senate bill would worsen the problem.

Declining wages, perpetually high unemployment, sluggish economic growth — all these and more hang over the United States like a cloud. This economic decline has potent implications for the Republican party. Exit polling from 2012 suggests that GOP struggles with the worried working class have proved disastrous to the party. It is also highly likely that the continued hollowing out of the economic middle will increase the appetite for big-government programs. It would seem to be a strategic necessity for Republicans to speak to — and meet — the needs of the middle class.

One of the things that most ails both our country and the future of classical conservatism is the crisis of opportunity. The immigration bill now being pushed through the Senate does little to solve, and possibly does much to worsen, that problem.

We might be struck by the opportunities missed in this immigration bill — particularly the opportunity to talk about opportunity (or the lack thereof) in the contemporary United States. In talking about immigration, Washington has dropped the condescending phrase “jobs Americans won’t do,” but it doesn’t much mention the jobs that aren’t there for Americans to do. It is as though for many in Congress the Great Recession never happened and the Great Stagnation has not persisted.

When incomes are adjusted for inflation, the median American worker earns less per week now than he or she did ten years ago. The employment-to-population ratio has not been lower in decades. Unemployment remains very high. The Economic Policy Institute has argued that “the main problem in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers — and not, as is often claimed, available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.” And still the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill insists that one of our principal problems is too few workers — or too few workers with the right skills, or too few workers willing to work for too little. Much of the evidence seems to suggest that we have a very slack labor market, not a very tight one.

While Corker-Hoeven is a masterpiece of public relations, it does not appear to solve some of the central problems of the Senate immigration bill: for example, its failure to substantially reduce illegal immigration (much of which comes from visa-overstayers), its subversion of the market, and its potential downward pressure on wages. This amendment serves as the enforcement equivalent of the Maginot Line, sounding very impressive but ultimately proving less than effective at achieving its stated aim. Twenty thousand new Border Patrol agents will do next to nothing to curtail visa-overstaying or to punish employers who break the law in hiring unauthorized workers. Even one of the senators after whom this amendment is named, Senator Bob Corker, has admitted that the interior enforcement provided by this measure leaves much to be desired, and observers have noted how easily the interior-enforcement provisions of this bill could be gutted. Unlike the Maginot Line, Corker-Hoeven does not quite guarantee any extended physical fortification across the border (either southern or northern), and its border-security provisions — especially the Border Patrol “surge” — remain highly vulnerable to cuts by future Congresses.

The Corker-Hoeven amendment preserves the bill’s central legalization-before-enforcement mechanism. The White House and Senate allies of the Gang of Eight have been very clear that nothing that jeopardizes the immediate legalization of illegal immigrants can become part of the immigration bill; they have also been clear that “hard triggers” of enforcement success that could endanger the eventual citizenship of illegal immigrants are also verboten. Corker-Hoeven meets those requirements, but it remains unclear how much this amendment will actually fulfill the stated goal of ending illegal immigration. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the pre-Corker-Hoeven version of S. 744 would reduce illegal immigration by only 25 percent, implying that the U.S. could see nearly 8.3 million illegal immigrants residing within its borders by 2023. Perhaps Corker-Hoeven would decrease that number by some amount (in a brief report on the amendment, the CBO estimated that it would have some effect but couldn’t say how much of one), but it is not guaranteed that this amendment would radically diminish this new influx, especially considering all the possible enforcement loopholes within the bill.

The failure to end illegal immigration vitiates the bill by the Gang of Eight’s own standards. Senators Rubio and Schumer, among others, have been crystal clear (at least in terms of rhetoric) that illegal immigration needs to end and this bill will do that. In and of itself, some “path to citizenship” may be relatively unobjectionable. Legalizing at some point those who broke our nation’s laws but have settled here might be an effective, and perhaps even necessary, policy response. But the moral and civil case for that legalization is far weaker if we have not yet established and put in place a plan that prevents more illegal immigration from happening. That plan might begin with security at the border, but it does not end there. A bill that encourages even more illegal immigration through the combination of a legalization and incomplete enforcement will only heighten the civic, humanitarian, and economic dangers of pervasive illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, this bill would radically expand numerous immigration programs. According to Brad Plumer’s analysis of the Congressional Budget Office report on S. 744, over 36 million legal immigrants would be added to the United States population over the next 20 years if this bill were to become law; that’s over twice the 16.2 million legal immigrants that would be added under current law. Much of this immigration, Plumer has suggested, would be biased toward “low-skill” labor. There has been surprisingly little public discussion about the consequences for the American economy and for American workers of flooding the market with “low-skill” labor.

And then there are this bill’s guest-worker programs, which are highly suspect from both a free-market and an egalitarian perspective. There’s nothing free-market about creating a vast new government bureaucracy to monitor and set wages for temporary workers. Moreover, the free market’s claims to efficiency depend upon competition; a labor market saturated with guest workers — who are, compared to citizens or legal immigrants, far more dependent upon their employers and limited in their employment choices — undermines a free and fair competition for labor.

These legislative shortcomings pose significant problems for the future success of conservative ideas, Republican renewal, and the restoration of American economic growth. A single provision newly added to the immigration bill under Corker-Hoeven — the $1.5 billion “Youth Jobs Fund,” which would have states and local communities help find and fund jobs for young Americans — reveals in miniature how structurally damaging this bill is for the future of conservative success. This provision’s chief sponsor is Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), who fought for the insertion of this provision in part because of his concerns about the bill’s guest-worker programs.

There’s nothing wrong with fighting for jobs for young Americans, and I, for one, find Senator Sanders’s concern for the unemployed and the average worker rather laudable. However, there would likely be many greater job opportunities for young Americans were it not for the pervasive use of illegal immigrants under current law — and S. 744’s emphasis on bringing in even more low-skilled labor (through its immigration preferences, its guest-worker programs, and its failure to end illegal immigration) would likely reduce job opportunities for the young even further.

According to the U.S. Census, the summer employment rate for American teenagers fluctuated within a relatively narrow band based on the economic cycle between 1949 and 1989, even as more young Americans went off to college. By the 1990s, as a new wave of illegal immigration (in part inspired by the Reagan amnesty) hit, that old pattern was broken, and youth employment entered an overall trend of significant decline. No point in the 1990s came near the peaks of teen employment in the 1980s. This trend accelerated after 2000. Between 1948 and 2000, the teenage employment-population ration never fell below 45 percent; since the 2001 recession, it has never been above 45 percent.

A study put out by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University finds that, in 2011 and 2012, only 26 percent of teens held any type of paid job (the lowest number since World War II). This study also finds that most of the states where teen workforce participation is the lowest are also states that have been hit hard by illegal immigration (Arizona, California, Florida, and Georgia are among the worst six states for teen employment). More broadly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment-to-population ratio of Americans between 16 and 24 years old has been under 50 percent for over four years; no point in the 1948–2008 period witnessed an employment rate that low for that long. Moreover, those from demographic groups designated as “minorities” have been particularly hard hit by this diminished employment rate.

The Congressional Budget Office, Senator Sanders, Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), and many other observers agree that S. 744 could very likely increase the unemployment rate and decrease average wages over the next decade. This bill’s solution to that problem is to create another billion-plus-dollar government program. The inclusion of the “Youth Jobs Fund” offers a very plausible forecast of what could happen should S. 744 become law: increased economic inequality, increased wage pressures on those on the economic margins, and increased government programs to compensate for the very economic conditions that this bill helped create. A feedback loop of economic decline and government programs intended to compensate for this decline is not a winning one for the Republican party or this country.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to reduce the economic decline of the middle class simply to the issue of immigration. But clearly immigration policy plays a role in that story. This immigration bill in particular might be a strategic and policy misstep. Transitioning to a skills-based legal-immigration system, putting in place new structures for enforcement at the workplace, and, under the right conditions, providing some pathway to citizenship for those here illegally could have been part of a modernizing project of Republican reform. S. 744 is not that bill.

We might think of the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill as, in many respects, immigration policy post-1986 but only more so: more illegal immigrants legalized, more promises of enforcement, more distorted competition for jobs, more government intervention into the marketplace, and, very possibly, more illegal immigration and more people in the shadows. Endorsing an immigration bill that undermines wages, perpetuates economic and cultural divisions, and enshrines a new bureaucracy would seem a stumbling block for a GOP seeking to restore itself as the party of economic dynamism, popular prosperity, and limited government. Rallying behind the slogan “American workers . . . can’t cut it” isn’t exactly promising as an electoral or a governing strategy.

The United States has more to gain in approaching immigration and labor in a way that affirms some of the best of an opportunity-driven America rather than an America of, by, and for the special interests and the self-righteous elite. Instead of disparaging American workers, Republicans might instead argue that no American is too good for any job and that no job is too menial or exhalted for any American. The United States does not need a serf caste — but a free market of free citizens, each endeavoring to put their talents to the best use. We can have an economy that works for all people, from the maid to the teacher to the CEO. This narrative of optimism and opportunity would argue that a rising tide can lift all boats in the American economy. Prosperity and dignity for all can help sustain our national tradition of limited and local government.

Unfortunately, it seems as though the present Senate bill muddles rather than reinforces that message of the dignity of labor, equality of opportunity, and common access to prosperity.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.

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