Perry Is Right on Immigration

by Ronald D. Rotunda

Governor Perry has taken a lot of heat for his opinions on immigration. He supports giving to children of illegal immigrants the same educational benefits Texas gives to other state residents. Perry is right — we should not punish the children for the decisions of their parents. And he is right about the economics: Immigrants do not steal jobs from citizens. 

That assumption has a superficial appeal: If more people are looking for jobs, there must be more unemployment, all things being equal. Similarly, if I spit into the ocean, the ocean level rises, all other things being equal. However, not all other things are equal.

Our $14 trillion economy is constantly changing. Lately, it has been growing slower than usual. Yet even now, immigrant workers not only take jobs, they also create jobs. They need goods and services just like the rest of us. Let’s look at the facts.

Obviously, we benefit from skilled immigrants — like those from Russia, Taiwan, and India who created Google, Yahoo, and Sun Microsystems, creating tens of thousands of jobs that changed the face of technology. Immigrants or their children founded more than 40 percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies.

But less-skilled immigrants are important too, as econometric studies repeatedly demonstrate. Consider the 2009 study of Giovanni Peri, a University of California economics professor (and a skilled immigrant from Italy). He could find “no evidence” that immigrants crowd out native employment. In the short run, there were no significant effects, but in the long run “a net inflow of immigrants equal to 1% of employment increases income per worker by 0.6% to 0.9%.” 

One reason is that immigrants create demand for goods and services. Another is that immigrants usually dovetail with (rather than replace) the employment of U.S. citizens. For example, more than half (54 percent) of tailors in the U.S. are foreign-born, while crane operators are 99 percent natives; ditto for plaster-stucco masons (44 percent immigrant) versus sewer-pipe cleaners (more than 99 percent native). Immigrants — whether legal or illegal aliens — tend to complement rather than substitute for labor by Americans. More immigrants help our economy grow faster.

Enforcement resources, like everything else, are a finite resource. Homeland Security secretary Napolitano is correct when she says that we should focus our enforcement efforts where the problems are the greatest — high-priority cases involving convicted felons being at the top of the list.

Some people look to the states to stop the flow of immigrants, and that has led to plenty of litigation. Recently, a federal judge invalidated an Arizona law authorizing state police to ask arrestees their immigrant status. However, in DeCana v. Bica (1976), the Supreme Court upheld a California law that prohibited an employer from knowingly employing an alien not lawfully resident here. Later, in Muehler v. Mena (2005), the Court ruled that there was no constitutional violation when state police officers, while executing a search warrant, questioned Mena about her immigration status. Police need no “independent reasonable suspicion” to do that. More recently, Rhode Island state police started checking the immigration status of people stopped for traffic violations, reporting all illegal aliens to federal authorities for deportation. The federal appellate court rejected arguments that the state action was unconstitutional, in Estrada v. Rhode Island (Feb. 2010).

However, there is a simpler way than litigation: Congress can turn its attention to enacting legislation to deal with these issues directly instead of relying on bureaucrats and lower courts (and eventually the Supreme Court) to interpret the sounds of congressional silence. In the meantime, states can invest in human capital by offering educational opportunities to all of its residents.

— Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley chair and distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Chapman University School of Law.