Today the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) held an event aimed at dispelling some of the most common myths about illegal immigrants and the U.S. economy and making the case that enforcement-only policies are not cost effective. MPI also released The Economics and Policy of Illegal Immigration in the United States, written by Gordon Hanson, a professor of economics at UC-San Diego.

In his paper and in his remarks, Hanson found that:

  • Unauthorized immigrants are a large part of the low-skilled U.S. labor force. While the number of U.S. born working-age adults without a high school diploma has dropped dramatically since 1960, there are currently about 8.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the labor force, and about half have less than a high school degree. They account for 20% of working-age adults with less than a high-school degree in the U.S. They have a significant presence is some industries, such as farming, construction, and food preparation. According to Hanson, “An enforcement-only strategy that did not facilitate legal labor inflows but which sought to cut low-skilled immigration drastically would hurt these industries.”
  • Illegal immigration responds to market conditions in ways that legal immigration does not. Unlike the number of green cards and temporary work visas which are set by Congress, the number of unauthorized workers is responsive to the labor market. The best evidence is that the number of undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. has decreased in recent months due to the lack of available jobs.
  • The overall impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy is small. According to Hanson, “Illegal immigration produces a tiny net gain to the U.S. economy after subtracting U.S.-born workers’ losses from U.S. employers’ gains. And if we account for the small fiscal burden that unauthorized immigrants impose, the overall economic benefit is close enough to zero to be essentially a wash.”
  • Enforcement against illegal immigration is expensive. The U.S. spends approximately $15 billion annually enforcing immigration laws. A simple cost-benefit analysis indicates that the high level of spending on enforcement is not justified.

In their remarks, MPI policy analyst Marc Rosenblum and Jeanne Butterfield of the National Immigration Forum largely agreed with Hanson, but took the argument a step further, making a strong case for legalization and comprehensive immigration reform. Rosenblum pointed out that the net fiscal impact of illegal immigrants improves over time—immigrants are not only workers, but consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors, and their contributions improve over time. Furthermore, the cost of removing illegal workers from the U.S. goes beyond the enforcement budget. Other studies have pointed out that more enforcement could result in fewer jobs for U.S. citizens and less tax revenues for the government.

Butterfield added that there are additional hidden costs of the status quo—a broken immigration system. Employers pay for complying with harsh enforcement strategies, illegal immigrants endure exploitation because of their lack of legal status, and state and local governments disproportionately bear the burden of any related fiscal costs.

Today’s report and discussion are examples of the thoughtful, reasonable, analysis and conversation that is so needed in the current climate surrounding the national immigration debate. This complex issue cannot and should not be whittled down to simplistic anti-immigrant versus pro-amnesty labels. We hope that Members of Congress read the reports that are emerging and hold equally thought-provoking conversations.

Photo by Môsieur J. [version 3.0a].