A Reform Proposal with Promise?

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on September 29, 2010

One of the many vexing aspects of the immigration debate is that economists differ sharply about how immigration affects the earnings of other workers.

The Urban Institute has summarized the dispute this way: "Some economists argue that immigration accounts for a 3 to 4 percent decline in the earnings of native-born workers, with losses concentrated at the low end of the income distribution; others find negligible or positive impacts."

A discussion hosted Tuesday by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington included the economist identified by the Urban Institute as finding those "positive impacts," the University of California's Giovanni Peri. The leading economist who has found negative impacts, Harvard's George Borjas, was absent.

That fact is enough to call into question the Hamilton Project's assertion that it "offers proposals rooted in evidence and experience, not doctrine and ideology."

But at least Borjas was mentioned Tuesday, if only in passing, by another panelist, the Rand Corporation's James P. Smith.

Smith offered a proposal that, at least in my opinion, may point the way out of the increasingly volatile congressional stalemate on immigration reform. He wants to combine a sweeping amnesty for illegal immigrants with a firm commitment to enforce immigration laws against those who violate them in the future.

"I'd give them amnesty in a second, but I would group it with a real pledge" to get serious about future enforcement," said Smith. He noted the fizzled enforcement in the 24 years since the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed into law.

IRCA, of course, was sold as a compassionate and pragmatic compromise that would provide amnesty for illegal immigrants while punishing employers who hired workers who could not prove authorization to work in the United States.

While the amnesty worked, enforcement was defeated by easily obtainable phony documentation that allowed workers to pretend to be legal and employers to pretend to believe them. Also instrumental in its demise was the left-right coalition of immigrant advocacy groups, church leaders, business organizations, and civil libertarians who condemned and resisted incipient federal efforts to enforce the law.

Now, Smith noted, illegal immigrants face little danger of deportation unless they commit a serious crime.

"Essentially, there is no interior enforcement," he said. And so he is calling for amnesty to be coupled with a commitment "that people who are here without documents illegally in the future are in fact sent back. We don't wait for a crime."

It will be interesting to see how much support that idea gets from the Hamilton Project and from its collaborators at the Democratic-leaning Brookings Institution.