Legalization Research: Asking Mild Questions Produces Soothing Answers

By David North on April 13, 2010

A well-attended session at a Washington think tank yesterday provided some nuanced clues as to the intellectual rhetoric that will accompany the upcoming legalization debate.

Briefly: 1) if your research asks soft questions, you will get soft answers, and 2) there are the inevitable statements that legalization is just part of a broader, thoughtful, problem-solving program.

The setting was a seminar at the Migration Policy Institute a few blocks north of the White House. The academic speakers were led by Magnus Lofstrom and Laura Hill of the somewhat similar Public Policy Institute of California, and the subject was their paper "Immigrant Legalization: Assessing the Labor Market Effects". I could not tell if the third author, Joseph M. Hayes, was in the room.

The report states: "Many observers believe that a legalization program could have significant economic impacts. Our research suggests otherwise. This report finds that legalizing most currently unauthorized immigrants would not lead to dramatic changes in the labor market, either for unauthorized immigrants or for native workers."

The workers, after all, are already here and active, and legalization will not "increase the occupational mobility or wages of most unauthorised immigrants, at least in the short run." Similarly they predict, based on a survey of a slice of the illegal alien population, that there will not be much of an impact on "tax revenues or public assistance programs."

The summary also included this intriguing sentence: "In particular, the lack of upward occupational mobility among low-skill unauthorized workers suggests that legalization will not lead to much, if any, increase in labor market competition with low-skill natives."

No effort was made to assess the current, drastic extent to which low-skilled natives suffer from such competition.

They also come to the conclusion – attacked by one of the other academic speakers – that "87 percent of former crossers [EWIs from Mexico] and 91 percent of overstayers filed federal tax returns in 2002." We will deal with this remarkable finding in a later blog.

Washington traffic had been snarled by the 40 or so heads of state meeting with President Obama, and so I was late to the immigration discussion. When question time came I said that I had arrived late, and may have missed it, but since the research dealt with the prospective labor market impacts of a legalization program what did the authors think of the labor market impacts of the highly likely follow-on migration of more illegals in the wake of an amnesty – much as we experienced 20 years earlier?

The response, from Dr. Lofstrom, was that they did not deal with such "speculative matters."

If you ask soft questions of your data, you get soft answers.

Then there was the inevitable remark, this time by a member of the audience, that legalization should not be considered in a vacuum; that it would be part of a comprehensive package that would, it was implied, solve any related problems, like continued inward flows of still more unauthorized workers.

An old hand I knew from INS days then whispered to me, "that's just what we thought during IRCA."

That the population of interest consisted of lawbreakers was largely ignored in the choice of words such as "unauthorized workers," but there was an interesting exception dealing with, but not mentioning, identity theft. Why not use "undocumented worker" they ask. "First, for precision. Many immigrants live and work in the United States without proper legal authority. However, many of these immigrants do have documents."

Just how they obtained these documents, needless to say, was not discussed.