The Problem with Obama's Immigration Plan

By Steven A. Camarota on May 16, 2011, May 13, 2011

Washington (CNN) -- In his speech Tuesday, President Obama was right to call for reform of our broken immigration system. But the president's plan to create a "pathway to citizenship" (translation: amnesty) for 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants and increase legal immigration is not only out of touch with economic reality, it repeats the mistakes of the past.

The president seems to believe there is a shortage of workers. Yet the April jobs report looked terrible, particularly for the young and less educated, who compete directly with illegal immigrants at the bottom of the labor market. For example, unemployment was nearly 15% for those age 25 and older without a high school diploma and 25% for teenagers (16 to 19).

It's even worse if we include those who have given up looking for work. Most Americans don't compete with illegal immigrants for jobs, but those who do are among the hardest-hit by this recession.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 8 million illegal immigrants currently hold jobs in the United States. Anchoring them permanently in the country with legal status, as the president wants to do, makes no sense given the employment picture.

There is debate among economists about how much immigration reduces employment for the less educated and the young, but there is good evidence that it does.

An analysis by researchers at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that immigration significantly hurts such opportunities for young and less-educated U.S.-born workers. A National Bureau of Economic Research report found that immigration explained 40 percent of the decline in employment for low-skilled black men in recent decades. A 2010 paper published by the Federal Reserve concludes that immigration reduced the employment rate of native-born teenagers by a very large 7 percentage points.

Only if we ignore the plight of such workers does the president's proposal make sense.

The president's plan also repeats past mistakes. In 1986, 2.7 million illegal immigrants received amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, and the rate of legal permanent immigration has roughly doubled to more than 1 million a year since then. Yet the illegal population is now estimated at twice what it was in 1986, partly because the law was largely unenforced once it passed.

The same thing would almost certainly happen again as ethnic pressure groups, the business community and others would work as before to reduce enforcement efforts once a plan for an amnesty went through.
Illegal immigration also rose after 1986 because the increase in legal immigration drew in more illegal immigrants. Sociological research shows that illegal immigration is driven by social networks. People typically don't decide to leave their home country unless there is some support network waiting for them in the destination country that provides access to things such as jobs and housing. By legalizing illegal immigrants and increasing legal immigration, we supercharged illegal immigration.

If we really want to get a handle on illegal immigration, we are going to have to reduce future levels of legal immigration so that over time, the social networks will become attenuated. We are also going to have to get serious about enforcing the law. Unless we are prepared to do this, the problem will continue into the indefinite future.