RAND: Amnesty and an End to Ambiguity

“Immigration Reform”
James P. Smith
Farsighted Leadership in a Shortsighted World
September 2012

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City H...
Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City Hall, demanding general amnesty for all immigrants. Photos taken at the immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles, California on May Day, 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a nation of immigrants, it is actually unsurprising that immigration should be a major political issue. Those of us who are here do not want our lifestyles and our earning power diluted by an inrush of competition. Those of us who are not here want a chance at the lifestyles and earning power available to most Americans.

The matter is not a simple battle between the selfish and the sympathetic: there is an economic case as well. James P. Smith, a University of Chicago-trained economist, writes that while both highly-skilled and unskilled immigrants make a positive contribution to the nation:

The effects of immigration on taxes are generally positive at the federal level, but they are negative at the state and local levels in places where there are lots of low-skilled immigrants.

Smith’s approach is to mix economic rationality with a dash of compassion. He believes that a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million-plus undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., along with a strict enforcement of immigration laws after that effective amnesty, would end the current ambiguous situation we have in place now. His is a workable political compromise that is likely to bridge both sides of the issue, and for that he should be commended.

However, he stops short of establishing an enduring principle on which future decisions on immigration can be made. Core questions remain unanswered. A few of the most important ones: why do we allow immigration in the first place? Under what circumstances, (i.e., a resurgence in manufacturing) would America benefit from reopening the doors to unskilled immigrants? What is likely to happen to non-grain agriculture if the flow of illegal immigrations stops? And, in the meantime, how do we propose to do an adequate job policing our border without bankrupting the nation?

Until we come to a national agreement on the principles that drive immigration policy, our solutions will never be anything more than short-term expedients.

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