August 25, 2011
by Diana Furchtgott-Roth
Don't look now, but President Obama is changing immigration policy by regulation.
We need more legal pathways for immigrants to enter America, but legislation is a better way to address the problem than executive action.
Last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano informed Congress that she is instituting a review of all individuals currently in deportation proceedings.
This means that individuals who have been notified that they must leave the United States may get a reprieve, putting them in legal limbo with no status, no work permit, and no authorized duration of stay.
Napolitano wants to favor people who are sick; disabled; minors and the elderly; women who are pregnant or nursing; veterans; long-time permanent residents; those who have been in America since childhood; and victims of sex trafficking.
This is most unusual, because once immigrants are in deportation proceedings, the department rarely reviews the cases.
Napolitano's rationale is that with 11 million undocumented workers her staff needs to focus its resources on the most important cases, immigrants with criminal convictions.
The question is whether it is desirable for the executive branch to make an end run around Congress. My own view is that it is not, even though I agree with many of the goals of the regulations.
It would be impractical and costly to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. Mass deportation would break up some families. The government might have to incur extra costs for welfare payments, food stamps, and Medicaid services for native-born Americans with absent immigrant spouses. Employers in agriculture, hotels, restaurants, construction, and landscaping, might be find it hard to attract employees.
The remedy is not new regulations but changing the law. Obama has not embarked on a major public relations campaign, as President George W. Bush did unsuccessfully in 2007, to solve this problem.
Immigration reform, however divisive, is crucial to economic growth. Making it easier to get lawful entry helps the economy. Today, entering the country legally, whether as a tourist, student, entrepreneur or worker is a lengthy, bureaucratic and often expensive process.
One reason that Congress hasn't increased opportunities for legal immigration is the mistaken perception that foreign workers take jobs away from Americans or drive down wages.
Underlying this view is the belief that there is only a fixed number of jobs in an economy. Anyone who has glanced at the robust, long-term growth of U.S. employment knows that this is untrue.
In fact, our society encourages having children, leading to more workers, and promotes late retirement and women's entry into the work force. All these lead to more workers.
More people in the labor force contribute to growth in the country's national income. More income allows consumers to buy the goods they desire, such as cars, apparel, better homes, and dinners in restaurants. If national income grows, so will government revenues to pay for infrastructure, national defense, and transfer payments to lower-income individuals.
A major concern of immigration critics is that immigrants depress wages. However, the research findings of most economists show little effect of immigration on wages of native-born Americans.
Senior economist Pia Orrenius of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas finds a slight increase in wages for professionals and a slight decline, less than 1 percent, for manual workers. University of California professor Giovanni Peri finds that immigrants raise the wages of the 90 percent of native-born Americans with at least a high school degree by up to 2 percent, and those without a high school diploma saw little measurable difference.
Congress should send an immigration bill to the president that ensures an adequate supply of legal visas. In the meantime, a power grab by the president is no solution.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute from 2005 to 2011.
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