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The real cost of illegal immigration

By Dr. Peter Morici
web posted September 12, 2016

Illegal immigrantsIllegal immigration increases income inequality and corrupts our democracy.

No trained economist can deny that since the founding of the republic to the present day, immigrants — mostly legal but some not — have contributed mightily to our dynamic economy.

Farmers and skilled craftsmen from Europe helped settle the West and power the industrial revolution. Today, scientists and engineers from abroad strengthen our universities, research laboratories and capacity to generate new knowledge with significant commercial potential.

However, when the nation is flooded with immigrants in skill categories without genuine shortages — shortages where, for example, employers simply cannot find enough qualified applicants or the wages they would have to pay are too high to keep their doors open — illegal immigration drives down wages and increases unemployment, especially for America's lowest-paid workers.

In some measure, U.S. immigration policies reflect these realities — offering speedier entry to immigrants who possess critical skills — but mostly those don't.

Family reunification visas give little genuine consideration to education and skill levels of applicants, but at the top of the list has been the failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations to enforce our borders and deport illegal immigrants.

Employers in labor-intensive manufacturing activities like meat packing and food processing, construction, hotels and restaurants simply would have to pay workers a lot more if the supply of low-skilled workers was limited to native-born Americans and legal immigrants. And it is doubtful many of those enterprises would go out of business if all employers were required to play by the rules and pay a bit more.

It is silly to deny that the influx of nearly 11 million illegal immigrants — mostly low-skilled adults and their children — strain resources in public schools and for other social services. And this most harshly affects the quality and availability of education and assistance to the poorest Americans.

Unfortunately, these problems have been left to fester and have become an election year wedge issue along class and ethnic lines.

Americans with degrees from prestigious universities and high school graduates with advanced technical training are doing quite well in our new economy.

Just as they enjoy inexpensive imports they can purchase at Wal-Mart — and are disinclined to consider whether those are sent here thanks to illegal foreign government subsidies or manipulated currencies — they look the other way when the cleaning services, painting contractors and limousine companies arrive at their homes and businesses with inexpensive and often exploited immigrant labor to relieve them of chores or facilitate their work.

This is fundamentally unfair and exploitive, for example, to the nearly 7 million men between the ages of 25 and 54 unemployed and too discouraged to look for a job, and the millions more lower-skilled Americans stuck in jobs whose wages don't provide a decent living.

It's an abstract fact that the economy can no longer get along without many of the illegal immigrants now firmly entrenched in important sectors of the economy, but tacit approval of lax immigration enforcement in our daily lives is no different than purchasing fenced or stolen goods. It decays our respect for the law and our compassion for less fortunate Americans.

Addressing the problem by granting amnesty — either explicitly through new legislation or simply refusing to deport illegal immigrants — has become so appealing because a growing number of voters trace their heritage to the same Latin American and Asian counties that send us most illegal immigrants. They often have relatives and close acquaintances who live in fear of deportation.

Hillary Clinton's strategy is simple. By promising some form of amnesty either by creating opportunities for illegal immigrants to gain legal status or through permanent, blanket non-enforcement of U.S. deportation laws — she calculates she will gain enough votes among Hispanics, Asians and prosperous white Americans who prefer to turn a blind eye to the plight of less fortunate Americans to lock up the election.

Donald Trump's disturbing rhetoric about immigrants and making Mexico pay for a wall along our southern border notwithstanding, his positions that we strictly enforce our borders and not grant legal status to illegal immigrants already here is really a voice for common fairness.

Mrs. Clinton's slogan — stronger together — and promises are something wholly together more cynical. ESR

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.





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