Open the Door and Let 'Em In

The opponents of immigration reform are hampering the economy--and hurting all of us

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From an Economic standpoint, the battle over immigration reform has always been utterly baffling to me. Immigrants, or the children of immigrants, founded 40% of this country's Fortune 500 firms and untold millions of smaller businesses. They are the key reason that the U.S.'s population growth, and thus its economic growth, is predicted to be higher than that of most of the rest of the rich world over the next couple of decades. Immigrants are the difference between an economy growing at a healthy 3% rate and a sluggish 2%. Why wouldn't we want as many of them as we can get?

Sadly, many House Republicans, who have been debating the issue in recent days, don't agree. That means the immigration-reform bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support a few weeks ago is likely to be scuppered. Conservatives continue to insist that creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would unleash a torrent of new low-skilled workers from Mexico that would drive down U.S. wages.

But the truth is that the net FLOW OF IMMIGRANTS FROM MEXICO TO THE U.S. HAS BEEN SLOWING for a decade. It has now essentially stopped and is likely to reverse later this year, with the number of Mexicans returning home from the U.S. exceeding the number crossing over to America. Increased border patrols and tougher U.S. laws have clearly played a part, but a more important reason is that the economic calculus of migration has changed. The recession hurt prospects in the U.S. Meanwhile, a booming Mexican economy and better educational and job opportunities in Mexico have led many Mexican migrants--who make up 28% of the foreign-born population of the U.S.--to go home. (The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that from 65% to 95% of immigrants who returned to Mexico did so voluntarily.) "We've been so overwhelmed by a very emotional discussion about enforcement and security that the economic component of migration has gotten lost," says Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group. That's a pity, since the facts show that we should be courting, rather than turning away, new immigrants at all ends of the economic spectrum.

Let's start with the wage issue. Creating a path to legal immigration would put an end to immigrants' being oppressed and used to keep wages down. Immigration reform is something that both labor and many big businesses support (since it also helps ensure a supply of needed workers). As the AFL-CIO's policy director, Damon Silvers, pointed out to me at the recent Aspen Institute summit on financial security, while legalizing immigration would shore up wages (much needed in an economy that is 70% based on consumer spending), it is unlikely to result in the offshoring of jobs. Most sectors that those migrants work in--like hospitality, construction, tourism and agriculture--simply aren't offshorable.

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