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Immigration and Redistribution: The Changing Basis for Evaluation

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Since passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act establishing the family reunification basis for immigrant admission, the number of immigrants coming to the United States has increased dramatically.  But while the skills and education required for upward economic mobility have steadily risen, the skills and education of the bulk of the immigrant population have remained much the same.   As the gap between skills required and the skills immigrants actually possess has widened, questions have been raised about the immigrant-related costs to society through government expenditures.   Such questions have nothing to do with moral failings on the part of contemporary immigrants but instead reflect the realities of a changing US economy.

In the policy arena, the way immigration policy is approached and immigrants are evaluated has changed.   As the number of immigrants on Social Security, welfare, and other entitlement programs has risen, policymakers have increasingly questioned the resources redistributed to them by middle- and upper-income tax payers via government programs.   Like many other policies, immigration has become a redistributive concern, judged principally through a fiscal and budgetary lens.

The notion that immigration is to be judged mainly in redistributive terms is actually a fairly recent development.   To be sure, the public charge doctrine goes back to initial federal immigration policies adopted in 1882.  The prospect that a particular immigrant might become a public charge served as a basis for case-by-case exclusion.   Only recently has the concern arisen that large numbers of immigrants might become public charges.    Historically, political opponents of generous immigration policy have more often worried that immigrants might be political or religious radicals or take jobs away from natives.   Those concerns are still raised in the immigration debate but have not been the principal source of division between the two major parties during the last few decades.    Aside from the rising education levels required of US workers by the national economy,  other developments account for the changing arguments about immigration policy.

First, the redistributive character of immigration policy has been accentuated by budgetary constraints.  Immigrant enrollment in entitlement and other federal benefit programs has risen along with federal spending in other areas.   Medicare and Social Security expand on autopilot as the population ages, with the costs counted in the billions and growing by billions.  Immigrant participation in these government benefit programs has naturally drawn increased scrutiny from both policymakers and the public.

Second, immigration’s redistributive aspect has been heightened by the public’s resistance to higher taxes.   As the costs associated with immigrant settlement have increased, politicians and taxpayers have questioned the contribution of immigrants to the economy and to the tax rolls.   The balance of taxes paid versus services consumed has primed the debate between Democrats, whose constituencies often favor more government spending for social programs, and Republicans, who desire cuts in those program areas.

Third, the redistributive aspect of the contemporary immigration debate can be seen in the preoccupation with its disproportionate impact in some geographic regions.  Certain states and localities (e.g., California, Arizona) have seen the costs of providing services to immigrants shoot off the charts.  In addition to state-administered federal programs, states and localities have borne the economic impact of immigrants in the areas of education, law enforcement, health care, and a host of other services in their jurisdictions.     Given concentrated immigrant settlement patterns, federal reimbursement of the costs of immigration involves redistribution.

Capitol Hill policymakers construe the role of government in the economy either broadly or narrowly. Valuing a broad role for government naturally leads to the view that the government should take care of the needy and thus favors the continued admission of lower-skilled immigrants, supporting a non-skills- based criteria for immigrant admission and setting low thresholds for sponsorship and immigrant eligibility for public benefits.  Penalties associated with a legalization program should be mercifully light.

Those favoring a narrow role for government place a premium on individual responsibility.  They would say that beyond an individual’s own responsibilities lie the immigrant sponsor’s primacy for the immigrant’s well-being, and beyond that, private entities should provide for the welfare of immigrants.   To them, the government is always the last resort for the provision of assistance.   Clearly these opposite poles on the redistributive policy continuum send the two major political parties in opposite directions.

As a consequence of immigration policy increasingly taking on this redistributive cast, it has come to divide Congress along party lines as never before.   Although there are libertarian-leaning Republicans favorable to the comprehensive reforms most desired by Democrats, the bulk of the GOP will oppose any legislation that favors an easy legalization program that could promise greater enrollment of the newly legalized in government benefit programs.   Because legalization is the very cornerstone of the Democratic reform agenda, my prediction is that no bipartisan consensus will emerge in this Congress but that considerably amended legislation may pass in the next one.