Res Judicata: Legal Immigration is Not the Answer

Written by Howard Foster on Monday August 15, 2011

The bad economic news, especially persistently high unemployment, requires an examination of our immigration policy. The U.S. currently admits about 800,000 legal immigrants per year, all of whom are authorized for employment.

This goes on year in and year out, regardless of the level of unemployment.  This makes no economic sense and cries out for reform.

Perhaps that many new job seekers can be justified in a time of low unemployment. (Even then, immigration should be tied to the national interest which includes assimilation and adherence to the law.)  But how can we not tie the number of legal immigrants to our unemployment rate during a crisis?  And why aren't the Republican presidential candidates demanding this?

If the U.S. had halted legal immigration when the unemployment rate began to rise sharply in late 2008 we would have 2-3 million fewer job seekers now, and the unemployment rate would be about 2 points lower (7% rather than 9%).  This may not sound like a dramatic difference, but imagine the political implications if President Obama could propose a bill that would cost the government no money and would reduce the unemployment rate by 2 points before next year's election.  That would change the entire narrative of the campaign.

Yet none of the Republican candidates have even mentioned curtailing legal immigration, even as a temporary partial solution to the unemployment problem.  They are not shy about promising to crack down on illegal immigration, but that is viewed as a law-enforcement issue, not an economic one. Tell an unemployed person that the country allows 800,000 immigrants to enter the country every year, even now, and that they compete with him or her for jobs. That person would be rightly outraged.  Argued correctly, Republicans can use this issue to make serious inroads into the unemployed vote, and the votes of those afraid of becoming unemployed, which according to economists and pollsters, is about a third of the electorate.

Mitt Romney, whom I am inclined to support, speaks at length about "job creation."  But the longer one listens to his proposals, the more esoteric they become.  He slogs through a list of tax and regulatory changes that have almost no political resonance.  Eliminating or severely curtailing immigration, a subject he broached in his book No Apology instantly resonates with everyone.  In the book Mr. Romney proposes reforming our immigration system to be more like Canada's, i.e., favoring highly educated and skilled people over unskilled migrants.  This makes some sense, but in a time of 9% unemployment, it makes none.  We need a halt on all legal immigration until unemployment falls closer to a natural rate of about 5%.