An immigration deal for dreamers is out of reach

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Documented Dreamers posing with lawmakers Ross and Bera on May 18, 2022 at the Capitol Hill in Washington DC. PHOTO: T. Vishnudatta Jayaraman, News India Times

To hear Senator Joe Manchin, pro-immigrant advocates are getting way too excited over the prospect of a deal in the lame duck Congress that would allow for the legalization of two million “Dreamers,” immigrants brought illegally into the country as minors by their parents. “I don’t see any movement there,” he told a forum on the benefits of immigration hosted by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “They think it’s weak on border security.”

Manchin’s take has constrained American policy for decades: Any attempt to ease the path for immigrants to come to the United States – whether Dreamers, workers, or asylum seekers – must be traded against a hefty investment in an impenetrable wall at the border. Otherwise, the American people won’t buy the deal. As he put it: “Unless we secure the border we are not going to be able to go forward because the political divide is so great.”

And yet, as popular as this hypothetical trade-off is on Capitol Hill, whether it can survive an encounter with the real world is less clear.

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For starters, can this sort of impenetrable border even be built this side of East Berlin? (Manchin suggested a wall on Mexico’s southern border.) Immigrants who have risked life and limb on a slog through the Darien Gap separating Colombia from Panama are unlikely to let a mere wall and a few drones and sensors stop them.

Critically, as Manchin ruefully recalled, in 2013 a bipartisan group of senators proposed a package with these characteristics, only to be shot down by Tea Party Republicans who would not accept a deal in which undocumented immigrants were not kicked out.

Americans aren’t troubled by immigration just because the border looks chaotic on TV and many immigrants come illegally. The proposition that voters will embrace immigration once they are assured it all comes through legal channels is absurd. Inchoate yet deeply felt, the discomfort with the idea of an America with more immigrants will ease only when voters realize that America will be ultimately doomed without them.

A crowd of hopefuls thinks that Americans are already there. They point to polling by Gallup suggesting that, once one overlooks some recent pullbacks, public opinion has been trending in a positive direction since the 1990s. But maybe we should not ignore those recent pullbacks. Below the surface of a nation content with its immigrant origin story lurks a lot of unease about the idea of adding foreigners to the crucible.

A survey by the Cato Institute last year suggests just how complicated America’s attitudes toward immigration are.

Cato finds that Americans are roughly split between wanting more, the same, and less immigration, but when respondents to the poll are informed that the legal immigrant population increases by about one million per year, the rate before the Covid pandemic, the share wanting less almost doubles, from 33% to 60%.

There is a lot of wrong information out there. For instance, Americans believe immigrants account for 40% of the population, roughly three times their actual share. About two-thirds of respondents who want less immigration say it reduces jobs and cuts wages for native workers, statements that are mostly wrong. (Immigration has no impact on the employment level and mostly positive effects on wages.)

Over half of Americans believe that half or more of immigrants receive means-tested welfare assistance from the government, a preposterously high estimate. Immigrants’ access to government services other than public schools for their children is pretty limited during their first five years in the country. Still, when pollsters offered a scenario in which immigrants could not use any government services, the share supporting more immigration rose from 29% to 58%.

And though perhaps more information might help change these views, one obstacle seems impermeable to analytical arguments about the pros and cons of immigration: 58% of Americans fear immigrants are changing American culture.

More than half of Americans and 82% of those who would like to decrease immigration think that by 2043, when Whites are expected to become a minority, there will be less social cohesion and more discrimination against Whites. About one-half of Americans who would prefer less immigration worry that immigrants are replacing America’s ethnic background and changing the very idea of what the country is. Nearly 60% say that immigrants will become so numerous they will no longer feel at home in the United States.

Interestingly, 85% of people who believe the government has little or no control over who immigrates to the US are more likely to prefer less immigration, which could underpin a trade-off similar to that suggested by Manchin. But the preferences cut both ways: People who prefer less immigration are more likely to think the border is out of control.

The polling suggests there aren’t enormous opportunities to ease the political constraints on immigration policy. Wendy Edelberg, who leads the Hamilton Project, and Tara Watson of Williams College suggest giving fiscal policy a shot to “more equitably share the overall fiscal and economic benefits of immigration.”

Immigrants’ fiscal cost stems mostly from educating and providing healthcare to their kids, which is usually borne by states and municipalities. But immigrants pay taxes largely to the feds. Edelberg and Watson propose a federal transfer to local areas proportional to their population of immigrants without a college degree. This might ease voters’ fear that immigrants will either push up their state and local taxes or exhaust the welfare pie. It would also reduce the incentives for Republican governors to pluck asylum seekers from Texas and fly them to Martha’s Vineyard.

“This could be used as a way to say ‘look, governor, we recognize that there’s going to be some short-term cost to you, and so we are going to smooth it away and maybe also give you some other things,'” Watson said. “Maybe it’s part of a way of reconciling the political challenge.”

And yet, as noted by Kim Rueben from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, spreadsheets showing people that immigrants pay taxes are unlikely to change the politics. (A 2017 report by the National Academies concluded that immigrants pay less in taxes but also collect fewer benefits than natives. The children of immigrants, though, contribute more than older native generations to the nation’s fiscal accounts over their lifecycle .)

If anything is going to untangle the political knot, Reuben thinks, it’s putting Americans face-to-face with how much immigration they actually need.

They need lots. Net migration – which counts arrivals minus departures – has been declining since 2016. The Census Bureau projects that without more immigration the US population will start shrinking in 2035. While less population might not amount to an obvious weakness, population matters in the world’s balance of power.

This less populous nation would present another problem: It would be pretty old. An analysis by researchers at the National Immigration Forum concluded that immigration should increase by 37% over 2020 levels – an additional 370,000 immigrants per year – to maintain the nation’s dependency ratio in the face of an aging population.

“I almost wonder if having the labor shortages and having people actually realize that they don’t have somebody to take care of their kids or their parents is something that might be more likely to change the national conversation,” Reuben said. Maybe that, plus a wall on Mexico’s southern border, will achieve a gain for the Dreamers.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.”s

(This opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of News India Times)

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