Drain or Gain? Joint Economic Committee Weighs Immigration Reform

“Immigration is a powerful economic engine that boosts innovation and strengthens critical industries from agriculture to high-tech manufacturing,” Klobuchar said. “The fact that we have everyone from Grover Norquist to labor unions advocating for immigration reform underscores its importance and I will continue to push for smart, comprehensive policies that secure our border, bolster our economy and promote opportunity for both businesses and families.”

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the panel’s House co-chair, said the objective of immigration reform must be to maximize potential economic benefits for the nation while minimizing the cost to taxpayers “if we wish to remain the world’s largest economy through the 21st century.”

“My belief is that we must close the back door of illegal immigration so that we can keep open the front door of legal immigration,” he said. “My frustration through the years of this politically charged debate is that Congress and the White House have failed to agree on a most basic question: What kind of workforce does America need to remain the strongest economy in the world and what steps do we need to take to ensure we have that 21st century workforce?”

The current system, Brady said, is “by all measurable standards broken,” adding that “the current visa program for low-skilled workers is essentially unworkable.”

Norquist also took the opportunity to question a report from a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, which maintains the immigration bill would cost $6.3 trillion in benefits for undocumented residents over the next 50 years. The study has been criticized by immigration supporters because it doesn’t calculate the fiscal benefits those workers bring to the table.

“Much of the costs they attribute are there anyway — they are for people who are citizens today,” Norquist said. “Forty percent of the cost is for education and 80 percent of the people are citizens now, but they still stick that on as a cost. They added the cost of a five-year-old legal resident into the cost. It got worse, the quality of the work.”

Norquist was joined in support of immigration reform by Georgetown University Professor Adriana D. Kugler, who echoed his claim that those entering the country offer a different skills set from those already here.

“One major fear about immigration is that immigrants take jobs away from U.S. workers and lower their wages,” she testified. “However, recent evidence points in the opposite direction. Since immigrants have different skills and tend to do different occupations, they complement U.S. workers and make them more productive. Moreover, immigrants are more likely to create their own jobs either by becoming self-employed or starting up their own businesses.”

Kugler also assured lawmakers that immigrants won’t impose a burden on local, state, and federal economies.

“The evidence here also points towards immigrants helping to ease fiscal problems,” she said. “Not only is the economy likely to grow as a result of immigrant innovation and entrepreneurship in the longer term, but also in the short term due to increased consumption by immigrants.”

Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA, also expressed support for easing immigration laws but within stricter parameters. While noting that “a growing economy attracts immigrants and immigration, in turn, makes the economy grow,” she asserted that immigration policy “should prioritize those immigrants who are most likely to make the biggest economic contribution.”

“The most highly-educated immigrants make the greatest economic and fiscal contributions,” she said.

Meanwhile, those with low skills, she said, place a strain on local economies.

“Although the net federal impact of current immigrants appears to be small, state and local governments in areas with large populations of low-skilled immigrants experience a sizable negative fiscal impact,” Zavodny said. “Much of these costs are due to educating the children of immigrants since those costs are primarily borne by states and localities. Medicaid costs are also substantial for states with large low-skilled immigrant populations.”

She also argued that it would prove desirable to encourage short-term migration as opposed to permanent residency.