Where is the GOP heading on immigration reform?

January 17, 2014

After falling off the radar for months, immigration reform is back. Late last year, Speaker John Boehner hired Rebecca Tallent — a veteran of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s efforts to offer a path to citizenship to large numbers of unauthorized immigrants — as one of his senior staffers. That decision strongly suggested that the GOP was on the verge of making a big immigration push. Laura Meckler and Kristina Peterson of the Wall Street Journal report that the Republican leadership is gravitating towards granting unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status that will give them the right to live and work in the United States, and that immigrants granted provisional status will eventually be allowed to apply for a green card.

This approach is not dramatically different from what has come before, and it is not at all clear why Boehner and his allies believe that conservative opponents of earlier proposals will now come on board. One possibility is that leading Republicans fear that Democrats will use the immigration issue as a weapon against them in the 2014 midterm elections, and that anything that takes the issue off the table is a win. Perhaps they believe that Republican lawmakers will fall into line to spare themselves a barrage of attack ads. Yet GOP critics of the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators, who’ve been the most aggressive advocates of immigration reform, are reluctant to grant the Obama administration wide discretion on immigration policy, particularly in light of the various creative ways the president has used his discretion to implement Obamacare.

The deeper disagreement among conservatives is over how immigration reform will interact with the welfare state. Immigration advocates insist that today’s immigrants are indistinguishable from the millions of immigrants who streamed into America’s farms and factories in earlier eras, and they often imply that the real reason immigration skeptics claim otherwise is simple xenophobia. The idea that less-skilled immigrants might become dependent on social programs in a fast-changing economy that prizes education more than the economy of the 1900s is, in this telling, highly offensive.

Immigration skeptics will often observe that in earlier eras, the United States didn’t have an expensive and expansive welfare state designed to help less-skilled women and men lead decent lives, not least because most native-born Americans were themselves what we’d now call “less-skilled.” Less-skilled immigrants of earlier eras thus faced great material hardship, and many of those who failed to flourish in the U.S. returned to their native countries, recognizing that American taxpayers were unlikely to come to their assistance. The concern among immigration skeptics is that granting unauthorized immigrants legal status is about more than granting them a right to live and work in the United States. It is also about eventually granting members of this constituency the right to apply for green cards and eventually the right to apply for citizenship, which will grant them not just membership in America’s political community but access to a full complement of benefits designed to shield poor Americans from the ravages of poverty, and to help them climb into the middle class.

It would be one thing if access to benefits were costless. But, as the Migration Policy Institute has found, only 14 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults live in households with incomes 400 percent or higher than the federal poverty level, the cutoff for Obamacare subsidies. Almost a third — 32 percent — live in households with incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, as do 51 percent of unauthorized immigrant children. Granting unauthorized immigrants legal status will, as a general rule, help them earn higher incomes. But given the skill levels of this population, it’s likely that many, if not most, of its members would be eligible for the earned-income tax credit, food stamps, and other benefits if granted citizenship. This is despite the fact that a large majority of adult unauthorized immigrants work.

One can both believe that unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are hard-working, admirable people doing whatever they can to better their lives and those of their families and also that many are so far behind their native-born and authorized immigrant counterparts in mastering basic literacy and numeracy skills that they will find themselves clustered at the bottom of U.S. income distribution. For example, while 30 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults are proficient in English, 49 percent either do not speak English well (31 percent) or do not speak English at all (18 percent). Life at the bottom of the U.S. income distribution is in many respects preferable to life in the middle or the top of the spectrum in poorer countries. But in light of the large supply of hard-working, admirable foreigners who are eager to settle in the United States, it is not obvious that U.S. immigration policy shouldn’t favor those who have the skills to not only survive but to flourish in America. Immigrants who earn high incomes, after all, will pay higher net tax rates than those who earn low incomes, thus doing more to finance social programs for the native-born poor.

A number of immigration skeptics on the left, like David Goodhart, author of the excellent new book The British Dream, have argued that high levels of immigration might diminish support for the welfare state, as voters in more diverse societies tend to be less inclined to finance social programs that benefit people culturally different from themselves. This argument makes intuitive sense, and it seems to fit the European experience. And ironically, at least some libertarian-minded immigration advocates have seen this dynamic as a reason for a more open door immigration policy. But there is new evidence to suggest that in the United States, at least, the Goodhart thesis doesn’t quite hold.

Recently, the sociologists David Brady and Ryan Finnigan published a paper in the American Sociological Review analyzing public opinion data from 1996 to 2006, and they found that immigration does not reduce support for welfare provision, though a high foreign-born share of the population does appear to reduce the share of people who back the notion that government “should provide a job for everyone who wants one.” Rather surprisingly, Brady and Finnigan suggest that a high level of net migration and a rising foreign-born share of the population actually makes people more supportive of the welfare state. If Brady and Finnigan are right, Republican immigration advocates who believe that a sharp increase in immigration won’t lead to a much larger welfare state are almost certainly wrong.

PHOTO: Egyptian immigrants Samar Shoreibah (L), 29, her husband Taha Shoreibah (2nd R), 39, and their children Yousef (2nd L), 5, and Maria, 2, hold U.S. flags at a naturalization ceremony for 3,703 new U.S. citizens from 130 countries, in Los Angeles, California, December 17, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Growth comes from either population expansion or technoloy innovation. Our technologies have been stiffled by the increased political influence of corporations who have capital investments in existing product manufacturing. Our population doesn’t grow because of the increasing inability of people to be able to afford children, and/or the decreasing freedoms that we have (it could be considered cruel to have children if you cannot protect them from religious fanatics or corporations or governments). Thus we have slowed population growth. Therefore, since we have stiffled technology improvement and have a flat population, they will find a way to pass immigration reform to increase our population so that the economy continues to grow (mostly to cover up poor past governance). Granted, they could instead allow more competition by implementing regulation not designed to favor large major corporation, and they could work to guarantee our freedoms, but they are actually doing the opposite of on both of these issues. So, immigration reform is a given and will increase our population by tens of millions and this will help the economy enough to hide it’s intrisic problems for a while, at least long enough for those in charge to get theirs and get out.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Only the naive believe that America can prosper while spending over a BILLION dollars more every single day on imports than other countries spend on our exports.

The only reason America ever had the MOST PROSPEROUS economy was because America had the BEST PAID employees and consequently, American businesses had the customers with the most money to spend.   American business owners are SO GREEDY that they are using free trade agreements, immigration, and deregulation to drive down wages and destroy benefits.   In their quest for short term profits, employers are destroying their own customer base.

Immigration only inflates the supply of labor and drives down wages. That decreases demand for goods and services and causes even more workers to be laid off…..

And some people actually wonder why America is no longer prosperous.

Posted by wigglwagon | Report as abusive

@wigglwagon “American business owners are SO GREEDY that they are using free trade agreements, immigration, and deregulation to drive down wages and destroy benefits”

All true. A naive reader might wonder why these business owners do not realize that they are killing the golden goose, i.e. fewer people with good jobs translates to fewer customers. But these business owners cannot see beyond their wallet; all they see are short-term profits.

I find it grimly amusing that almost every article which discusses immigration “reform” neglects to mention that the Senate bill also allows for hundreds of thousands more H-1B visas which will be used to replace Americans with foreign workers. If the article mentions this fact at all, it is always cloaked in the context of how “high-skill” foreigners will magically create jobs, but the articles always omit the fact that H-1B visas are mostly used for people with only B.S. degrees.

Posted by baroque-quest | Report as abusive

Humans are not fungible. A new population is being elected.

Small government and lower taxes are pretty much white concepts. Non-whites, including educated East and South Asians, vote majority Democrat. They want more government, and an “activist” one at that. The problem is that the portion of the population that pays the lion’s share of the bill for it is projected to achieve minority status by 2042.

Uh, oh. Bad moon on the rise.

Posted by Zeken | Report as abusive

I have been a teacher of English as a Foreign Language/English as a Second Language to adults in the Philadelphia area. Native-born Americans at the bottom of the income scale may suffer from both illiteracy and innumeracy, but my students do not. They are some of the sharpest mathematicians I’ve ever encountered, and once they have overcome the barriers of speaking English, they are motivated and able students of reading and writing. As our politicians tapdance around, my students are talking through their business plans with me, and will have them written down and funded by the time our worthy Congress finally comes to an agreement.

Posted by English_Teacher | Report as abusive

“If Brady and Finnigan are right, Republican immigration advocates who believe that a sharp increase in immigration won’t lead to a much larger welfare state are almost certainly wrong.” Good grief. A concluding “point” should be simple and clear.

Yours isn’t and cannot be because you have chosen to ignore the crucial distinction between immigration policy and laws, enforcement, legal immigration and some twenty million or so fence-jumping illegal aliens. The latter we repeatedly see agitating publicly for “rights” that do not exist in law or fact and to which they are not entitled and do not deserve. Please.

@Zeken, You got it!


you say: “…immigration reform is a given…”. “Immigration reform”, as you support, is more truthfully described as the “open borders/perpetual amnesty” lobby.

Yes, this “…will increase our population by tens of millions…”, but it is a convenient illusion that the mean education and skills of the ILLEGAL ALIEN/SQUATTER portion of “immigration” will EVER “…help the economy…”. The time is long past that more and more uneducated unskilled non-English speakers will do anything but dilute the quality of life existing “social support programs” will be able to sustain.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

If you take the H1-B visas out of the immigration bill you will lose ALL republican support. It’s as simple as that.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc “If you take the H1-B visas out of the immigration bill you will lose ALL republican support”

Yes, because screwing the American worker is the only true bi-partisan issue in Congress.

Posted by baroque-quest | Report as abusive


Then let’s “…take the H1-B visas out of the immigration bill…! Works for me.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Get into the fight and help stop this nightmare. We all know that mass immigration hurts workers, drives down wages and expands the welfare state. NumbersUSA dot com is a great site to help assure that our reps truly represent the needs of citizens. Only action matters…the fight is now….get involved.

Posted by actnow | Report as abusive

A headline in the Financial Times (of London) today says that a new poll shows more British voters now favor the UKIP party over the Tories.

The Mirror says: The rise in public support for the anti-immigration policies of UKIP will be a major blow for both Tories and Labour ahead of the looming European elections in May, when UKIP could top the polls.

In America, the Republican party should watch, because anti-immigration mood among the American people, just like the British, is growing quickly.

The same thing is happening in almost all advanced nations. Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark. The elites are pro-immigration, whereas the middle class is growing anti-immigration.

Technology – Today, the poorest of slum dwellers in the most populous impoverished cities of the world routinely use the internet, cell phones, credit cards and discount airfares to move a whole neighborhood to America or England in a few days. The movement of people is unprecedented.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Unprecedented, large-scale immigration under the H1B Visa Program has destroyed the American engineering profession.

It’s really a simple case of supply and demand.


Consider an analogy. Consider, for example, what would happen if H1B were applied to plumbers instead of engineers.

Pick any city, let’s say, Denver, Colorado. Now, bring in 100 busloads of freshly graduated Indian or Chinese plumbers (4,000 new plumbers), who want to enter into the plumbing business in Denver, and make a living.

The result? Wage rates for plumbers will become depressed. The existing 960 American plumbers in Denver, once busy every day, and making a good living, will now have much less work, or no work at all.

All the Denver high school kids hear from their fathers and uncles that plumbing is no longer a good way to make a living. The plumber wages are going down, down, down. In droves, they choose some other path in life. Who can compete with impoverished hordes of plumbers from India who will work for any price? India has 1.17 BILLION people, and many of them are coming here, flooding our labor markets.

The H1B visa law was created, written and lobbied for by large American corporations as a means for decreasing their engineering labor costs. Indeed their corporate profits have zoomed up, up, up — while the wage rates paid to their American engineers have gone down, down, down.

The H1B law has already brought in over one million foreign engineers to America, thus driving down American wage rates.

People ask, Why don’t more American kids major in engineering anymore? The reason is that American kids aren’t blind. They see a flood of foreign workers displacing American engineers in every corner of the American economy. The see that the wage rates dropping.

If America wants more American kids to major in engineering, the solution is simple supply and demand economics: Stop immigration of H1B foreigners, and allow the wage rates to rise and rise until American kids say, “Hey, there’s good money in engineering!”

That’s what American kids used to say back before the H1B Visa program was enacted by Congress at the behest of American corporations.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Speculation about immigrants is worthless.

“Seven in 10 Latino high school graduates in the class of 2012 went to college, according to a by the Pew Hispanic Center.

“That’s a record-high college enrollment rate for Latinos, and it’s the first time Latinos have surpassed white and black students, even as they lag behind Asian-Americans. The Latino high school dropout rate has fallen by half over the past decade — from 28 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2011.”

http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013  /05/14/183813129/Latino-High-School-Gra ds-Enter-College-At-Record-Rate

Posted by OkieRedux | Report as abusive

How much has immigration hurt the American engineering profession?

I just came across a report which can be found by typing its title in your favorite search engine:

“How Record Immigration Levels Robbed American High-Tech Workers of $10 Trillion”

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

“Immigration reform” should mean the active exportation of ANYONE in this country who cannot prove he is a US citizen.

THAT is what this country did after the financial crash in 1929. It made sense then and it still makes sense now.

What is wrong with you people?

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

The proud Mexican flag waving Mexicans taking over my American town has caused me to become a “second class” citizen.

I can’t access services that my tax dollars pay for because they are hidden in SPANISH ONLY documentation. Money from the town seems to get funneled into FOR “LATINOS” ONLY organization.

The schools here are paid for by 80% state and federal funding. The people claim 90% low income at the schools yet seem to have the money to drive new or late model vehicles in the $20-$40,000 range. That’s hardly an indication of poverty.

The town passed THE SAFE SPACE ACT in 2008 vowing not to have anything to do with enforcing immigration laws and preventing federal immigration authorities from using town property, a year or so later, it sets up a OFFICE OF CITIZENSHIP that give aid to any “RESIDENT” of the town, legal or not. Considering that our town borders Chicago and those same services are only 5 miles away, this is a total waste of AMERICAN MONEY!

I visited the building where these services are being conducted and asked a few simple questions like “What do you do when the person who is requesting these services can’t speak English or Spanish?” I was told that I would have to leave the building!!!

I am a 60 year old, disabled, 3rd generation WHITE AMERICAN whose family has lived in CICERO, ILLINOIS since 1920.

My grandfather was drafted into the US Army during World War One.

My father was drafted into the US Army and spent 4 years there during World War Two.

I missed being drafted into the Vietnam War by one year.

This is how the AMERICAN GOVERNMENT shows its loyalty to AMERICANS.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive