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.