Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 20): Transitional Measures and Conclusions

We must recognize than any orderly system used to select and admit immigrants involves a degree of bureaucratic slowness. Hence, the existing family preference-based program would have to be extended for several years, maybe as long as ten, while accepting no more new applications. It’s likely that the compromise solution would even have to be some sort of measure that guarantees that the last direct descendants and direct ascendants of existing immigrants have been accommodated.

To remedy the labor rigidity consequent on the abolition of family preference as the primary source of admission, the US might re-instate a new version of the 1942-1964 bracero program. I refer to a system of admission of temporary contractual workers guaranteed a minimum wage and decent living conditions by employers for a stated period. Temporary immigrants admitted in this manner would have no expectation of permanent admission to the US. The problem of “stay-overs” could be solved through a conventional bonding system. (I am puzzled about why bonding has not yet been tried in connection to immigration.) The work sojourns would have to be made renewable in law so that the US might preserve the option of keeping temp. workers who had acquired valuable and rare skills during, or even before their first, or following stay in-country. In exceptional cases, temp. workers in such a program could be channeled to the new F-1B program, perhaps with credit given for experiences working in the US and for cultural adjustment.

Conclusions

In summary: I deplore two features of current public discussions of legal immigration: They are ill-informed to an astonishing degree; and, they are often crude, lacking in both subtlety and imagination, like an argument between two people who keep cutting each other off. Unless one formulates a systematic alternative to the current system, one squarely separating immigration based on altruism from merit-based immigration, immigration based on the expected immigrants contributions to American society, the helter-skelter liberal project will continue to prevail. It is now prevailing by default in the minds of  most Americans. Those who have the energy to resist it too often limit their response to a blind “No!”In the end,  if no countervailing project emerges forcefully, we will witness the establishment of a statist one-party system in the US. Libertarians, among others, should hurry to confront their close friends and relatives who toy with the dangerous delusion of open borders.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 19; you can also read the entire essay at the “LongForm Essays” section of the blog.]

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 19): How to Go About It

Admitting immigrants legally for the benefit of American society need not be bureaucratically demanding. The existing H-1B visa program could fairly easily be turned into a merit system. It would require only minor tweaking. The main tweak would be to forbid or, at least, to restrict severely employers’ reliance on labor contractors through which most of the abuses occur, I believe. (See, for example, the infamous Disney case, described below.) Let each employer applying for such visas be squarely on record as vouching for the individual beneficiaries’ quality.

Following the example of Canada, some degree of priority could be assigned to obvious contributions to successful adaptation to American society, beginning with knowledge of English. (This might actually require a new law making English the official language of the US.) I listed above other examples of immigrants features that might be scored positively. Note again that avoiding the drawbacks of a completely relative-based system does not necessarily imply the rejection of the simple idea that having relatives in the country often facilitates adjustment. Within the framework of a H-1B-type point system, some degree of preference could be assigned to the fact that the beneficiary has relatives in the US close to where he will first settle. This would not be family re-unification under a different guise because family relations would be subordinate to work capabilities and other features facilitating adaptation.

The next necessary tweak has to do with the fact that the H-1B program has a bad reputation among the unemployed and  the uncertainly employed. So, in 2016, the Walt Disney company was sued, famously for having American workers train their F-1B visa replacements before they were laid off. The suit was dismissed by reason of what I think was a big loophole in the protective measures in favor of American workers in connection with the H-1B program. No one denied that Disney had done what it was accused to have done. Many believe furiously that the program actively discriminates against American workers and keeps their wages low. To make it more acceptable, the existing H-1B safeguards against noxious practices undermining the employment of the American-born and of legal resident immigrants would have to be widely publicized and remedies against abuses would have to be made judicially more accessible than they are now.

The American public would also have to be ready for the predictable consequences of merit policies in terms of culture and in terms of politics. The merit-based program I envisage would result quickly in a large increase in Indian immigration. Although Indians have been very good immigrants by most counts, there might be objections because nearly all of them seem to suck some form of leftism or other with their mother’s milk. In addition, and although India is often celebrated as the “world largest democracy,” there is some question about educated Indians’ attachment to the constituent forms of historically Western democracy, specifically. (I am a small-time expert on this because I read items in and through the Indian press and because I have Indian relatives. They are a tiny biased sample, of course but also an informational gateway of sorts. See also India-born commentator Jayant Bhandari in the October 5 2017 issue of Acting Man: “Canada: Risks of a Parliamentary Democracy.”)

This problem and others like it could be mitigated by placing a numerical ceiling on the total number of immigrants from any one country. I predict informally that this particular problem would turn out to be limited because, once the gates of legal immigration opened for real, there would be a sharp increase in applications from European countries with democratic systems similar to ours. This too would have consequences: As I have pointed out, by and large Europeans are not shy about using any form of welfare, broadly defined, including unemployment benefits. I note shyly that placing a ceiling on the contribution of any one nation-state to US immigration would seem “fair” to liberal opinion, making the whole project more acceptable than would otherwise be the case.

Incidentally, a reasonable merit-based system, aimed as it would at foreigners of some competence, might produce additional revenue to help defray both the cost of better enforcement of immigration laws, and the cost of caring for people admitted on altruistic grounds.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 18]

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 18): Reforms I Would Favor

Now, here is what I, personally, a US citizen and an appreciative immigrant, as well as a small government conservative, would like to see happen: As I pointed out before, most liberals and quite a few conservatives perceive allowing all immigration as a sort of altruistic gesture. That includes those who do not overtly call for open borders but whose concrete proposals (“Abolish ICE.”) would result in a soft state that would provide the equivalent of open borders. As far as I can tell – with the major exception of Tabarrok, discussed above – many pure libertarians whisper that they are all for open borders, but they only whisper it. I speculate that they are forced to take this principled but unreasonable position to avoid having to defend the nation-state as a necessary institutional arrangement to control immigration.  Frankly, I wish they would come out of the closet and I hope this essay will shame some into doing so.

The most urgent thing to my mind is to separate conceptually and bureaucratically with the utmost vigor, immigration intended to benefit us, American citizens and lawfully admitted immigrants, and beyond us, to promote a version of the American polity close to the Founders’ vision, on the one hand, from immigration intended to help someone else, or something else, on the other. The US can afford both but the amalgam of the two leads to bad policies. (See, for example the story “The Refugee Detectives: Inside Germany’s High-Stake Operation to Sort People Fleeing Death…” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, April 2018.)

Next, I think conservatives should favor, for now, an upper numerical limit to immigration, one pegged perhaps to the growth of our domestic population. Though my heart is not in it, it seems to me that this is a prudent recommendation in view of the threatening prospect of a Democratic one-party governance.

The first category of immigrants would be admitted on some sort of merit basis, as I said, perhaps a version of the system I discuss above. The second category would include all refugees and asylum seekers, and, to a limited extent, their relatives. Given a strictly altruistic intent in accepting such people, Congress and the President jointly would be in a better position than they are today to apply any strictures at all, including philosophical and even religious tests of compatibility with central features of American legal and philosophical tradition – if any. (Of course, in spite of the courts’ interventions in the matter, I have not found the part of the Constitution that forbids the Federal Government from barring anyone it wants, including on religious grounds. Rational arguments can be made against such decisions but they are not anchored in the Constitution, I believe. (See constitutional lawyers David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey’s analysis: “The Judicial ‘Resistance’ is Futile” in the Wall Street Journal of 2/7/18.)

I think thus both that we could admit many more people seeking shelter from war and other catastrophes than we do, and that we should vet them extensively and deeply. We could also rehabilitate the notion of provisional admission. Many of the large number of current Syrian refugees would not doubt like to go home if it were possible. Such refugees could be given, say, a five-year renewable visa. As I pointed out above, some beliefs system are but little compatible with peaceful assimilation into American society. This can be said aloud without proffering superfluous insults toward any group.  National hypocrisy does not make sense because it rarely fools anyone. In general, I think all American society has been too shy in this connection, too submissive to political correctness. So, think of this example: French constitutions, most of the fifteen of them anyway, proclaim the primacy of something called “the general interest,” a wide open door to authoritarian collectivism if there ever was one. There is no reason to not query French would-be immigrants on this account. I would gladly take points off for answers expressing a submissiveness to this viewpoint. (Yes, I am one of those who suspect that the French Revolution is one of the mothers of democracy but also, of Communism and of Fascism.)

Similarly Muslim religious authorities as well as would-be Muslim immigrants could be challenged like this: Just tell us publicly if Islamic dogma welcomes separation of religion and government. State, also in public, loudly and clearly that apostasy does not deserve death, that it deserves no punishment at all. Admission decisions would be a function of the answers given. Sure, people would be coached and many would cheat but, they would be on record. The most sincere would not accept going on record against their doctrine. Sorry to be so cynical but I don’t fear the least sincere!

The underlying reasoning for such policies of exclusion is this: First, I repeat that there is no ethical system that obligates American society to commit suicide, fast or slowly; second, probabilistic calculations of danger and of usefulness both are the only practicable ones in the matter of admitting different groups and categories. (I don’t avoid jumping from planes with a parachute because those who do die every time they try but because they die more often than those who don’t.) Based on recent experience (twenty years+), Muslims are more likely to commit terrorist acts than Lutherans. (It’s also true that there is a very low probability for both groups.) Based on common sense and the news, most Mexicans must have acquired a high tolerance for political corruption. Based on longer experience, many Western Europeans have extensive and expensive expectations regarding the availability of tax supported welfare benefits. Based – perhaps- on one thousand years of observation, the Chinese tend to favor collective discipline over individual rights more than Americans do. (See my: “Muslim Refugees in perspective.”)

Pronouncing aloud these probabilistic statements does not shut off the possibility of ignoring them because immigrants from the same groups bring with them many improvements to American society, of course. I could easily allow a handful of well chosen French chefs to come in despite of their deep belief in the existence of a common public interest. I even have a list ready. Admitting facts is not the same as making decisions. I can also imagine a permanent invitation to anyone to challenge publicly such generalizations. It would have at least the merit of clearing the air.

Last and very importantly: Invalidating the generalizations I make above, to an unknown extent, is the likelihood that immigrants are not a true sample of their population of origin: Chinese immigrants may tend to have an anarchist streak; that may be the very reason they want to live in the US. Mexicans may seek to move to the US precisely to flee corruption for which they have a low tolerance, etc. The French individuals wishing to come to the US may be trying to escape the shadow of authoritarianism they perceive in French political thought, etc.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 17]

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 17): Merit-Based Immigration and Other Solutions

The long-established numerical prominence of immigration into the US via family relations makes it difficult to distinguish conceptually between legal immigration responding to matters of the heart and immigration that corresponds to hard economic, and possibly, demographic facts. The one motive has tainted the other and vice-versa. The current public discussions (2016-2018) suggest that many native-born Americans think of immigration as a matter of charity, or of solidarity with the poor of this world, as in the inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,….”  Many Americans accordingly perceive as hard-hearted those who wish to limit or reduce immigration. Inevitably, as whenever the subject of hard-heartedness emerges as a topic in politics, a Right/Left divide appears, always to the detriment of the former.

It seems to me that conservatives are not speaking clearly from the side of the divide where they are stuck. They have tacitly agreed to appear as a less generous version of liberals instead of  carriers of an altogether different social project. Whatever the case may be, the politically most urgent thing to do from a rational standpoint is to try and divide for good in public opinion, immigration for the heart and immigration for the head, immigration for the sake of generosity and immigration for the benefit of American society. Incidentally, and for the record, here is a digression: I repeat that I believe that American society has a big capacity to admit immigrants under the first guise without endangering itself. That can only happen once the vagueness about controlling our national boundaries has dissipated. Such a strategy requires that the Federal Government have the unambiguous power to select and vet refugees and to pace their admission to the country.

“Merit” Defined

In reaction to the reality and also, of to abuses associated with the current policy, a deliberate, and more realistic doctrine of immigration has emerged on the right of the political spectrum. It asks for admission based on merit, partly in imitation of Australia’s and Canada’s. Canada’s so-called “Express Entry System” is set to admit more than 300,000 immigrants on the basis of  formally scored merit in 2118. That’s for a population of only about 37 million. The central idea is to replace the current de facto policy favoring family relations as a ground for admission, resulting in seemingly endless “chain migration,” with something like a point system. The system would attempt scoring an immigrant’s potential usefulness to American society. In its simplest form, it would look something like this: high school graduate, 1 point; able to speak English, 1 point; literate in English, 1 more point; college graduate, 2 points (not cumulative with the single point for being a high school graduate); STEM major, 2 points; certified welder, 2 points; balalaika instructor, 2 points. Rocket scientist with positive record, 5 points.  Certified welder, 10 points.

The sum of points would determine the order of admission of candidates to immigration into the US for a set period, preferable a short period because America’s needs may change fast. With the instances I give, this would be a fair but harsh system: Most current immigrants would probably obtain a score near zero, relegating them to eternal wait for admission.

There are two major problems with this kind of policy. First, it would place the Federal Government perilously close to articulating a national industrial policy. Deciding to give several point to software designers and none to those with experience running neighborhood grocery stores, for example, is to make predictions about the American economy of tomorrow. From a conservative standpoint, it’s a slippery slope, from a libertarian standpoint, it’s a free fall. Of course, we know how well national industrial policies work in other countries, France for example. (For 25 years, as a French-speaking professor on the spot, visiting French delegations to my business school would take me aside; they would buy me an expensive lunch and demand that I give away the secret of Silicon Valley. First, create a first rate university, I would answer meanly…)

Second, the conceit that a merit-based system of admission, any merit-based system, is an automatic substitute for the family reunion-dominated current policy is on a loose footing. Suppose, a Chinese woman receives top points in the new system as a world-class nuclear scientist whose poetry was nominated for a Nobel in literature. She walks right to the head of the line, of course. But she is married and she and her husband have three children. Can we really expect her to move to the US and leave her family behind? Do we even want her to, if we expect her to remain? Does anyone? Then, the woman and her husband both turn out to be busy as bees and hard workers, major contributors to the US economy, and to American society in general. (They are both also engaged in lively volunteering.) So, they need help with child care. The husband’s old but still healthy mother is eager and willing to come to live with the couple. She is the best possible baby-sitter for the family. The problem is that the old lady will not leave her even older husband behind. (And, again, would we want her here if she were the kind to leave him?)

Here you go, making ordinary, humane, rational decisions, the merit-based admission of one turns into admission of seven! And, I forgot to tell you: Two of the kids become little hoodlums, as happens in the best families in the second generation. They require multiple interventions from social services. They will both cost society a great deal in the end. In this moderate scenario, the attempt to rationalize immigration into a more selfish policy benefiting Americans has resulted in a (limited) reconstitution of the despised chain immigration, with some of the usual pitfalls.

The arguments can nevertheless be made that in the scenario above, the new merit-based policy has resulted in the admission of upper-middle class individuals rather than in that of the rural, poorly educated immigrants that the old policy tended to select for. This can easily be counted as a benefit but the whole story is probably more complicated. In the exact case described above, the US did replace lower-class individuals with upper-middle class people but also with people possibly of more alien political culture, with consequences for their eventual assimilation. I mean that all Mexicans tend to be experts in Americana and that our political institutions are familiar to them because theirs are copy-cat copies of ours. I surmise further that Mexicans are unlikely from their experience to expect the government to be mostly benevolent. Moreover, it seems to me the children of semi-literate Mexicans whose native language is fairly well related to English and uses the same alphabet, are more likely to master English well than even accomplished Chinese. This is a guess but a well-educated teacher’s guess. (I don’t think this  holds true for the grand-children, incidentally.) Of course, if my argument is persuasive, there would be a temptation to down-score candidates just for being Chinese, pretty much the stuff for which Harvard University is on trial as I write (October 2018).

I described elsewhere how the fact of having relatives established in the country facilitates installation and economic integration, even as it may retard assimilation. Note that a point system does not have to forego the advantages associated with family relationships. Such a system can easily accommodate family and other relationships, like this: adult, self-sufficient offspring legally in the US: 3 points; any other relation in the US: 1 point; married to a US resident with a welder certification: 15 points, etc.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 16]

The US Immigration Lottery

As I write, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a battle to transform an American immigration system that has changed little in fifty years. President Trump seems eager to alter both the number of immigrants and the nature of qualifications for immigration. His Democratic opponents call him “racist.” (Democratic extremists call anyone they don’t like “racist,” perhaps because they have exhausted all normal political insults.) The so-called “lottery” door to immigration is attracting special scorn from the president and from other high-ranking Republicans. Many in the general public, not well versed in matters of immigration, listen to the president’s attacks with perplexity or disbelief: a “lottery”? This short essay aims to throw light on the topic with a small number of figures.

In 2016 there were 1,200,000 admissions to permanent residency in the US. That’s the granting of the famous “green card” which gives one full rights to work, to go in and out of the country, but no political rights, no right to vote, and no right to be elected – until now. Permanent residency is not citizenship. This must be obtained later, separately after five or three years (the latter, for spouses of US citizens) in almost all cases. Nearly all legal residents who wish to eventually become American citizens.

“Admission” is a legal-bureaucratic term. Many of those so admitted have already been in the US, some for years, while their case was being processed. The number physically arriving in the US on that year is much larger because it includes tourists, students, and others who are supposed to be visitors staying only for a stated length of time. Immigrants are admitted on the basis of one of five broad categories:

Occupational/business qualification, family relationship to someone already legally in the US. (The latter actually includes two legal-bureaucratic categories. The distinction between the two need not concern us here.) This family-based category accounts for the bulk of legal immigration, 67% of the total in 2016. Refugees (and “asylees”) account for another large number that is variable from year to year. There is also a category “Others” which gathers a small number of odds and ends admissions otherwise not fitting into another category.

The most interesting basis for admission is the quaintly called “Diversity.” It’s an actual lottery. It’s a lottery without admission fee where one can play as often as one cares to. It contributed 50,000 admissions in 2016, or 4% of the total admitted. The number is so small that it hardly would seem to be worth the attention of policy makers, except perhaps when a lottery winner engages in spectacular criminal acts as happened in New York in the fall of 2017.

Once, in the late 80s, Senator Ted Kennedy discovered that immigration to the US included practically no Irish people. He got angry and, on the spot, devised a remedy that became – through his influence in Congress – the diversity lottery. I can’t guarantee this story is true but it’s plausible and its spirit explains well the existence of this strange anomaly.

The main reason some parts of the globe send few immigrants to the US is that most opportunities to do so are sucked up by the prevalence of immigration based on family status in other areas. It’s the result of a quasi-random starting point combined with chain immigration. Suppose a single young Mexican male manages to move to the US legally (worry not how). Within a couple of years he goes back to Mexico to get married. He brings his wife to the US. It turns out he already had a son in Mexico, from another woman. He brings the son over too. The couple has several children, all US born. Soon, they would like to have built-in babysitters. They bring in both of the wife’s parents and the husband’s surviving mother. So, in this unremarkable story, we go – in the space of less than ten years – from one immigrant from Mexico, to six. After a few more years, any of the foreign born adults may bring one or two more immigrants, including brothers and sisters. The US-born children can also bring in their Mexican uncles, aunts, and cousins, though it would take a long time. There is a natural snowball effect built into the system.

To the extent that Congress wishes to cap the total number of immigrants brought in (excluding refugees), national contingents that happened to be numerous early may monopolize a very large number of available immigration opportunities. This leaves the door almost closed to other nationalities that were not present in large numbers early. The purpose of the lottery is to improve the US immigration chances to people living in areas of the world that have been under-served for a little while. Accordingly, lottery slots are allocated among regions observed to be contributing a small number of immigrants by other means. The drawing occurs individual under-served region to under-served region. Each region corresponds more or less to a continent (distinguishing between South America and North America).

The lottery products are interesting. First, the lottery results in a frequency distribution of admissions by country of origin that would be difficult to predict in general. Second, it would be hard to forecast which countries would end up still undeserved. In 2016, lottery admissions included people from 152 countries. Only six countries passed the (arbitrary) bar of “diversity” lottery of 2,000 immigrants into the US. They were, by order of the magnitude of their immigrant contingent:

  • Egypt, Nepal, Iran, Congo (formerly Zaire), Uzbekistan, and Ethiopia.
  • Ukraine, with 1,915, almost made the cut.
  • In 2016 also, four Uruguayans qualified under the lottery (that’s 4, four units.)

Together, the core western European countries of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Norway, sent a grand total of 1,390 to the US under this qualification. That’s between 2 and 3% of the total diversity lottery winners. Although European countries do send immigrants to the US under other programs, Europe is classified as one of the under-served regions. It also turns out to be under-served by the lottery. In 2016, about one per thousand of the immigrants admitted to the US came from the conventionally defined core western European areas under an admission program intended to correct for under-representation. The Republic of Ireland produced 51 winners. Sen. Kennedy hardly got his way.

Anybody who calls the current American immigration system racist is out of his mind, probably dishonest as well as ignorant and, more likely, dishonestly ignorant. Inevitably, any forthcoming reform of American immigration laws is going to give results that will seem racist in comparison. Brace yourselves with facts!

All data from Homeland Security: Immigration Statistics and Data


 

I am an American sociologist by training, with a doctorate from a good university. I am also an immigrant and married to another immigrant, from another country. Together, we have two adopted children, both born abroad. I have lived in the US for fifty years. During that time, I have rarely been out of touch with immigration issues although they are not one of my subjects of systematic scholarly inquiry. Many other essays are here in Notes On Liberty and also on my blog: factsmatter.wordpress.com.

The Enforcement Costs of Immigration Laws are Greater than Alleged Welfare Costs

As I mentioned in my note yesterday, the common argument that immigration is significantly costly through welfare is mostly empirically falsified. The fact of the matter is immigrants usually aren’t qualified for such programs, illegal immigrants mostly cannot and do not receive them, and immigrants as a whole wind up contributing more to the government’s balance sheet through economic growth and tax receipts than they take through welfare transfer payments.

However, there is one fact I neglected to mention yesterday worthy of its own post: if those opposed to immigration on the grounds of welfare costs were really sincere in that argument, they also need to consider the fiscal costs of enforcing their beloved immigration laws. As the New York Times editorial board pointed out yesterday, these costs are not insignificant:

The Migration Policy Institute reported in 2013 that the federal government spends more each year on immigration enforcement–through Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol–then on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. The total has risen to more than $19 billion a year, and more than $306 billion in all since 1986, measured in 2016 dollars. This exceeds the sum of all spending for the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Secret Service; the Marshals Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

These fiscal costs get worse when you consider that Donald Trump wants to expand ICE’s budget even further and, of course, the $8-$12 billion dollar wall.

Further, if you are a civil liberties type concerned with the social and fiscal costs of mass incarceration, immigration enforcement looks even bleaker:

ICE and the Border Patrol already refer more cases for federal prosecution than the entire Justice Department, and the number of people they detain each year (more than 400,000) is greater than the number of inmates being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for all other federal crimes.

The war on immigrants makes the war on drugs look tame.

Of course, these costs are pretty small when compared to the welfare state, but immigrants are not the ones driving up those welfare costs and they might even reduce it with more tax receipts. The truth is that furthering immigration restrictions and enforcement is truly fiscally irresponsible, not respecting the right to freedom of movement and contract.

Welfare Costs are not a Good Argument Against Immigration

Note: A version of this was initially posted on my old, now defunct blog. However, has become increasingly relevant in the age of Trump, and is worthy of reconsideration now.

It’s one of the most common arguments against looser immigration going back to Milton Friedman to Donald Trump. It is commonly claimed that even though loosening immigration restrictions may be economically beneficial and just, it should be opposed due to the existence of the welfare state. Proponents of this claim argue that immigrants can simply come to this country to obtain welfare benefits, doing no good for the economy and adding to budget deficits.

Though this claim is on its face plausible, welfare is not nearly as much of a compelling reason to oppose immigration as so many argue. It is ultimately an empirical question as to whether or not the fiscal costs of immigration significantly outweigh the fiscal benefits of having more immigrants pay taxes and more tax revenue economic growth caused by immigration.

Before delving into the empirical studies on the matter, there is one very important fact that is too often neglected in these discussions: there are already heavy laws restricting all illegal immigrants and even the vast majority of legal ones from receiving Welfare. As the federal government itself–specifically the HHS–notes:

With some exceptions, “Qualified Aliens” [ie., legal immigrants] entering the country after August 22, 1996, are denied “Federal means-tested public benefits” for their first five years in the U.S. as qualified aliens.

If we were to allow more immigrants, there are legal mechanisms stopping them from getting welfare. There are some exceptions and even unlawful immigrants occasionally slip through the cracks, but this is already a major hole in the case that welfare means we should hold off on immigration reform. The vast majority of immigrants cannot receive welfare until years after they are legalized.

However, for the sake of argument, let us ignore that initial hole in the case against increased immigration. Let’s generously assume the majority of immigrants–legal and illegal–can somehow get their hands on welfare. There is still little reason to expect that additional immigrants would be any more of a fiscal drag on welfare programs for the vast majority of our population simply because they are not the type of people who typically wind up on welfare. Our welfare programs are primarily designed to protect a select few types of people: the sick and elderly (Social Security and Medicare), and women and children (SCHIP, SNAP, TAMPF, etc.) If one looks at the demographics of immigrants coming into the country, however, one finds that they do not fit in the demographics of those who typically qualify for welfare programs. According to the Census Bureau, the vast majority (75.6%) of the total foreign-born population (both legal and illegal immigrants) are of working age (between 25 and 65).  Most immigrants, even if they were legal citizens, would not qualify for most welfare programs to begin with.

On the other hand, poverty rates are higher among immigrants and that means more would qualify for poverty-based programs. However, most immigrants are simply not the type to stay in those programs. Contrary to common belief, immigrants are mostly hard-working innovators rather than loafing welfare queens. According to Pew Research, 91% of all unauthorized immigrants are involved in the US labor force. Legal immigrants also start businesses at a higher rate than natural born citizens and file patents at almost double the rate of natives. As a result, immigrants have fairly high social mobility, especially intergenerationally, and so will not stay poor and on welfare all that long.

Put it together, and you find that immigrants generally use many major welfare programs at a lower rate than natives. Immigrants are 25% less likely to be enrolled in Medicare, for example, than citizens and actually contribute more to Medicare than they receive while citizens make Medicare run at a deficit. From the New York Times:

[A] study, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, measured immigrants’ contributions to the part of Medicare that pays for hospital care, a trust fund that accounts for nearly half of the federal program’s revenue. It found that immigrants generated surpluses totaling $115 billion from 2002 to 2009. In comparison, the American-born population incurred a deficit of $28 billion over the same period

Of course, nobody would advocate restrictions on how many children are allowed to be born based on fiscal considerations. However, for some reason the concern becomes a big factor for immigration skeptics.

If you are still not convinced, let us go over the empirical literature on how much immigrants cost fiscally. Some fairly partisan studies, such as this one from the Heritage Foundation (written by an analyst who was forced to resign due to fairly racist claims), conclude that fiscal costs are very negative. The problem, however, is that most of these studies fail to take into account the dynamic macroeconomic impact of immigration. Opponents of immigration, especially those at the Heritage Foundation, generally understand the importance of taking dynamic economic impacts of policy changes into account on other issues, e.g. taxation; however, for some (partisan) reason fail to apply that logic to immigration policies. Like taxes, immigration laws change people’s behavior in ways that can increase revenue. First of all, more immigrants entering the economy immediately means more revenue as there are more people to tax. Additionally, economic growth from further division of labor provided by immigration increases tax revenue.  Any study that does not succeed in taking into account revenue gains from immigration is not worth taking seriously.

Among studies that are worth taking seriously, there is general consensus that immigrants are either a slight net gain fiscally speaking, a very slight net loss or have little to no impact. According to a study by the OECD of its 20 member countries, despite the fact that some of its countries have massive levels of immigration, the fiscal impact of immigration is “generally not exceeding 0.5 percent of G.D.P. in either positive or negative terms.” The study concluded, “The current impact of the cumulative waves of migration that arrived over the past 50 years is just not that large, whether on the positive or negative side.”

Specifically for the United States, another authoritative study in 1997 found the following as summarized by David Griswold of the Cato Institute:

The 1997 National Research Council study determined that the typical immigrant and descendants represent an $80,000 fiscal gain to the government in terms of net present value. But that gain divides into a positive $105,000 fiscal impact for the federal government and a negative $25,000 impact on the state and local level (NRC 1997: 337).

Despite the slight negative impact for states, as Griswold notes, there is no correlation between immigration and more welfare for immigrants:

Undocumented immigrants are even more likely to self-select states with below-average social spending. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the low-spending states grew by a net 855,000, or 35 percent. In the high-spending states, the population grew by 385,000, or 11 percent (U.S. Census 2011; NASBO 2010: 33; Passel and Cohn 2011). One possible reason why unauthorized immigrants are even less drawn to high-welfare-spending states is that, unlike immigrants who have been naturalized, they are not eligible for any of the standard welfare programs.

The potential fiscal impact of immigration from the Welfare state is not a good reason to oppose it at all. There are major legal barriers to immigrants receiving welfare, immigrants are statistically less likely to receive welfare than natives for demographic reasons, and all the authoritative empirical evidence shows that immigrants are on net not a very significant fiscal drag and can, in fact, be a net fiscal gain.