By Walter Alarkon - 05/04/10 11:44 PM EDT
Democrats want immigration reform on the table as the White House fiscal commission examines ways to reduce deficits, saying there is a “credible connection” between the issue and the country’s fiscal situation.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern and Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), both Democrats on the bipartisan fiscal commission, said reforms giving the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States a chance to stay in the U.S. legally could boost the economy and thereby help pay down the debt.
“Our current set of circumstances has 12 million people working in this country and not maximizing their contributions to the economy,” Stern told The Hill.
Becerra, a member of the House Democratic leadership and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said there’s a “credible connection” between immigration and the country’s economic situation. Millions work in an “underground economy” in which they neither pay taxes nor contribute to entitlement programs such as Social Security, he said.
“If you’re thinking in terms of this fiscal commission and our efforts to try to get this budget realigned, it makes sense to consider something that could add tens of billions or hundreds of billions to the economy,” Becerra said in an interview.
Former President Bill Clinton also backed the idea of increasing immigrants to help the country’s fiscal situation. He said last week at a fiscal summit in Washington that policy changes to ensure entitlements stay solvent and to cut deficits “will be less draconian if there’s more people in the system.”
Republicans expressed skepticism over adding immigration to the commission’s already substantial portfolio. The panel already is tasked with looking at tax, spending and entitlement policies to find a way to reduce deficits.
“The fiscal commission is supposed to focus on fiscal policy, which in my opinion is entitlement spending” but also involves discretionary spending and tax revenues, said Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), one of the panel’s six congressional Republican members.
Obama and members of the commission from both parties have said “everything is on the table” as the panel considers a fiscal reform plan, including tax increases that Republicans don’t like and cuts to discretionary spending and entitlement programs that Democrats usually oppose. Obama has asked the 18-member commission to recommend policy changes that would reduce deficits and put the country on a sound long-term fiscal track.
Stern’s union, SEIU, touted a January study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress and Immigration Policy Center that found comprehensive immigration reform would add $1.5 trillion to the gross domestic product over the next decade. That economic boost could lead to more tax revenues and more savings, according to Stern and other supporters of reform.
But allowing millions of immigrants access to government services could strain state budgets and grow the national federal debt, said David Frum, who served as a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush. Frum noted a 1997 National Academy of Sciences study that estimated immigrants gave only a small boost to the economy — up to $10 billion annually – but also led to higher public costs because of the services they receive.
“Today’s illegal immigrants, in many cases, do pay Social Security taxes; they would not pay income taxes because they earn too little money and they would become eligible for a huge range of federal programs — Medicaid, food stamps ... the massive health subsidies in the Obama health plan,” Frum said.
The push to get immigration onto the fiscal commission’s agenda comes at the same time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats have tried to prod Congress into acting on the issue this year.
Stern said the fiscal panel’s discussion on immigration could complement the congressional debate by providing facts about the economic impact of policy changes. He said the commission’s work is “about economics, not policy.”
The commission isn’t scheduled to issue its final recommendations until December. If those recommendations get the support of 14 of the 18 members, Democratic congressional leaders would bring them up for floor votes later that month.
Ardent backers of immigration reform in Congress said they would support the commission’s work on the issue as long as it doesn’t preclude actual legislation this year.
“I just don’t want it delayed anymore,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who was arrested during an immigration protest last weekend outside the White House. “I think the commission should work forward. [There’s] not a problem with including it. It’s a win-win situation, both for immigrants and our economy.”