Immigration takes center stage in election

Immigration takes center stage in election
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The outcome of Tuesday's elections could hardly bear more weight on the future of immigration reform legislation. 

Immigration is not on the ballot, but it was Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE's signature issue from the day he launched his Republican presidential campaign, and his law-and-order approach to border security —­ combined with suggestions he'd reduce even legal levels of immigration — have painted a stark contrast to Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Hypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Clinton: Hard to ignore 'racial subtext of virtually everything Trump says' MORE's more open strategy of encouraging new arrivals and advancing citizenship rights to millions of people in the country illegally.

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The differences, according to economists and experts across the political spectrum, carry enormous consequences not only for the undocumented millions but also for the economy on the whole, touching on labor, healthcare, tax and entitlement issues that cut across the nation’s population.

Both Trump and Clinton are vowing to move on immigration reform immediately if they win the White House.

Trump has said repeatedly that he'll launch his plan to bolster the southern border wall “on day one.” And Clinton is promising to deliver a comprehensive immigration reform package — including a pathway to citizenship — within her first 100 days.

Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats should end their hypocrisy when it comes to Kavanaugh and the judiciary Celebrities back both Cuomo and Nixon as New Yorkers head to primary vote Dems launch million digital ad buy in top Senate races MORE (D-N.Y.), who is expected to be the majority leader if Democrats retake the Senate, has publicly discussed the possibilities of moving both immigration reform and an infrastructure package.

Still, regardless of who wins the presidency, reform will be a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

No major immigration legislation has been enacted since 1986. The Senate passed a comprehensive reform package in 2013, but it was ignored by House GOP leaders who insisted on a piecemeal approach. Even those smaller bills, however, never reached the floor.

Much of the 2017 debate will hinge on the results of Election Day — up and down the ballot.

If Democrats do retake the Senate, it could put pressure on Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPelosi calls on Ryan to bring long-term Violence Against Women Act to floor Juan Williams: America warms up to socialism Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE (R-Wis.).

Does he tackle the issue and risk exposing the sharp disagreements within his own ranks on how best to reform the system? Or does he ignore it, as GOP leaders have largely done since winning the House in 2010, and risk the continued alienation of the ever-growing Hispanic vote, which flocked overwhelmingly to President Obama and plays an increasingly important role in determining national elections?

Complicating that equation is the view that Ryan, his party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, has sights on the White House himself.

Pro-reform Republicans believe immigration can become the conservative issue that unifies the party under its core principles — if GOP leaders ignore the far-right reform opponents.

“Republicans need to stop listening to anti-conservative nativist organizations that have roots in population control and financial ties to racist eugenic organizations,” said Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy organization.

Indeed, there are other prominent voices within the GOP who say the party needs to take action on immigration for economic reasons.

Immigrants, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, top economic adviser to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainAnother recession could hit US in 2019, says credit union association chief R-E-S-P-E-C-T: One legacy of Franklin and McCain is up to us To cure Congress, elect more former military members MORE's (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential bid, “are absolutely essential to our future.”

“The biggest mistake you could make is somehow thinking, ‘Oh, if we just don't let these guys in, then we will get the benefits,' that it's somehow a zero-sum game. That's just not true,” said Holtz-Eakin, now president of the American Action Forum, a right-leaning policy group. 

Without a steady influx of new arrivals “we get old, we get smaller ... our economy would shrink, and our ability to impact global policy would shrink,” he added. 

“We become Japan.”

Even many proponents of strict immigration controls agree that immigrants are overall contributors to the nation's gross domestic product.

“There’s just no question that the 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants make for a bigger economy,” said Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies. “The aggregate size of the GDP is larger by a couple-hundred billion.”

Central to Trump's strategy has been the vow to remove the 11.3 million people estimated to be living in the country illegally. Last year he proposed “a deportation force” to handle those numbers.

“They're hurting a lot of our people that cannot get jobs under any circumstances,” he said more recently in Arizona.

The message has resonated with the voters — largely white, largely working class, largely male — who constitute his base. And supporters of cracking down on immigration — both legal and illegal — say it’s simply a choice between providing opportunities to immigrants or to Americans struggling to rebound from the Great Recession.

"The vast majority of Americans do not compete with illegal immigrants for jobs, but those who do tend to be the poorest and least well-educated," said Camarota.

And while certain economic sectors rely heavily on undocumented labor, Camarota said the overall effect of mass deportations would be negligible.

“For the aggregate economy, it would be unnoticeable,” he said.

Numerous economists have warned, however, that a program of heavy-handed enforcement could have dire consequences. 

In June, researchers at Moody's Analytics found that Trump's plan would cut 3.5 million jobs, reduce the GDP by more than 2 percent and send the country into a two-year recession.

And earlier this year, researchers at Holtz-Eakin's American Action Forum found that there simply aren't enough unemployed legal residents to fill the void if the 11 million undocumented immigrants — nearly 7 million of whom are workers — were removed. The result would be a sharp labor decline that would cut the U.S. economy by more than $1 trillion, they reported. 

“They’re helping grow our economy and the reason for that is simple. It’s because capitalism works,” Lopez said.

Because undocumented immigrants tend to flock to certain occupations — including agriculture, construction and hospitality jobs — the effects of a crackdown would hit some industries and regions particularly hard.   

A Pew study released Thursday found undocumented immigrants comprised 10.4 percent of the labor market in Nevada, 9 percent in California and 8.5 percent in Texas. Nationwide, undocumented immigrants accounted for 5 percent of the total labor force.

And while consumers benefit from the cheaper labor, Camarota said that certain employers would be hardest hit by deportations. 

Using the example of lettuce production, Camarota said the cost to consumers is mostly determined by ancillary services, like transportation. But he added labor costs are a large portion of farmers' budgets.

“If wages had to rise a lot, it wouldn't make much difference to consumers, because labor costs are only about 6 percent the cost of lettuce,” he said, adding, “the impact is small, except for the farmer, who wants to keep his costs down.”