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Opinion: Dispensing with a new ‘dagger’ against immigration reform

There’s a new “dagger” of an argument against immigration reform being heard on Capitol Hill and it needs to be dispensed with quickly.

But first some history:

In 2007 the “dagger” of an idea that killed President Bush’s effort at reforming the immigration system was lax border security. Talk radio fired up the opposition by claiming that the borders were so porous that reform was just a reward for people who had already broken the law and a magnet for others to follow them and illegally enter the United States.

In 2013 that argument has lost its edge. There are a record number of border patrol agents in place, along with electronic surveillance and even walls to seal off the borders. Illegal border crossings are now so low that some estimate more people are leaving than arriving.

So opponents of reform have turned to a new argument to fire up the far-right talk show crowd, scare Tea Party politicians and block GOP support for reform.

It focuses on the supposed cost of providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and posits that those people are “takers” not “makers.” But as a recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) makes clear, the reverse is true.

Still, plenty of people believe the myth.

“When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

Or as one visitor to my Facebook page described illegal immigrants last week: They are “just more liberals leeches looking for handouts. Typical democRAT voters.” He also added: “Screw ‘em.”

Much of this scurrilous attack, as CAP noted, is based on a study released last August by The Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration group. It found that 39 percent of households led by native born Americans with children used welfare programs, specifically food assistance and Medicaid. But according to the report, that was far less than the 57 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants who get welfare of some sort, such as free school lunches, food stamps, public housing and rent subsidies.

Another report, done by Kaiser Health News, found emergency hospital visits by illegal immigrants with injuries, illness or pregnancies cost about $2 billion annually.

This argument is no dangerous “dagger.”

The factual reality is that the vast majority of immigrants – legal and illegal — contribute more to this country than they take out in social services.

And the cost of doing nothing about a broken immigration system is the far greater threat to the economy.

The CAP report makes the point. It cites a study on the impact of immigration reform by the independent National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP). That study finds immigrants will contribute $611 billion to the Social Security system in the next 75 years. Indeed, the arrival of newcomers is key to funding Social Security for older Americans who are at or near retirement. NFAP found that halting all immigration into the United States would explode the size of the Social Security deficit. They estimate an increase of at least 31 percent in that deficit in the next 50 years without continued immigration.

The CAP study also included reference to a report by Randy Capps, Everett Henderson and Michael E. Fix, respected demographers, comparing the welfare participation rates of legal immigrants to native-born American citizens. The Center’s conclusion is that the three demographers show that “controlling for income… immigrants had similar —if not lower — participation rates” than American-born citizens who get benefits from three safety net programs: welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. They found that 32 percent of natural-born citizen families at the 200 percent poverty line received food stamps, compared to only 22 percent of naturalized immigrant families.

The CAP report notes those findings complement those of another pair of demographers, James P. Smith and BarryEdmonston. Those two argued last year that immigrants actually “receive less in Social Security and Medicare benefits than” do native-born American citizens.

Some opponents of immigration reform claim that giving citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States would set back the fragile economic recovery.  Once again, the truth is the opposite of what the critics contend.

Professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda of the University of California-Los Angeles has researched this very question. He found that in the next ten years immigration reform — if it includes legalization of the 11 million undocumented now here — would add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In citing that study, CAP attributes the increase in GDP to gains that “occur because legalized workers earn higher wages than undocumented workers and they use those wages to buy” merchandise. That stimulates the economy through commerce. 

For the first time since 2007 there is political momentum behind fixing the immigration system. President Obama in his State of the Union speech reached out to the right-wing by saying illegal immigrants seeking citizenship will have to pay taxes, learn English and get in line behind people who are trying to enter the United States. legally. In the GOP response to the President, Sen. Marco Rubio [R-Fla.] – offering a singular moment of agreement with the President – also called for immigration reform. He said it is necessary to allow bright people to come to America and grow the economy.

At this critical moment, politicians on Capitol Hill cannot allow false claims of immigrants as “takers” to become a new “dagger” of accepted truth when it is a weak blade, an outright lie.

This column was revised on March 2, 2013, to include previously-omitted attribution to the Center for American Progress. 

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