don’t forget your history

September 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

Wash Post:   In 1909, at the height of the last great immigration wave, when immigrants reached a peak of almost 15% of the U.S. population, they made up about half of all public welfare recipients.   In the country’s 30 largest cities, meanwhile, more than half of all public school students were the children of immigrants.  This history is forgotten in the angry debate over the cost to taxpayers of unauthorized immigrants and their children today.   In 2010, economists overwhelmingly agree that the unauthorized contribute to the nation’s economic growth — and thus income for most Americans, though wages for unskilled workers suffer. None of this is to say that we should allow illegal immigration. As Milton Friedman once noted, you can’t have open borders and hope to maintain generous government benefits for your citizens. Fortunately, the flow of new undocumented immigrants is abating, in part because of the recession but also because of greatly improved border enforcement. What all this suggests is that public anger over the unauthorized already living here has less to do with history and economics and more with what Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel says is the special “outrage” citizens feel when they believe people are getting something they don’t deserve. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” goes the moral cry. But it ignores a competing moral. Until recently, illegal immigration was encouraged by American business and tacitly accepted by government as a needed temporary worker program in lieu of a legal one that didn’t exist. Still doesn’t. But you ask: What is the fiscal balance, anyway? No one knows. The brunt of the impact is state and local, particularly because of education, and no definitive study has been done. Services and the methodology in the few existing state studies vary widely.

A tough federal law passed in 1996 has since cut almost all benefits to unauthorized immigrants. Even the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates forcing out immigrants here illegally, acknowledged that the average undocumented household in 2002 received fully 46 percent less in federal benefits than an American one. But this likely would go up with legalization.

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