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Era of Limits and the Failure of Immigration Reform

The debate over immigration reform in the House and the Senate is an interesting lens to examine the future of austerity.
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The debate over immigration reform in the House and the Senate is an interesting lens to examine the future of austerity.

How so? Immigration is about immigration; secure borders, global migration patterns, and a path to citizenship for more than 11 million people living in the United States without a legal status. The Senate bill is a compromise that calls for an unprecedented buildup of border security, some 20,000 new agents, in exchange for that citizenship route. (Borrowing language from the Iraq war buildup, Senators are calling it a “surge.”)

Think about what that means: The United States can’t afford to invest in education, health, or infrastructure, but it can spend big bucks on border security. The Congressional Budget Office scores the cost side of the ledger in the Senate bill this way: “Appropriate $46.3 billion for expenses related to the security of the southern U.S. border and initial administrative costs.”

Mark Trahant

The Senate compromise also limits 11 million people’s right to participate in the health care system, while, at the same time, taxing them for services not rendered. This part of the bill is just mean. The CBO says “the net budgetary effect of decreasing the number of unauthorized residents would be relatively small—the small savings for Medicaid, child nutrition, and refundable tax credits would be more than offset by a slightly larger reduction in revenues paid by, or on behalf of, unauthorized residents.”

But at least the Senate bill is not all about costs. Despite what immigration critics say, historically immigration has always boosted the U.S. economy. (It’s not even a close call.) The CBO says the Senate bill would decrease the deficit by $158 billion in the next decade. That’s probably understating the economic benefit of moving undocumented workers from off-the-book jobs into the mainstream economy.

The House approach to immigration reform is to break apart the coalition of security in exchange for citizenship. Louisiana’s Rep. John Fleming said in The Hill newspaper that one reason Republicans oppose the Senate's immigration bill is because they don't trust President Obama to enforce the border enforcement provisions in that bill. (Even though Obama won’t be president when most of the law kicks in.)

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So the alternative is a push for legislation that “secures” the border and puts off the citizenship question for another day. In a hat tip to the budget, the House dismisses the surge and says the U.S. should develop a “strategy” to close the border, not spend more money. Right. In the end the House plan will be a net cost to the Treasury and add to the deficit because it will never get around to adding the benefits of immigration, the bonus that will come from new citizens working, spending money and paying taxes.

But the real link between austerity and immigration involves the national psyche because when the economy is strong, immigration is not an issue. But when money and jobs are tight, well, it’s easy to blame immigrants.

There’s a fascinating book, “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” by Benjamin Friedman, that chronicles how Americans are generous during times of plenty and at-best cranky when the economy is slow. This is a pattern this country repeats over and over. Friedman writes: “Resistance to immigration in America had traditionally combined economic motivations with racial and religious prejudice.”

Today the immigration debate focuses on people migrating from Latin America, but that’s only the latest chapter. The same forces were at work for Germans, Asians, Catholics, Jews and other identifiable ethnic groups. Friedman says that in the1920s that debate “explicitly turned to arguments that non-Nordic whites were racially inferior to Nordics, so that continued large-scale immigration from areas other than northern and western Europe would weaken the genetic makeup of the population.”

The generosity of spirit – or the contrary wave – impacts Indian country, too. It’s no accident that the termination era came out of a poor economy. Or that members of Congress can find money to build walls, but come up short on other basic questions of infrastructure.

A super secure border is one more way to shrink an economy. What’s more, the very nature of the debate shows that austerity isn’t ready to fade from public policy. Even though it’s another example of why austerity fails.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. Comment on Facebook at: