Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Must-Read: T. A. Frank: Why Liberals Should Oppose Immigration Reform


The most sensible thing I've ever read on the issue.

Despite Jim Bales's strong case to the contrary, I've never really been able to shake the hunch that some significant chunk of liberals are committed to beliefs that virtually entail that we should have open borders.

As Frank notes, the liberal case against "immigration reform"* is difficult to make. If you oppose the party line, you are assumed to be sympathetic with some pretty disreputable characters. I'll add: in fact, you are probably suspected of racism.

But the case against it is simple and strong. Read the whole thing, I say, but the two most important points, to my mind, are:

1. The bill provides quick amnesty, but a radically inadequate commitment to controlling illegal immigration in the future.

2. In Frank's words, "generous social benefits cannot coexist with an open border"

Liberals of my acquaintance typically have nothing good to say about border enforcement. They view the whole affair as vaguely distasteful. They definitely oppose a fence. But they typically endorse a quick path to legalization. A quick path to legalization + no significant improvements in border security = de facto open borders.

As Frank notes, it's the working class and the poor that really pay the price for such a policy...  But they don't have the political power to have a significant effect on the debate.

And none of this is to mention the fact that immigration in the biggest driver of population growth in the U.S.. And population growth is the most important of environmental issues.

Kevin Drum put it well once when he said, roughly: there is simply no alternative to the humane enforcement of just immigration laws. To argue for sanity here is not to be anti-immigrant, despite the propaganda. (Incidentally, the people I know who take the dimmest view of illegal immigrants are legal immigrants...) People have good reasons for trying to come here illegally; I don't blame them. If we want an extra 10 million immigrants per year, then we should raise immigration quotas, and bring them here legally. (I don't want to see that because of the population, but an additional 10 million legal immigrants per year is very much preferable to an addition illegal immigrants per year.)

But nobody is going to listen to Frank. I see no hope of changing the liberal orthodoxy on this point.

* Scare quotes mine. "Immigration reform" is a persuasive misnomer. The bill does not concern immigration, but illegal immigration. And, although it's a change, it's not obviously reform...


Anonymous Jim Bales said...


Thank you for recalling our long discussion some four years ago on the “liberal” position on immigration.

I think we settled on something like (quotes are from the tail of the comment thread):


You [WS] have convinced me that permissiveness about illegal immigration is a common theme in contemporary American liberalism. 

I believe that we have also seen that finding ways to effectively restrict illegal immigration is is also a common theme in contemporary American liberalism.

I think a third element that is also important (although we've not shown it here) is that:
Contemporary American liberalism considers other problems our nation faces to be significantly more important than illegal immigration.


I think we're agreed on all counts, then--plus the crucial point that permissiveness about illegal immigration is NOT the liberal "orthodoxy" as I originally … asserted.

I would like to note that, in that thread, both of us started with positions that we retreated from, based on the totality of the evidence we discovered. I believe that our willingness to consider the totality of the evidence -- even when it contradicted our initial positions -- is the mark of our desires to act in good faith.

In the article, Mr. Frank attacks what he calls the liberal position on illegal immigration without laying out what he thinks that position is, nor why he thinks that way.

He chief concerns seem to be that:
1) Illegal immigrants take jobs (and wages) that would otherwise go to unskilled Native workers
2) The proposed laws will not reduce illegal immigration by a factor of 10 (or more).
3) Illegal immigrants strain public services.

Let me tackle each in turn.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Jim Bales said...

Frank's First Claim
1) Illegal immigrants take jobs (and wages) that would otherwise go to unskilled Native workers

Frank writes:
I also noticed that a lot of immigration-boosterish studies—most of them, I’d say—contain telling caveats that undermine their case. For instance, buried on page 20 in Appendix Two” of this pro-legalization report touted by the Center For American Progress—trumpeted in a press release with the headline “How Immigration Reform Would Help the Economy”—is an estimate that if half of the current unauthorized labor force were deported the wage of a low-skill U.S. worker would rise by $399 a year. By contrast, legalization would raise that worker’s wage by less than half that much—and that’s assuming no further illegal immigration. [Emphasis added]

I followed Frank’s link and he is correct. CAP projects that unskilled native labors will gain more under the mass deportation scenario than under the reform scenario.

However, CAP also projects that skilled native labors would see a drop in annual pay under the mass deportation scenario (-$73) compared to the reform scenario (+$74). And that the annual change in US GDP would be -1.46 % for the mass deportation scenario vs. +0.84% for the reform scenario. The real return to US capital, land, and resources all go down in the mass deportation scenario and all go up in the reform scenario.

Now, as laudable as it is to increase the wages of unskilled laborers, it is reasonable to be willing to accept a decrease in unskilled wages to gain a +2.3% differential in GDP.

So I now know that, in aggregate, the projections presented page 20 in Appendix Two support the proposed reforms. In aggregate, page 20 in Appendix Two do not “undermine” the case for reform.

I also know that Mr. Frank has read page 20 in Appendix Two (he brought it up). Given that he presents just the one out-of-context result that helps his position -- and then claims that it “undermines” the reform position, I feel I can reasonably belive that Frank has cherry-picked the report to support his political position rather than engaging the results in good-faith.

Furthermore, he was cherry-picking from a scenario that is a political non-starter. The mass deportation scenario presumes that we capture over 4,000,000 people (one out of every 80 living in the US today) and deport them. The expenditures would be enormous and the damage to our remaining civil liberties would be massive and likely irreversible.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous jimbales said...

Frank's second concern:
2) The proposed laws will not reduce illegal immigration by a factor of 10 (or more).

Frank calls for 50,000 per year as “the high end” of acceptable illegal immigration, giving no justification for that number beyond asserting he Pew Hispanic Trust estimates that in the 2000-2004 timespan the rate of illegals entering was close to 500,000 per year – and Pew seems to be on the lower end of estimates. (]

Frank also writes:
But the Congressional Budget Office projects ... only a 25 percent reduction in current levels [of illegal immigration].

This is true (although it would have help if Mr. Frank had pointed us to page 23 of the 63-page report where that nugget is buried). It is also true that the same CBO report projects “Decrease[d] federal budget deficits [of] $197 billion over the 2014–2023 period.” For the next 10 years 2024-2023) the report projects aggregate deficit reduction of $700 Billion.

So, Mr. Frank is against a bill that will reduce illegal immigration by 25%, reduce the budget deficit by $19,700,000,000 each year for ten years -- and then get better, enhance the value of capital, land, and resources[*], and beefs up the border. I think this is a pretty good deal, if it can be achieved. Given Republican intransience in the House, I think the odds are still long, but there is no other serious effort to reform how we deal with illegal immigrants.

Our choices are this or no change, and this is clearly better than the statues quo.

[*] “Resources” is undefined in the CAP document

3:48 PM  
Anonymous jimbales said...

Frank's Third Concern:

3) Illegal immigrants strain public services.

“[F]ew undocumented workers earn enough to cover anything close to the cost of government services (such as education for their children) they require, and those services are most important to low-income Americans.” He goes on to assert that “[G]enerous social benefits cannot coexist with an open border. “

Well, most communities pay for education through property taxes. I presume that most illegal immigrants don’t own property, so they don’t pay the taxes directly, but the property owners factor the taxes into the rents they charge, so I don’t see how local governments are hurt.

Illegal immigrants certainly do pay sales taxes. Many, as I understand, have state and federal income taxes withheld from their paychecks, along with FICA and Medicare, two services they will have difficulty using as undocumented aliens. US-born children of illegal immigrants are, of course, US citizens, and are eligible for the full range of social programs they qualify for.

Frank, sadly, gives us no data to support his assertions. Some digging led me to this report form the Congressional Budget Office which opens:

Over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants—both legal and unauthorized—exceed the cost of the services they use.1, 2 Generally, such estimates include revenues and spending at the federal, state, and local levels.3 However, many estimates also show that the cost of providing public services to unauthorized immigrants at the state and local levels exceeds what that population pays in state and local taxes. It is important to note, though, that currently available estimates have significant limitations; therefore, using them to determine an aggregate effect across all states would be difficult and prone to considerable error.

So, there is no clear case that illegal immigrants place a financial strain on our governments.

3:49 PM  
Anonymous jimbales said...

Frank also puts forth steps he thinks would be better:
* Enhanced fencing and patrolling at the southern border
It’s in the bill. Maybe not as much as Frank would like, but it is there.

* E-Verify for all hiring, strict penalties for employers who hire illegally
I’d love to see it. And if you go back to my original comment, I quoted that noted liberal Barney Frank making this the centerpiece of his idea of immigration reform.

Frank points to elements of the liberal coalition that (he alleges) oppose these steps, which is fair enough. (Oddly enough, I don’t see Frank pointing to the conservatives fighting for them.) So, if Frank is correct, some liberals are for these measures and others against. Welcome to politics.

* A biometric entry/exit system
I see how this might help. I don’t know enough to speak to the potential down sides.

* Punishment (and deportation) for entering the country illegally.
We have deportation for entering the country illegally. One can go to jail for entering the country illegally. 8 USC sec.1325 provides for jail time as well as civil penalties for anyone who “(1) enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or (2) eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers, or (3) attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact”. Would more vigorous enforcement help? Perhaps. Is that in the bill? I thought so!

Then, Frank states
* Ron Unz of The American Conservative has proposed that a $12-an-hour minimum wage plus strict sanctions would greatly reduce the magnet of sweatshop employment. [Emphasis added]

And a pony!

Seriously -- Frank wants us to think that liberals would oppose a $12/hr minimum wage?

Let conservatives propose a $12/hr minimum wage in exchange for getting liberals to support strict sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants. I predict that it will pass in a heartbeat. Of course, I will likely get my pony long before conservatives agree to Mr. Unz’s most exceedingly liberal proposal; so don’t hold your breath.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


You should be writing this blog, not me...

Thanks for all this--all very reasonable as usual.

I want to discuss it in detail, though we're agreed on much. For example, it seems clear to me that the net economic impact of illegal immigration is (currently, at least) positive.

On the other side, my biggest concern is that the current bill seems to link (a) a pretty clear, fast route to legalization with (b) inadequate improvements in border security. I agree (and thought so when I read the Frank piece) that 50,000 was largely arbitrary...but, worse, it seems unrealistically low. 500,000 doesn't even seem too bad too me (also somewhat arbitrary...but it's hard to see what number other than '0' wouldn't be...) But 11 million/year (say 10 million) is entirely unacceptable. And I simply don't see that a 25% reduction counts as serious.

Or, rather: a 25% reduction would be great...but it is utterly unacceptable to both (a) accept 7.5 million illegal immigrants/year AND provide a quick path to legalization.

We can either put up with massive illegal immigration, OR provide a quick path to legalization...but it seems like utter insanity to do both.

I do prefer a path to legalization and citizenship for people who are, let's fact it, de facto Americans. I don't want some kind of permanent illegal underclass here, nor do I want to see families torn apart.

And that means that we need a credible improvement in border security. Reducing illegal immigration to 75% of current levels would not be good enough...and 25% is right out...

But this is just to quickly hit some high points. This isn't the kind of detailed response your comments deserve--and they'll get it!

2:17 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...


My pleasure! ('tho my wife thinks I'm crazy ;-) )

A couple of points:
1) 11 Million is the estimate of the current illegal population *living in the US*, regardless of when they entered

2) 500,000 is the estimate of the current number of illegals *entering each year*

So, a 25% reduction gets us down to 375,000 entering each year, where it would take 30 years to get back to the 11 Million mark. Of course, in 30 years 11 Million will be a smaller fraction of the US population, barring a massive(and to-be-desired) change in population growth patterns.
Also, publishing on the same day (June 27) as Frank, Bloomberg Law stated:
"The Senate bill would double the U.S. Border Patrol’s size by adding 20,000 agents, require 700 miles of fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border, and add unmanned aerial drones to help police the border before any undocumented immigrant could gain permanent legal status, known as a green card."

"The legislation would require all employers to use an e-verify system to check workers’ legal status, and all airports and seaports to have a visa entry and exit system before any of the undocumented could be granted a green card, a precursor to citizenship."

It looks like what came out of the Senate has a lot of what Frank wanted.

(Also, I have seen reports that the CBO scored the bill as passed and found the deficit reduction was not as large as initially projected, but that the rate of illegal entry would drop by 50% instead of 25%. However, I don't have a solid source for these claims yet.)


11:50 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

Sorry to ramble on, but there is an important distinction we need to be aware of, and I am not certain that I have it completely understood:

I've seen four possible statuses that illegals can achieve:

"Deferred Action" (Frank's preference)
"Registered Provisional" (first step in the Senate's "path to citizenship")
"Permanent Resident" (aka Green Card)

I've not found a clear statement of the “path” in the bill as passed by the Senate.

However, in April, Wonkblog described the 13-year-long path as follows:
”If you’re an undocumented immigrant who arrived in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011, haven’t committed a felony (or three misdemeanors), hold a job, and pay a $500 fine and back taxes, then you will immediately gain the status of “registered provisional,” allowing an individual to legally stay in the United States without risk of deportation. Registered provisionals wouldn’t be able to get any means-tested public benefits. If you’ve already been deported, you’re eligible to apply to re-enter if your parent or child is a citizen or permanent resident, or if you are DREAMer and were deported as a minor (see next section).”

“After six years, you’d have to renew the status, which is dependent on maintaining a steady work history, having a clean criminal record, and paying another $500 fine."

"Four years after that (10 years after initially attaining “registered provisional” status), you could apply for permanent residency (aka a Green Card). That step requires showing constant work history, constant presence in the United States, continuous tax payments, clean criminal record, and knowledge of English and civics, as well as paying another $1,000 fine.”

“Three years after that you’d be eligible to become a citizen. So the recognition-to-citizenship process takes a total of 13 years and requires $2,000 in fines from each adult affected.”

Frank proposes that the first step be “deferred action”, which (as best I can tell) means that (if you are an illegal immigrant) you won’t be deported, but you still have no papers that would allow an employer to legally hire you. Of course, you won’t qualify for the path to citizenship unless you have a steady work history. Catch-22 had nothing on this.

And, Frank wants “deferred action” so that the path to citizenship can be scuttled if Congress fails to find a way to cut the rate of illegals entering the US from 500,000/year to 50,000/year.
So, an illegal immigrant can do everything in their power to be good and follow the new rules, yet still get deported simply because Congress fails to come to a compromise.

I can think of many words to describe Frank’s preferred approach, but liberal is not one of them. (Nor is just, nor fair, nor right, nor reasonable ...)


11:55 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


More to come, honest, but just wanted to say that I was writing in super-haste, and the confusion of 11 million total with 11 million/yr was a result of that haste, and not extreme stupidity.

More soon,


7:30 AM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

WS -- understood, and the distinction between the number at its rate of change is easy to get confused (e.g., deficit vs. debt).

Part of what got me to dig in so much is that Frank is a persuasive writer. I read his piece thinking, "Shit! Have I really misunderstood everything about this topic?"

So, I had to start taking his piece apart, and checking his sources and numbers, which showed that he had been (at best) incredibly sloppy or (at worst) disingenuous.

Then, having laid out the pieces it was time to put them back together -- specifically, recognizing that this is a deal that saves us money, makes many people's lives get better, and does reduce illegal immigration significantly. At that point I could see that we are better off with this bill than without it, and explain why.

But, when I first read his piece, I was worried -- he is that good!


1:35 AM  

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