Dan Stein on the economics of illegal immigration

People often make the illegal immigration issue an emotional one when it's a matter of dollars and cents. Dan Stein, president of the FAIR, explains why. Photo: .fairus.org

FLORIDA, August 19, 2012 — Regardless of which party is in control of Capitol Hill, America’s immigration problems only seem to grow more severe.

It is true that the Great Recession has resulted in fewer people entering this country illegally. However, the very policies which allowed untold millions to migrate and establish residency here in the first place have either gone untouched or — almost impossibly — been worsened.

What can be done to craft an immigration policy that actually makes sense?

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, has several ideas worth considering. In a detailed discussion with me, he shares his views about the DREAM Act, how immigration impacts our economy, and much more.


Joseph F. Cotto: Immigration control is a concept with which most of us are familiar. Why, in your opinion, does the United States strongly need it at this time?

Dan Stein: All nations need controls on immigration. There is a common misperception that immigration laws exist to facilitate the orderly admission of foreign nationals who would like to live in the U.S. In reality, immigration laws exist to protect the vital interests of the people of the United States and, only then, to ensure the orderly admission of people we choose to open our doors to. Immigration always benefits immigrants - they wouldn’t come or remain if it didn’t benefit them substantially. It may also benefit certain business interests in the U.S. who can take advantage of lower cost labor. Some foreign governments may also benefit, allowing a safety valve for their own unemployed and underemployed a stream of remittances from their citizens who live in the U.S.

However, excessive immigration, poorly designed immigration policies, and the failure to control illegal immigration have a negative impact of most Americans. It can affect their jobs and wages as they are forced to compete against immigrant workers - both legal and illegal. Low-wage immigrants and their dependents are subsidized by taxpayers, either directly through means-tested programs, or indirectly through their use of public services and infrastructure that are not paid for through the taxes collected on their own meager earnings. Immigration is also

leading to large-scale population growth that Americans neither want, nor which is beneficial to our environment and resource conservation.

Cotto: How should the federal government manage current immigration trends? What advice would you give Congress on the matter?

Stein: About the only area of consensus about our immigration policy is that it is broken and needs to be overhauled. But even that is wrong. Reforming our policy implies that we actually have one. We don’t. A policy implies a definable national interest objective. There is no definable national interest objective to the way we manage immigration at the moment. We have a huge compendium of laws that do not add up to a policy.

In dealing with mass illegal immigration, Congress and the President must recognize that their primary obligation is to protect the basic interests of the American people. Illegal immigration is a controllable phenomenon, which does not require mass deportation. What is needed is a commitment to enforce and strengthen our laws and eliminate the numerous ways we incentivize illegal immigration. Congress should use existing and ubiquitous technology to verify that everyone who is employed in this country is eligible to work here. If Visa and American Express can verify millions of credit card purchases every day, there is no technological impediment to the Social Security Administration or other government databases verifying the documents that workers present to their employers. What has been lacking is the political will.

Other incentives, such as access to nonessential government services and

benefits to illegal aliens, and state and local sanctuary policies must be terminated. We must also revisit the way the Citizenship Claus of the 14th Amendment is being interpreted. The historical record makes it very clear that it was not the intention of the framers to grant automatic citizenship to the U.S.-born children of people who are not citizens or legal U.S. residents. Finally, we must make it clear that illegal immigration will never be rewarded with amnesty.

If illegal aliens understand that they will not benefit by violating U.S. immigration laws many fewer would come here and many who are here would respond rationally and, over time, return home on their own. For a brief time at the end of the Bush administration there was a moderate increase in immigration enforcement, particularly in the workplace. It is a policy he implemented as a result of stinging defeat of his own effort to pass amnesty in 2007 which he attributed to a lack of confidence on the part of the American people that he would enforce laws even after an amnesty. The results were immediate. Even before the recession hit, the illegal population declined for the first time in memory as illegal aliens responded to the unavailability of jobs and went home. The belated Bush enforcement policy was followed by a severe recession, which dried up jobs for everyone. Still more illegal aliens responded to the lack of jobs by leaving.

To anyone who was paying attention, it was pretty obvious that illegal aliens are perfectly rational people, while the policies of our government are irrational. No sooner did the Obama administration succeed President Bush, the policies which were succeeding in reducing illegal immigration were abandoned. Even with the continued weakness in the job market (which might have convinced many more illegal aliens to leave) an end to meaningful enforcement and promises of amnesty stanched the downward trend in illegal immigration.

While most of the focus is on illegal immigration, we also need a rational legal immigration policy. We must recognize the realities of 21st century America. We are no longer and open frontier; we are a nation of 310 million people. We do not need to be admitting in excess of a million legal immigrants each year. Success in America requires certain skills and training; a strong back and good work ethic is no longer a path to success in this country.

Family chain migration - which currently allows immigrants to bring entire extended families to this country, irrespective of the individual qualifications of the immigrants-must be ended. Family migration must be limited to the nuclear family - spouses and unmarried minor children. Within substantially lower immigration limits we should select applicants, without regard to factors such as race, ethnicity and national origin, based on an objective assessment of their likelihood to succeed in this country. Selecting immigrants will never be an exact science, but there are objective criteria that can be used to ensure that the immigrants we admit to this country will benefit not only themselves, but the rest of us.

Cotto: Some believe that America needs mass immigration now more than ever. They say that such a thing will reinvigorate the economy. Do you have an opinion on this view? 

Stein: Even if one accepts the notion that we need immigrants to reinvigorate our economy, we would still (as the last answer points out) need a policy that selects people based on their ability to reinvigorate our economy. However, the premise of the question implies that Americans are not capable or willing to work hard and innovate. In fact, our immigration policies are among of the primary factors discouraging and inhibiting a lot of Americans from reaching their full economic potential. A slew of recent reports looking at the impact of immigration on the STEM fields - commonly accepted as our best hope for a bright economic future - indicate that American are being denied opportunities or pushed out of these fields by employers who prefer to use immigrants and foreign guest workers.

Cotto: The DREAM Act has become a tremendously contentious issue. If passed, how do you think that it would impact the United States?

Stein: The first effect of the DREAM Act would be to put younger Americans at a disadvantage. Americans are graduating from college with the dimmest prospects and most prodigious debt in anyone’s memory. Granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens in their age cohort would further dim their prospects.

The long-term effect of implementation of the DREAM Act - whether passed by Congress or implemented by the president in defiance of Congress - would be huge increases in illegal immigration. If the premise of the DREAM Act is that we have an ethical obligation to rectify the situation of people who were brought here as children and are, therefore, not responsible for having broken the law, then we had better be prepared to make that concession over and over again.

The same ethical obligation will exist for the next generation of people who find themselves in similar circumstances - and we can be certain that the next amnesty will be for a much larger cohort. The clear message to people around the world would be, “Get your kids to the U.S. however you can. If they remain here for a few years and meet a few minimal requirements, they will get amnesty.” It is a sure bet that millions of people around the world will take us up on that offer.


Recently, President Obama granted a substantial residency extension for young illegal aliens. What impact is this likely to have on the United States? Speaking of which, in terms of dollars and cents, how much does illegal immigration really cost our country?

Opposition to illegal immigration is often portrayed as a key aspect of right-wing politics. Might there be broader appeal for immigration control? Despite the federal government’s numerous attempts to stimulate the economy, America remains caught within the Great Recession’s clutches. Is our current immigration policy is somewhat to blame for this?

In the second and final part of our interview, Mr. Stein will explain about all of this, as well as his life and career.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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