David Frum

05.13.13

You Still Can't Wish Away the Facts on Immigration Amnesty

John Moore/Getty Images ()

From my CNN column: why those rushing to bash the Heritage Foundation study keep forgetting that math is math:

A decade ago, Britain's Labor government was badly divided over whether to join the Euro. The prime minister strongly supported the idea, as did much of the British business community and many leading media voices. One of the proponents' most effective tactics was to ridicule opponents as cranky and xenophobic -- even borderline racist.

Here for example is a correspondent for the Guardian deriding some of them, members of the U.K. Independence Party (Ukip), back, in 2004.

"In the pub I encounter Reg Mahrra, an Indian Ukipper . 'I want out of Europe,' he says. 'Europe is a disease.' "

That's hardly an argument to take seriously.

Only ... the Euro opponents were totally right. Right for the wrong reasons, but still right.

It's human nature to assess difficult questions, not on the merits, but on our feelings about the different "teams" that form around different answers. To cite a painful personal experience: During the decision-making about the Iraq war, I was powerfully swayed by the fact that the proposed invasion of Iraq was supported by those who had been most right about the Cold War -- and was most bitterly opposed by those who had been wrongest about the Cold War.

Yet in the end, it is not teams that matter. It is results. As Queen Victoria's first prime minister bitterly quipped after a policy fiasco: "What wise men had promised has not happened. What the damned fools predicted has actually come to pass."

Which brings us to the uproar over the Heritage Foundation's study of the fiscal effects of immigration -- and the revelation that one of the study's coauthors wrote a Ph.D. dissertation asserting large and enduring differences in intelligence between different ethnic and racial groups.

Heritage is a powerful conservative think tank in Washington, very influential on Capitol Hill. On May 6, Heritage released a study of the likely budget effects of the Senate plan to open a "pathway to citizenship" for the 10+ million people who live in the United States in violation of the nation's immigration laws.

The study found that the plan would add $6.3 trillion to the nation's budget deficits over the next 50 years.

That conclusion ignited a huge controversy. Still, even the fiercest critics had to concede the basic validity of Heritage's claim. In the words of Keith Hennessey, formerly director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush and an ardent supporter of the "pathway to citizenship": "I expect making 8-9 million people here illegally into U.S. citizens would increase future deficits once these people are eligible for benefits."

The pathway to citizenship will add to deficits because of these basic demographic facts about the illegal population: It is very large and it is very low-skilled. As is, the immigrant population in the United States earns less and depends more on government benefits than the native-born population. As formerly illegal residents gain access to more benefits, that dependency can only rise.

Perhaps the ultimate cost of legalization will be less than Heritage estimated: $4 trillion, say. Conceivably, the cost could be even higher. But it will be a cost, and it will be large -- nobody can gainsay that.

Instead, critics respond with a non-sequitur: never mind the effects on government budgets, look instead at immigration's impact on the overall economy. The trouble for them, however, is that every reputable study -- headed by the most exhaustive of them all, the 1997 National Academy of Science study -- finds that the economic benefits of immigration are very small, fractions of a penny for each dollar of national income, with the largest share of those benefits captured by the immigrants themselves.

But it's a basic rule of politics: If you can't disprove the message, you try to discredit the messenger.

And one of Heritage's messengers sure enough proved discreditable. While work on the Heritage study was led by that think tank's welfare expert, Bob Rector, the heavy number-crunching was done by a recent Harvard Ph.D., Jason Richwine. Richwine believes in a racial hierarchy of intelligence, with Jews and East Asians at the top and blacks at the bottom.

Richwine has expressed that opinion in a number of places, including at a 2008 panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute. I happened to be the moderator of that panel. I hadn't met Richwine before, and this discussion was my first introduction to his work.

Afterward, I asked him to come to my office for a talk. I told him then that he faced a choice: He could be a serious scholar of immigration -- or he could play in the fever swamps, but not both. Obviously, he did not heed my advice. Shortly after, he left AEI to find employment at Heritage.

U.S. immigration policy has long been sullied by racial prejudice: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1907 deal with Japan to stop migration from that country, the immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 that sought to halt migration of all groups except Northwest Europeans. It's a shameful story, and the Richwine episode scratches at those painful national wounds.

But it's also true that math is math. We know how much low-skilled legal immigrants earn. We know how much government assistance legal immigrant households use. We can make projections about the likely budget costs of enrolling 10+ million formerly illegal residents as legal ones.

Read more at CNN.