The politics of the Obama administration's immigration announcement make a certain grim sense: The people who will most intensely oppose are already fiercely hostile to the administration; the people who will most support were indifferently favorable. The decision mobilizes, for the administration, voters who might otherwise have seen little reason to turn out on voting day: economically hard-pressed Latinos who have seen little material improvement over the past three years.
The policy results however make less sense. The decision to grant residency and work rights to young illegal aliens who meet certain conditions is an amnesty in all but name. A conditional amnesty, yes, but amnesty. The trouble with amnesty has always been the incentive effects. It's possible that amnesty may be a necessary final stage in immigration reform, but to put amnesty in place before effective enforcement measures are in place—and before authorities are certain that as many illegals as possible have voluntarily repatriated—is to invite another wave of illegal migration just as soon as business conditions improve.
That may not seem on the verge of happening soon, but it will happen.
In a time of very high unemployment, it seems simply reckless to invite future waves of migration—and especially of the low-skill, low-wage migration that America has mostly attracted over the past four decades.
Every serious economic study of immigration has found that the net benefits of present policy are exceedingly small. But that small net is an aggregate of very large effects that cancel each other out. The immigrants get higher wages than they would have earned in their former country. The affluent gain lower prices for in-person services. Lower-skilled native-born Americans face downward wage pressure. In any other policy area, people who consider themselves progressive might be expected to revile a policy whose benefits went to foreigners and the rich, and whose costs were born by the American poor. Immigration policy baffles that expectation.
It's hard to imagine that the people who gain residency rights this year will be content to live forever as non-citizens, ineligible for the social services they pay taxes to support. They will want Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and food stamps. They will want the vote. And of course in time they will want to regularize the status of their parents and siblings who did not quite benefit from the policy announced today.
If and as the Affordable Care Act becomes the law of the land, they will want the benefit of that law's protections and subsidies as well. One reason there has been so much resistance in the United States to universal health coverage is the vague awareness on the part of citizen voters that state-subsidized coverage will disproportionately benefit migrants, many of them originally illegal. About 27% of the uninsured are foreign born. If you are looking to build a wider consensus in favor of universal coverage—and I think we should be so looking—then anything that invites further large-scale migration by people who will pay less in taxes than they will require in subsidies is destabilizing and unwise.
Which means that today's policy decision settles nothing. It only opens the way to further contention over further rounds of amnesty-in-all-but-name.