The Wall Street Journal editorial board took a strong stance Monday in favor of the Senate immigration bill, arguing that “immigrants will be crucial” to saving Social Security. The proof: a projection that immigrants will contribute $4.6 trillion (in today’s dollars) towards the Social Security trust fund over the next 75 years–nearly half the $9.6 trillion shortfall (for some reason, the Journal cites last year’s $8.6 trillion estimate.)
Even if true, that does not dispose of Social Security’s problems–and it may be misleading to consider the effects on Social Security alone, when new immigrants will also be making use of a host of other entitlement programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and now Obamacare.
That is not an argument against immigration, but reminds us that using immigrants to shore up failing welfare state programs may be a recipe for failure.
It certainly has been in Europe. A decade ago, the Economist led the way in arguing for greater immigration in Europe, noting that Europe’s low (or, in some places, negative) population growth meant that it needed new immigrants to contribute their labor and tax revenues.
Ten years later, after much of Europe failed to make underlying fiscal and economic reforms, it still has massive fiscal problems–plus new cultural clashes.
The point is that immigration is not a cure for what ails the welfare state.
As even the Economist observed in 2002: “The government is right to insist that there are economic benefits to immigration, but they are not huge, or neutral. Broadly, immigration makes business and most people a bit better off, and some of the poor poorer.”
And that is before considering the thornier, urgent issue of ongoing illegal immigration.
Proponents of the Senate immigration reform bill have successfully conflated two issues: what to do about border security, and what to do about those illegal immigrants already here. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a key member of the “Gang of Eight,” recently argued that events like the Boston Marathon bombing should encourage the bill’s passage, since it includes provisions on tracking those who have overstayed their visas.
But that is not all the bill contains, and the bill’s “path to citizenship” provisions would bring about far more sweeping and controversial changes. (In order to secure Democrats’ agreement on mandatory functions of government like law enforcement, Republican negotiators are agreeing to discretionary policies whose fiscal benefits are debatable and whose political benefits will almost certainly benefit their opponents alone.)
While the Journal‘s $4.6 trillion figure might be an argument for more immigration in general, and even for legalizing those illegal aliens already in the country, it is tangential to the separate yet urgent problem of how to end illegal immigration. To the extent that illegal immigration undermines intangible basics such as national security, the rule of law, and national cohesion, $4.6 trillion in benefits may not outweigh the costs.
The best that can be said of the Journal‘s argument is that it is a partial case for an immigration reform bill. It is a poor case for this immigration reform bill.
We are living through a rerun of the health care debate: a large and unwieldy text, written by special interests; promises of rushed passage by the end of the summer; Astroturf activists funded by the left’s deep pockets; and false charges of racism against the bill’s opponents.
If the case for the Senate immigration bill were as compelling as $4.6 trillion added to the Social Security balance sheet, those tactics would not be necessary.
The benefit that the Journal contemplates will still be there under a different approach–one that places security and law enforcement first, and which ensures that those who enter the United States will not only be ready to work but willing to abide by the country’s laws.
Above all, immigration reform is no substitute for entitlement reform, as Europe’s example shows. The Senate bill provides that illegal aliens will not be eligible for most federal benefits, but that will last only as long as it takes for Democrats to organize that new constituency.
Border security and entitlement reform are necessary in their own right. That is why they must be prior to, not contingent on, immigration reform.