The Conservative Case Against Enforcement First

Posted on: March 8th, 2015
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Conservatives are often the most vocal when it comes to pushing for tough immigration policies focused on sealing the border and deporting everyone here illegally. Mainstream Republicans interested in trying to persuade more extreme constituents, might want to study a new report from the conservative American Action Forum. The group’s upcoming report is discussed in the latest issue of The Atlantic. From that story:

Yet with conservatives still reeling from their defeat in a battle over immigration policy and security funding earlier this week, a right-leaning policy group is releasing a new report aimed at nudging the GOP back toward the center. The study, which the American Action Forum plans to publish later on Friday, tests a rather straightforward proposition frequently offered by opponents of comprehensive immigration reform: How much would it cost to “immediately and fully enforce current law”—that is, to deport all undocumented immigrants while preventing another wave of people from entering illegally?

The answer, researchers found, is quite a lot, both to taxpayers and the economy more broadly. Removing all 11.2 million undocumented immigrants, both forcibly and through Mitt Romney’s infamous “self-deportation” policy, would take about 20 years and cost the government between $400 billion and $600 billion. The impact on the economy would be even larger, according to the study: Real GDP would drop by nearly $1.6 trillion and the policy would shave 5.7 percent off economic growth. Researchers Laura Collins and Ben Gitis also write that their estimates are conservative, since they do not include, for example, the cost of constructing new courts, prisons, and other buildings that might be needed to process and detain millions of immigrants.

The study does not envision a new policy of mass deportation, with ICE agents rounding up immigrants in vans or going door-to-door to find them. Rather, researchers used the government’s own statement that it currently has the capacity to deport up to 400,000 immigrants annually (330,651 were removed in 2013) and asked what would happen if it actually did that, every year until the 11 million are gone. They also estimate that after the government announces a new policy of full enforcement, about 20 percent of the 11 million would leave voluntarily, leaving just about nine million that would need to be forcibly removed. “It still would be, I think, a shocking sight to the American people, to have the detentions, the deportations, the detention centers, the need for the administrative end of this,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the group’s president. “If you were to do it faster and have vans sweeping in, I think that would have the untenable feel of the police state to the American people. We didn’t look at that.”

The American Action Forum is not some fringe group; it is well-entrenched in the establishment camp. Holtz-Eakin is a leading Republican economist who advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. In 2013, he released a paper arguing that comprehensive reform would boost economic growth and reduce long-term deficits by $2.5 trillion. The group’s board includes Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary who helped lead President George W. Bush’s immigration-reform push in 2006 and 2007. It also includes Elaine Chao, the labor secretary in the Bush administration and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

A few years back, I heard some sensible advice from a DC lobbyist who knows a thing or two about trying to get a law enacted. Don’t appeal to people’s sense of decency when making the case on immigration. Appeal to their self-interest. In this case, explain just what it would cost to enact the policy they want and ask them how they would pay for it. Would they be willing to raise taxes by $600 billion and risk the GDP decline that would inevitably cost millions of jobs and hurt our standard of living? Especially when there are many studies that show the opposite policy – legalizing the immigrants here and having a guest worker program to address future needs would give the economy a substantial boost.