Immigration Scare-Tactics: Exaggerated Estimates Of New Immigration Under S.2611
The debate over S. 2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, has been clouded by grossly exaggerated estimates of the likely scale of future immigration under the bill.
Doom and gloom predictions that immigration will bring about the demise of U.S. culture and society are as old as the United States itself. For instance, Benjamin Franklin famously warned that German immigrants to the United States "are usually the most stupid of their nation" and that, unless they were turned away, "they will soon outnumber us so that we will not be able to save our language or our government."1 Although these sorts of predictions invariably have proven to be unfounded, opponents of immigration still find it politically expedient to advance their cause by suggesting that native-born Americans soon will become strangers in their own land in the face of mass immigration. This sort of fear mongering was on prominent display over the past two weeks as the Senate debated the fate of S. 2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Some critics of the bill have succeeded in amending it by arguing that the original version of the legislation would prompt a massive wave of new immigration to the United States. With passage of the bill by the Senate and the contentious conference with the House of Representatives that is sure to follow, these kinds of political scare tactics likely will continue to cloud the debate.
S. 2611 would, among other things, allow some undocumented immigrants already in the United States to apply for legal status and would create a new temporary worker program. Although serious efforts to estimate the impact of the bill on immigration rates are an essential part of the legislative process, some of the bill's critics are using dubious statistics and unfounded assumptions to grossly exaggerate the likely scale of future immigration under the bill. The errors and fallacies contained within the most commonly cited of these projections are cumulative in nature. For example, an over-estimate of how many undocumented immigrants or temporary workers become U.S. citizens under the bill results in an over-estimate of how many family members will join new immigrants in the United States. These projections inflate the numbers of potential immigrants under S.2611 in many ways, but three stand out in particular:
In contrast to the dire predictions of some of the bill's opponents, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the U.S. population would grow by about 7.8 million over the next 10 years under S. 2611. This total takes into account undocumented immigrants who acquire legal status, guest workers, other immigrants who enter the country through family-based or employment-based channels, and any children born to immigrants after they arrive.3
Because the Heritage report inflates these numbers, it also inflates projections of how many family members will eventually join newly legalized immigrants in the United States. According to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, which are used in most projections of the bill's impact, 66 percent of the adults among the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States already live with their families.6 As a result, projections that 6 to 12 million spouses and children will join beneficiaries of a new legalization program are highly unlikely given that many of these family members are already here.
The same double counting occurs with the estimated 2.4 million undocumented immigrants who have been in the country 2-5 years. Under the Senate bill, these immigrants would be eligible for a temporary legal status called Deferred Mandatory Departure (DMD) that is valid for three years. Recipients of DMD status who meet strict requirements will have the option of applying for a permanent status. However, applications for permanent status by these immigrants are subject to the same numerical caps as other immigrants and therefore cannot be counted separately. The Heritage report treats DMD applications as if they were exempt from numerical caps.
Similarly, the Heritage report double counts undocumented immigrants who are likely to gain legal status under current law regardless of whether or not S. 2611 becomes law. Recent estimates are that approximately 1.5 million currently undocumented immigrants are already "in the pipeline" for legal status.8 Since many of these immigrants will become legal under current law, they should not be included in estimates of the number of new immigrants allowed into the United States under the bill. The CBO report takes this into account by subtracting from the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country an estimated 1 million who likely will become LPRs through existing employment-based or family-based immigration channels. But some opponents of the bill, such as the Heritage Foundation, count these immigrants as beneficiaries of legalization under the bill who are not subtracted from numerical caps on employment- and family-based immigration.
Ignoring Circular Migration
Historically, a large share of migration to the United States, particularly from Mexico, has involved lone immigrants (usually men) who work here for a few years and then return home to their families after saving enough money to buy a house, start a business, etc. For instance, from 1965 to 1986, about 28 million undocumented Mexicans entered the country, yet the vast majority - 23 million - eventually returned home. With the advent of heightened border enforcement beginning in the mid-1980s, though, more and more undocumented immigrants settled permanently in the United States and brought their families with them rather than risk repeated border crossings. In the early 1980s, between 25 percent and 30 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States returned home each year, but this figure had fallen to 6 percent by 1998.9 However, the share of immigrants who return home would likely increase again if a new temporary worker program allowed immigrants to legally enter - and leave - the country in response to actual labor demand. Moreover, migrants who come to the United States for brief stays are less likely to bring family members with them, and those that do are more likely to take their families with them when they return home.
Misleading Projections on Naturalization
1Benjamin Franklin, “The Support of the Poor,” Letter to Peter Collinson, May 9, 1753.
2 The 66 million figure is cited by the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org/Research/Immigration/wm1076.cfm). The 217 million figure is cited in a May 16, 2006, press release from the office of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (“U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions Hails Passage of Lower Cap on Guest Worker Program”).
3 Congressional Budget Office, S. 2611: Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, May 16, 2006, p. 22.
4 Robert Rector, Senate Immigration Bill Would Allow 100 Million New Legal Immigrants over the Next Twenty Years. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, May 15, 2006, p. 2.
5 The CBO assumption that 2/3 of undocumented immigrants will become LPRs is based on the number of undocumented immigrants who applied for and were granted LPR status under the provisions of IRCA. The provisions of S.2611 are more stringent, so the CBO estimate probably is generous. See Congressional Budget Office, S. 2611: Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, May 16, 2006, p. 22.
6 Jeffrey S. Passel, The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.: Estimates Based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, March 7, 2006, p. 6-7.
7 Robert Rector, Senate Immigration Bill Would Allow 100 Million New Legal Immigrants over the Next Twenty Years. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, May 15, 2006, p. 2.
8 David A. Martin, Twilight Statuses: A Closer Examination of the Unauthorized Population. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, June 2005, p. 1.
9 Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand & Nolan J. Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002, p. 45, 131-132.
10 Nancy Rytina, IRCA Legalization Effects: Lawful Permanent Residence and Naturalization through 2001. Washington, DC: Office of Policy and Planning, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2002, p. 3.
Copyright: The material above was originally produced by the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Law Foundation. Reproduced with Permission.
Ben Johnson is the Director of the Immigration Policy Center.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.