Will CBO Save Immigration Reform?

There’s a lot of over-optimistic hype surrounding the Senate Gang of Eight’s immigration reform bill, based apparently on the theory that “momentum” will add a bunch of votes in the Senate and crush the House’s lurking nativists. I really don’t get it. But there’s no mistaking the value of the new Congressional Budget Office “scoring” of the Senate bill, which knocks the props from beneath one of the Right’s key arguments against comprehensive immigration reform: that America just can’t afford it. As I’ll explain in a moment, there are other arguments and misunderstandings that could kill the bill, but there’s no question the cost argument will now be harder to make.

Here’s Ezra Klein summing it up:

Good news for immigration reformers: The Congressional Budget Office has scored the Senate immigration bill and concluded it will cut deficits by $200 billion in the first 10 years and $700 billion in the second 10 years….

The bill’s overall effect on the overall economy is unambiguously positive: CBO expects real GDP to increase by 3.3 percent by 2023 and by 5.4 percent in 2033. The reasoning here is a bit more complex: It’s not just that the bill would mean more workers, but that it would mean more productive workers. CBO says that the law would “lead to slightly higher productivity of both labor and capital because the increase in immigration — particularly of highly skilled immigrants — would tend to generate additional technological advancements, such as new inventions and improvements in production processes.”

This isn’t just a good CBO report. It’s a wildly good CBO report. They’re basically saying immigration reform is a free lunch: It cuts the deficit by growing the economy. It makes Americans better off and it makes immigrants better off. At a time when the U.S. economy desperately needs a bit of help, this bill, according to the CBO, helps. And politically, it forces opponents of the bill onto the ground they’re least comfortable occupying: They have to argue that immigration reform is bad for cultural or ethical reasons rather than economic ones.

Ezra’s last comment in interesting: yes, the “cultural” arguments against immigration reform are dodgy at best, relying as they so often do on white folks’ fears that they are losing “their” country to people who don’t look or sound like them. But I don’t think reform opponents have the least inhibitions about making the “ethical” argument–that “illegal immigrants” have deliberately broken the law, and should not be “rewarded” with citizenship. The power of that argument is demonstrated by the willingness of reform proponents to load many new and punitive-sounding obligations on the backs of those embarking on the path to citizenship.

In any event, a lot of Gang of Eight opponents will blow off the CBO report just as they have consistently blown off CBO reports showing that the Affordable Care Act of 2010 reduces federal budget deficits (indeed, RedState’s Daniel Horowitz is using the “obvious” unacceptability of the Obamacare estimates to presumptively discredit the Gang of Eight estimates as a “unicorn cost study.”

But I continue to think the real and dangerous heart of the anti-reform effort has relatively little to do with economic or fiscal arguments, or culture, or even the “ethical” argument that civilization will crumble if we don’t strictly enforce immigration laws: it’s the claim that we’re all for comprehensive immigration reform, and the debate is just over how it is implemented. That’s the message being offered by all the “border security first” proponents, who have no ill will towards undocumented workers but just want to make sure we aren’t creating an even bigger problem down the road. It all sounds vaguely reasonable, until you realize the actual idea is to set down conditions that will make citizenship (or with some proposals, legalization itself) a distant and unobtainable goal.

The biggest threat to comprehensive immigration reform is those in the “yes-but” lobby who will nod happily at the CBO report and agree with anything positive you want to say about the value of immigrants to the United States–and then raise this or that objection, usually involving border security, to the enactment of the kind of legislation promoted by the 43d and 44th presidents. Overcoming this more insidious opposition will be the true acid test.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.