Immigration sets the stage for political theater

President Barack Obama's recent executive order on immigration has caused a political uproar. Congressional Republicans have introduced legislation to kill the order, 24 states are challenging it in federal court, and a federal district court judge in Pennsylvania has suggested the executive order may be unconstitutional.

While this blowback indicates how emotionally charged immigration issues have become, in truth the executive order changes very little, for good or ill.

The most substantial changes involve the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the president would expand, and a new program called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability.

DACA defers deportation hearings for immigrants brought here as children and temporarily authorizes them to work here legally. So far, about 500,000 young adults have taken advantage of the program. The executive order expands who is eligible to apply and increases the employment authorization from two years to three years. DAPA creates the same deportation deferment and employment authorization for illegal immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

Congressional Republicans claim that the president is failing to enforce immigration law as written, in violation of his constitutional duty. Judge Arthur Schwab of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in a Dec. 16 ruling in a deportation hearing, seems to agree, saying that "President Obama's unilateral legislative action violates the separation of powers provided for in the United States Constitution as well as the Take Care Clause and is therefore unconstitutional."

However, more than 11 million illegal immigrants reside in the United States. No one expected that Obama, or anyone else, had the will or ability to deport all of them over the next few years. So some form of selectivity regarding who is processed for deportation, even if random, was inevitable. The executive order does not change that. All it does is make explicit who will be targeted for deportation and who won't.

Targeted are those immigrants suspected of terrorist ties and those who have committed serious crimes in the United States. Not targeted are the 3.7 million to 5 million who might qualify for DACA or DAPA. The work authorization simply allows these people, who are going to be here anyway, to come out of the shadows and work legally.

Although the executive order does not change the total number of undocumented immigrants in our country, it does create some modest benefits. The most obvious is the temporary security it provides to those immigrants who qualify.

But native-born Americans will benefit as well. Allowing illegal immigrants to work openly and legally allows them to use their skills in the jobs and industries where they can contribute the most value, rather than working off the books in occupations where black-market employment is harder to detect. This alone, the Fiscal Policy Institute estimates, should boost the wages of those immigrants who qualify to work legally by 5 percent to 10 percent, which indicates that they are creating more valuable goods and services for the rest of us.

The Council of Economic Advisers calculates that, if the executive order were in force for 10 years, these better jobs would add $90 billion to $210 billion to the overall U.S. economy.

Some worry that immigrants are a tax burden. But in this case the immigrants are already here. Granting them legal working status would increase tax revenue by growing the economy and by bringing their work into the open where it can be taxed. As a result, tax revenues should increase by some $2.6 billion during the first two years the new rules are in force, the University of California, Los Angeles' North American Integration and Development Center estimates.

The executive order mostly codifies what was true before it was issued: not all illegal immigrants are going to be deported anytime soon.

The modest benefits that stem from the order are simply a result of identifying which illegal immigrants are not going to be deported and allowing them to work.

Rather than staging political theater over the executive order, Congress would better serve our country by passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that makes executive orders like this unnecessary.

Benjamin W. Powell is a senior fellow with The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University.

Editorial on 12/28/2014

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