The Benefits of Immigration

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WASHINGTON -- The United States and Canada are the only two industrialized countries that confer automatic citizenship on babies born within the countries' borders, even if their parents are not citizens.

In the United States, this is a constitutional right. The Fourteenth Amendment states that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States ..."

Yet some Republicans want to deny citizenship to children born here to illegal immigrants, by changing or reinterpreting the Fourteenth Amendment.

Is this a good idea? It is not, in my opinion. Rather, it is a stunt: without solutions to our immigration mess, this measure, taken alone, would only exacerbate the problem we have of millions here illegally.

It's no coincidence that the debate over birthright citizenship has sprung up in the wake of the expansion of the welfare society enacted by Congress and the Obama administration - accompanied by prospective tax hikes. European countries cannot welcome immigrants because the welfare benefits they confer upon their citizens are simply too expensive to offer to newcomers.

For instance, our new health care law allocates $1.5 billion to expanded community health centers where illegal immigrants can get free care.

As America slouches towards the European economic model, the European immigration model appears newly attractive. The European economic and immigration models are complementary - we need to reject both.

Advocates of changing the Constitution say that illegal immigrants should not be rewarded by a gift of citizenship to their children, and that the prospect of automatic citizenship for newborns draws people to America illegally.

Others reply that depriving babies of citizenship because parents don't have the right papers would make children pay for the sins of the parents, and that changing the Fourteenth Amendment would go against years of precedent, turning America into a less welcoming country.

University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein put it sensibly when he told me, "There is a long established practice, which I would be really hesitant to change, regardless of some ultimate view on its merits. Stirring up this hornet's nest is just a mistake."

Leaders of both parties deem our 12 million illegal immigrants unacceptable, and this is the crux of our immigration challenge. Our goal should be to have a situation in which there are few illegal immigrants in America. If that were the case, birthright citizenship would be a non-issue.

To focus on birthright citizenship as a solution to our immigration problems supposes that the United States will stay in this situation for the foreseeable future. In other words, we have given up.

A better solution is to change is our broken immigration system. Realistically, we cannot deport millions of illegal immigrants. Nor would we want to do so. Many are married to American citizens, work, support American children, and pay taxes.

One answer is to go back to the immigration plan agreed upon by the House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders in 2007. This would allow undocumented workers without criminal convictions to pay a fine, receive a special visa allowing them to work legally, and place them in line for a green card behind existing applicants.

This approach, endorsed by President George W. Bush, did not pass in 2007 because members from both parties objected. Some Democrats said it was too tough because recipients of the new visas would not be able to receive welfare payments for five years and family preferences for future immigration were restricted.

Some Republicans thought it was too easy, equivalent to "amnesty," a code word for opposition to immigrants, because it opened a path for undocumented workers to stay here legally-and did not fully address security problems at the Mexican border.

But the Congress in 2010 is not the Congress of 2007. The federal government is already allocating increased resources to border security, spurred partly by the drug gangs in Mexico. If President Obama were to offer vigorous, sincere leadership, Congress could resolve our immigration mess.

Such reforms were promised in the 2008 campaign by some congressional candidates and by Barack Obama. As president, Mr. Obama has not even attempted to keep his promise. Getting a legal visa still takes years, thousands of dollars in legal fees, and miles of bureaucratic red tape.

Reforming our immigration system would go a long way towards calming the tensions caused by the presence of illegal immigrants, and it would help the economy recover.

America's economy relies on immigrant talent, both high-skilled in research, finance, and innovation, and low-skilled in hotels, restaurants, office cleaning, construction, lawn service, and farms.

Immigrants have different skills and job preferences from native-born Americans, and so complement our workforce and make American workers more productive, as University of California economics professor Giovanni Peri has shown in numerous studies. Many Americans have a high school diploma and some college education, but few adults are without a high school diploma or have PhDs in math and science.

Congress needs to overhaul immigration law and create an expanded guest worker program with a path to citizenship for undocumented workers already here. Innovators who want to come and start a business, thereby creating jobs, should be welcomed with visas and green cards.

The costs of illegal immigrants would decrease if foreigners who want to work here could pay the government for legal visas, with funds from the permits used to purchase basic health insurance and biometric identification cards, and income taxes collected to pay for services. Criminals could be more easily identified and deported.

In the 2008 electoral campaigns President Obama and the Democrats criticized Republicans for failing to reform immigration. Thus far the Democrats have failed-and no one is offering a better solution.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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