Opinion

Why Rick Santorum is right to target legal immigration

An influx of illegal immigrants is hardly America's only immigration problem

Republican politicians seldom speak out against illegal immigration without first offering a preamble about the virtues of legal immigration. There's a good reason Republicans usually defend legal immigration while blasting illegal immigration. It takes some of the sting out of the border-security message and makes plain that the issue isn't hostility to immigrants generally or Latinos in particular.

Rick Santorum is adopting a new strategy. And he's right.

Speaking to the socially conservative Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, this summer, the former senator from Pennsylvania added a new immigration dimension to his blue-collar conservatism pitch.

"We also have to face the reality that what's hurting American workers, maybe more than anything else, if you're an unskilled worker in America, is a huge amount of immigration that's going on in this country," said the former (and perhaps future) presidential candidate. "And I'm not just talking about illegal immigration."

"Yes, we've seen 12 to 15 million illegal immigrants here who are competing, in primarily unskilled jobs," he continued. "But in the last 14 years since 2000, there've been more people who've come to this country legally than any 14-year period in American history, and that includes the Great Wave." (Santorum also rightly noted many of these 1 million legal immigrants per year are coming due to family reunification rather than offering skills relevant to the American labor force.)

After diagnosing mass unskilled legal immigration as a cause of wage stagnation and loose labor markets for lower-skilled workers, Santorum chastised both parties for defending the status quo. "We have the Democratic Party who doesn't care," he said. "They say they care about the workers but they don't. You know what they care about? They care about bringing as many people in to get as many of their votes as possible."

The crowd applauded Santorum, but he didn't spare his own party. "Unfortunately on our side, on the Republican side, we have the business community who sees labor as a commodity," he argued. "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't see people as a commodity. I see people as individuals and valuable people whose wages should not be depressed to keep profits high."

Santorum suggested there should be a pause in mass immigration, a time-out that would allow labor markets to adjust and newcomers to assimilate. He even spoke favorably of controversial 1924 legislation that reduced legal immigration.

Not since Pat Buchanan in 1996 has there been a major Republican presidential candidate who has called for lower legal immigration levels. Tom Tancredo tried in 2008, but he didn't run a serious campaign or raise the issue effectively in televised debates.

But what if Santorum is right? What if the problem with our immigration trends isn't legality but sheer numbers and relative skill levels? I think he is right, though the wage impact of immigrants is hotly contested among economists.

Nevertheless, the National Academy of Science's 1997 study The New Americans, reflecting the consensus of labor economists, found a negligible net aggregate economic benefit of immigration to the native-born. Most of the economic benefits go to the immigrants themselves and their employers.

A 2013 OECD study of immigration's net fiscal impact in the United States and 26 other rich countries found tiny net contributions that turn into shortfalls if legacy costs like interest payments on the debt and defense spending are excluded. That suggests that allowing an influx of new Americans, even if done legally, doesn't necessarily or significantly improve the lives of people who are already Americans.

This was once a bipartisan issue. Barbara Jordan, a respected black Democratic congresswoman from Texas, chaired Bill Clinton's immigration reform commission that, among other things, recommended cutting legal entries by one third. President Clinton seemed to agree, and the Republican-controlled Congress was poised to pass immigration reductions.

Multiculturalists and ethnic activists dissuaded Democrats from voting for reforms along these lines. Business groups and some social conservatives did the same for Republicans — the latter because they were convinced it was "anti-family" to cut down on border-crossing family reunification.

Santorum's rejoinder? His grandfather immigrated to the United States at the end of the Great Wave. Because of immigration restrictions, it took his son — Santorum's father — seven years to join him. "Well," the ex-senator concluded, "my dad would always say America was worth the wait."

It will be difficult to argue that Santorum is "anti-family" or a closeted population-control advocate, as immigration expansionists like to allege of conservative restrictionists.

Can Santorum win on this issue? He has never handled sensitive issues — and immigration is surely one — with rhetorical care before. But it's a more promising strategy than hunting for isolationists in the Republican Party.

For once, I'll say Santorum shouldn't be ignored.

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