What We Talk about When We Talk about Immigration

If you've read or heard anything about immigration today, it probably had to do with a just-released Heritage Foundation report claiming that immigration reform will cost America eleventy bazillion dollars, or as the enormous headline on their web site screams, "The COST of Amnesty TO YOU." If you're interested in a point-by-point analysis of why the assumptions and omissions in the report skew things so absurdly, you can read Dylan Matthews or Alex Nowrasteh, but you have to hand it to Heritage: despite the questionable quality of the work and its obvious intent to scuttle immigration reform, they've gotten a tremendous amount of attention for it.

That's partly a result of good timing (nobody else had attempted to put a dollar figure on reform, so they were the first), and partly due to what I'm sure is a large and skilled communication staff. The way these things work is that your policy people write the report, then your communication people work the phones and email to get reporters to write stories about it, bloggers to blog about it, and members of Congress who find its conclusions pleasing to talk about it when they give floor speeches or go on TV. Most think-tank reports fall like drops of rain on the ocean, little noticed by all but a small circle of people intensely interested in whatever the topic is; this is one of those rare ones that gets much more attention. The Heritage communication department is no doubt pretty pleased with the job they did.

But the topic—what kinds of financial costs are associated with immigration reform—is something that no one on either side cares about, not really. Because money isn't anyone's primary consideration.

OK, that's not completely true. There are some parties who have a direct financial stake in the future of immigration policy, like technology companies that would like to see more high-skilled workers available to hire, or agribusiness companies that want to make sure they have continued access to a low-wage workforce. But the two basic camps on immigration, the pro-reform side and the anti-reform side, aren't motivated by financial considerations at all. They each have a vision of what American society should look like, and how immigrants fit into that vision. One wants a more dynamic America in continual evolution, expanding and changing with each new group that arrives. The other wants an America that stays, culturally speaking, pretty much like it was when they were kids. It's about values, not dollars and cents.

That isn't to say they aren't both happy to talk money when it suits them. As on any issue, everyone will have both primary and secondary justifications they'll offer for their position. But think about it this way: Let's say the Heritage report had been done more honestly, and not even liberals could impeach its methodology. If it had come up with the same result, would anyone on the pro-reform side have said, "Gee, now that I've seen this, I've changed my mind. Reforming immigration is just going to be too expensive"? Alternatively, if a pro-reform group did a more complete analysis than the Heritage one and showed that in fact, immigration reform will lead to all kinds of economic benefits, would any reform opponents say, "Wow, I hadn't realized how much we all have to gain from fixing this system. I guess we should pass reform after all"? Of course not.

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