Immigration parlor tricks

Alan Reynolds
Posted: May 18, 2006 12:05 AM
I'm not a big talk show fan, but I happened to catch Rush Limbaugh interviewing Vice President Cheney about the recent presidential address on immigration. Limbaugh's key statement or question was this: "The compromise bill we're being told is Hagel-Martinez, two Republicans proposing this bill. Robert Rector at Heritage and (Alabama Republican) Sen. Sessions, who I know you respect, both did joint analyses of this bill, and what they project using conservative estimates is anywhere from, over the next 20 years, 110 million to 217 million legal immigrants entering the country, and illegals as part of that number, being granted legal status. What is the public policy purpose for doing that in these kinds of numbers?"

Vice President Cheney appeared unaware of these "conservative estimates," so he asked, "These are people who would attain legal status?" Rush answered: "No, this is a combination of both. This is an increase in the number of legal immigrants, as well as added to illegals who would then be made legal over that 20-year time frame. And it also allows for exponential growth because these people would be allowed to bring in their family members, as well. And one of the big concerns here is the strain this would put on an already stretched social safety welfare net and this sort of thing. And these numbers are just striking to me. Add two-thirds of the country's population in 20 years -- I don't think we can handle that financially and certainly not in an assimilation way."

Rush is a very smart fellow, and his comments on economic issues normally range from astute to brilliant. But these numbers are not "just striking," they are patently absurd. Regardless whether the bill in question (S.2611) is better or worse than other immigration bills, to suggest it would, could or even might permit legal immigration to average between 5.1 million and 10.9 million per year is nothing more than a cheap parlor trick.

The larger estimate of 217 million legal immigrants by 2026 implies that annual legal immigration under S.2611 would be almost 12 times larger than its current rate of about 950,000 a year (plus at least 400,000 illegal immigrants). Nobody could possibly believe legal immigration is suddenly going to jump from about 1 million a year to nearly 11 million, so the 20-year average of 10.9 legal immigrants per year necessarily requires annual immigration much larger than 10.9 million in the future -- larger, in fact, than 25 million a year. If the idea of Congress allowing 25 million legal immigrants per year is starting to sound unbelievable, that is because it is.

The trick involved is aptly called "the magic of compound interest." The original version of S.2611 would have allowed the number of temporary guest workers (initially set at 325,000 a year) to increase by as much as 20 percent in any given year, but that was a ceiling, not a norm. Congress could also reduce the number. The bill's sponsors have, in fact, reduced the proposed number of temporary six-year work visas to 200,000 (only about half the number of uninvited guests). When people talk about illegal workers "moving to the back of the line," that would be the length of the line (which is currently almost non-existent).

By assuming (pretending) that Congress would always permit the number of guest workers to increase by the maximum allowable percentage, year after year without end, the original 325,000 per year would approach 1.7 million a year within a decade and 10.4 million a year by 2026. But why stop there? If this calculation made any sense, the United States would supposedly be importing 54.6 million guest workers in the year 2036, then 65.5 million in the following year and 78.6 million the year after that. Each time 20 percent is added, it becomes part of the base so that the next time the 20 percent is applied to a larger amount. Even if the compound rate is trimmed 10 percent, that does not convert this farce into a reasonable estimate of the actual immigration inflow under the bill. It is merely the same cheap trick being peddled at a discount.

To pump these numbers up even more, these "conservative estimates" assume the fanciful millions of guest workers will bring in fantastic millions of spouses, children and parents. Anyone who might be tricked into believing the United States will be welcoming 10.4 million legal guest workers in the year 2026 might also be persuaded that the United States will also be inviting 13 million of their nonworking relatives. But how on earth could anyone believe such inane nonsense? When people resort to such cheap tricks to obstruct or advance any legislation, be very suspicious.