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Disregard Trump; Focus on the GOP Progress on Earned Legal Status for the Undocumented

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Sadly lost amid the ignorant and misinformed ramblings of Donald Trump is the real story of the 2016 election thus far: the Republican progress on immigration reform.


Republican candidates Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham all support some path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.

These five candidates lead the Republican Party on sensible, pragmatic solutions to undocumented immigration. Their prescriptions are in line with the thinking of immigration experts, cohere with views held by a majority of GOP voters, and promote economic growth. Fringe, anti-immigrant candidates like Donald Trump who have poisoned the Republican Party on immigration should take note.

Bush and Rubio, of course, are top-tier candidates for the nomination. Kasich, the latest entrant, is running second in New Hampshire. Fiorina, who was the unanimous winner of the GOP junior varsity debate, is rising. Their stance on immigration is part of their voter appeal.

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. As I have discussed before, calls for mass deportation are politically and economically unrealistic. Estimates of the cost of Trump-type mass deportation range from $415 billion to $615 billion over 20 years, not counting an estimated six percent economic contraction and widespread job loss. Moreover, the self-described party of family values ought to consider the moral implications of uprooting families and communities. Finally, mass deportation is remarkably unpopular amongst the American people.


But rejecting mass deportation is not enough; addressing the undocumented population is still necessary. As noted, the five mentioned GOP candidates do so—through legal status for those who earn it, and eschewing empty rhetoric on border security.

Undocumented immigrants who apply for legal status would undergo background checks, would pay taxes and a penalty, would have to show English proficiency, and would have to document that they have lived in the United States for a long time.

It wouldn’t be the first time legal status was offered. In 1986 Congress offered it to about three million undocumented immigrants. The economic literature stemming from that legislation can inform us of the potential outcomes of a new round of earned legal status. Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny reviewed the economic literature, which suggests that the main individual effect was an increase in beneficiaries’ earnings from 6 to 13 percent.

Moreover, economists Lynch and Oakford found that granting undocumented immigrants legal status without eligibility for citizenship would improve the economy substantially. They estimated that GDP would rise $830 billion over 10 years and add 120,000 more jobs per year.

Higher wages and more jobs would be a boon for governments too as workers move onto the books. Undocumented immigrants would pay an additional $110 billion in taxes over 10 years, $70 billion to the federal government and $40 billion to state and local governments.


Offering earned legal status is also in line with expert opinion. Earlier this year, the Hoover Institution surveyed 25 immigration experts on the most effective policies to reduce undocumented immigration. Eighty-three percent agreed that providing legal status would improve immigration policy. Not one argued that border security would be most effective.

GOP voters agree. A 2015 Pew poll found that a majority of Republicans support legal status; so did a 2015 WSJ/NBC poll. Polling by the GOP-aligned Burning Glass firm found that less than 35 percent of GOP voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina oppose legal status. The polling also found that nearly 75 percent of GOP voters in 10 battleground states support legal status.

There is no quick and easy and way to handle 11 million undocumented people. Congress has ducked the problem for years, which has only made smart reform more difficult. Earned legal status is an excellent start but the overall benefits will only be temporary, like the 1986 legislation, unless coupled with improvements to and expansions of legal immigration.

A guest-worker program for agricultural and nonagricultural workers is the strong second component needed to adequately reduce undocumented immigration. Other reforms would include more opportunities for high-skilled workers—doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists—and letting more refugees and asylees immigrate. With more legal opportunities, potential immigrants will nearly always choose the legal route over the illegal one.


According to Jeb Bush, “This country does not do well when people lurk in the shadows.” The other four pro-immigrant candidates echo similar sentiments. The Republican candidates should avoid Trump’s mass-deportation nonsense and the media should focus on earned legal status as a major element in the 2016 race.


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