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Johnson: What’s at stake for Illinois in immigration reform?

BenjamJohnson

Benjamin Johnson

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Updated: September 19, 2013 9:31AM



As Congress takes a summer respite to figure out how to move immigration reform forward in the House, mounting evidence shows that reform would be a plus to the national economy.

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently estimated that the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June would reduce the federal budget deficit by roughly $1 trillion over 20 years and would boost the U.S. economy as a whole without negatively affecting U.S. workers in the long run.

In addition, an April report from the conservative American Action Forum, authored by a former director of the CBO, went further, estimating that immigration reform has the potential to decrease the cumulative federal deficit by more than $2.5 trillion over just 10 years.

This sounds good for the federal government, but what’s in it for Illinois? Well, the numbers add up differently depending on what scenario Congress pursues. Its members are faced with the choices of moving to deport the undocumented person, sticking with the status quo or reforming the system once and for all.

Under the scenario of “deport them all,” estimates show that Illinois would lose $25.6 billion in economic activity, $11.4 billion in gross state product and approximately 119,000 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time, according to a report by the Perryman Group. This mass deportation of illegal immigrants would cause a steep reduction in the labor supply.

Because labor is a key factor of production, a drastic reduction in its supply would lead to a contraction of the state economy and a decline in overall revenue. Pull people out of the economy, and it shrinks.

In fact, more than 60 percent of all undocumented immigrants have been living and working in Illinois for more than a decade, which makes it even more destructive to the state’s economy. Thus, “deportation only” is anything but good policy.

What would happen if nothing changes? If we fail to reform the immigration system, we may not lose a lot from an economic perspective, but we stand to gain little. Immigrants, even the unauthorized, are already contributing to the state’s economy.

For example, Illinois’ immigrants amounted to 17.6 percent of the state’s workforce in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And immigrants are a large part of Illinois’ advancing job sectors, representing, for example, 27.7 percent of all net job creation in the “health diagnosing” sector from 2000 to 2005.

However, because of their status illegal immigrants are not contributing to their full potential. If they were legalized, many would transition into the formal economy, which would lead to an increase in their average wages and their productivity.

In addition, under the status-quo scenario, the state would continue to deprive itself of new legal immigrant workers who could fill positions in occupations in high demand when the economy is growing.

Alternatively, let’s say Congress finds the political courage to tackle reform and make sure that all immigrants already in Illinois are working legally and fully contributing and that new legal immigrants are welcomed when the economy is growing. Under this scenario, the economic contributions of immigrants will grow.

A new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, for example, says a newly legalized immigrant workforce in Illinois would pay additional personal and consumer taxes in excess of $145 million a year to the state.

Add to this the reality that millions of baby boomers are aging into retirement. As a result, immigrants (and their children) will play an increasingly important role in labor-force and small-business growth in this country.

The number of people age 65 and over in the U.S. will rise from 40.2 million in 2010 to 88.5 million in 2050, according to AARP, and immigrants will play an increasingly pivotal role in sustaining programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

The choices about immigration reform may seem purely political at times, but in reality this is a major economic decision.

Politicians who favor immigration reform that includes a workable strategy for dealing with undocumented immigrants are doing more than making a political calculation.

They are showing that they care about the long-term economic outlook of the U.S., the well-being of thousands of baby boomers moving into retirement and the fiscal and economic health of their states.

Benjamin Johnson is the executive director of the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C.



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