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Cato’s 2018 Immigration Research in Review

Summary:
Cato’s immigration policy team was very busy in 2018.  My colleagues David Bier and Andrew Forrester, in addition to some contributions by myself and numerous outside authors like the stupendous Michelangelo Landgrave, worked non-stop to produce almost 180 pieces this year in the form of blog posts, op-eds, Cato research papers, and peer-reviewed academic articles.  David Bier summarized many of these pieces in a twitter thread for those on Twitter.  Of those, I’m most proud of the pieces that discovered original facts and figures to illuminate the immigration issue.  With rare exceptions, the most valuable immigration policy research is that which produces original facts and figures, as too much of the debate over this topic is emotional and ungrounded.  We are trying to make the

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Cato’s immigration policy team was very busy in 2018.  My colleagues David Bier and Andrew Forrester, in addition to some contributions by myself and numerous outside authors like the stupendous Michelangelo Landgrave, worked non-stop to produce almost 180 pieces this year in the form of blog posts, op-eds, Cato research papers, and peer-reviewed academic articles.  David Bier summarized many of these pieces in a twitter thread for those on Twitter

Of those, I’m most proud of the pieces that discovered original facts and figures to illuminate the immigration issue.  With rare exceptions, the most valuable immigration policy research is that which produces original facts and figures, as too much of the debate over this topic is emotional and ungrounded.  We are trying to make the debate about the facts and contributing those that we have discovered on our own in the process. Below is a rundown of the original facts and figures that Cato scholars have calculated in 2018 by subtopic with links to our research.   

Assimilation

The recent surge in immigrants along the border are low-skilled, poorly educated, and from Central America – but that doesn’t stop them and their descendants from learning English, converging to American wages, and joining the military at rates comparable to or higher than native-born Americans.

Border Security, the Wall, and Interior Immigration Enforcement

Much of the national immigration debate proceeds under the implicit and incorrect assumption that immigration enforcement only harms illegal immigrants. My colleague Matthew Feeney waded into the immigration debate with an excellent primer on how increased immigration enforcement, both at the border and in the interior of the United States, will infringe upon the civil liberties of American citizens and lawful permanent residents as well as an examination of legal protections that can help mitigate the lost rights.  Complementing Feeney’s paper is our finding, based on data from Travis County in Texas, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeted at least 228 American citizens as illegal immigrants in that county over 12 years – or about 0.9 percent of all those detained

Related to interior immigration reform is the E-Verify program, which is an electronic eligibility for employment verification system run by the federal government.  Congress created it in an attempt to turn off the magnet that attracts illegal immigrants to the United States in the first place: higher wages and low unemployment.  In theory, E-Verify would allow employers to check the identity information of new hires against government databases to see if they are legally eligible to work and to deny illegal immigrants.  For years, members of Congress have introduced bills to make E-Verify a national mandate to be used whenever a business hires somebody – including American citizens. 

Four states have mandated E-Verify for all new hires, but only 56 percent of new hires in those states were run through E-Verify in the second quarter of 2017.  To be effective, a much higher percentage of new hires must be checked through E-Verify.  The four states that mandated E-Verify are Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.  Over time, the rate of new hires has barely budged in those states – even in South Carolina where the state conducts random audits of employers to supposedly guarantee compliance.  If those conservative states can’t effectively enforce an E-Verify mandate, there is no hope for doing so nationally. 

Our next piece of original research confirmed that California’s TRUST Act, which limited state law enforcement cooperation with ICE, dramatically reduced deportations from that state.  Although deportations from California were falling prior to the TRUST Act going into effect in 2014, deportations from California that year dropped 39 percent relative to 2013.  In the rest of the country, the number of deportations only dropped 9 percent over the same period.  

Much of the rest of our original research focused on border enforcement.  Republicans introduced a bill in 2018 to spend more on Border Patrol in the next five years than has been spent over the last 5 decades – in real terms.  A portion of that extra money would be spent on drones to patrol the border, an enforcement tool that has already been used on the border and is responsible for 0.5 percent of all border apprehensions at an astonishing cost of $32,000 per arrest.  Apprehended border crossers, whether discovered by drones or more traditional methods, spent an average of 39 hours in detention in late 2014 and 2015 or 12.8 million hours total.  Of course, all of this extra enforcement is unnecessary as the lesson of marijuana legalization on the state level shows that smuggling can more effectively be cut with better laws that allow cross-border flows rather than crackdowns

Part of the justification for more spending and technology on the border is that Border Patrol agents face severe threats on the job.  While they certainly do, it’s not nearly as dangerous as many assume.  Thirty-three Border Patrol agents died on the job from 2003 through 2017 or about one death for every 7,968 agents per year.  Six of those agents were murdered on the job while the other 27 died in accidents or in unknown circumstances.  Their on-the-job murder rate is about 1 in 43,824 per year from 2003 onwards, much lower than the 1 in 19,431 annual murder rate for Americans during the same time period.  Every one of those murders or deaths is a tragedy, but those rates do not indicate an exceedingly dangerous job.

Crime 

In 2016, illegal immigrants were 47 percent less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans and legal immigrants were 78 percent less likely to be incarcerated than natives.  By race and ethnicity, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants were less likely to be incarcerated than their native-born co-ethnics.  In the state of Texas, which actually counts criminal convictions by immigration status, the illegal immigrant criminal conviction rate is about half that of native-born Texans and the legal immigrant conviction rate was 66 percent below.  In Texas, that pattern also holds for crimes like homicide, larceny, and sex crimes.  Nationwide, only about 11 percent of “criminal aliens” actually committed a violent or property crime and 60 percent of those “criminal aliens” deported committed only a victimless crime. Related to these findings, DACA recipients were far less likely to be arrested than those who were not in DACA.

Illegal immigrants could commit more crimes and escape punishment for them by fleeing back to their home countries, but police clearance rates (the rate as which police solve crimes) are not correlated with the size of the illegal immigrant population even with numerous controls.  There is even some evidence that motor vehicle theft and burglary are solved as slightly higher rates in states with more illegal immigrants as a proportion of their population.  This is consistent with our finding that the interior immigration enforcement program had no effect on crime rates in North Carolina although it did increase assaults against police officers.  Interestingly, Arizona’s passage of an E-Verify mandate in 2007 drastically increased the flow of non-citizen offenders into Arizona state prisons – a serious potential side-effect of increased immigration enforcement that E-Verify supporters have yet to address.

Crime in Mexico along the U.S. border is a serious problem, but we found a negative correlation between homicide rates in Northern Mexico border states and homicide rates in American border states.  Expanding on the theme of crime flowing over the border, only about 0.2 percent of all border apprehensions in the first half of 2018 belonged to a gang.

DACA and Legalizing Unlawful Immigrants

President Trump’s slow-motion cancellation of the DACA program made for DACA-recipients and other Dreamers a big political issue in 2018 and several bills to do so in exchange for a border wall were proposed.  Many of those bills would have legalized only a small proportion of the Dreamer population, about half the number that President Trump claimed.  Another proposal would have denied a path to citizenship for 82 percent of Dreamers.

Economic Growth, Fiscal Effects, and Wages

Former visiting fellow Ike Brannon estimated that reversing DACA would cost the U.S. economy $351 billion from 2019 to 2028 in lost income and that the U.S. Treasury would lose $92.9 billion in tax revenue.  Under Trump’s proposal to halve legal immigration, we used a simple model to show that it would reduce the size of the U.S. economy by about $19 trillion in 2060 relative to what it would have been under the status quo, mainly by reducing the growth of the American population by 26 million.  

Wage and economic assimilation of new immigrants is vitally important. Newly arrived immigrants have wages lower than otherwise identical natives, but those wage differences diminish greatly or disappear entirely after about two decades of working in the United States.  The immigrant wage gap has diminished in recent years.  Furthermore, illegal immigrants initially faced a hefty wage penalty of about 11.3 percent relative to legal immigrants due to their lack of legal work status.

Health

Many commentators expressed fear that immigrants, especially those in the migrant caravans, would spread disease once they arrive.  However, vaccination rates in Mexico  and Central America are generally higher than or about the same as those in the United States.

Immigration Affects the Fundamentals of Economic Growth

The best criticism of expanded legal immigration is that the new Americans and their descendants could vote for bad policies that diminish the prosperity of the United States.  On its face, this is plausible as immigrants generally come from countries with worse economic and political institutions than the United States.  Immigrants today are coming from more democratic countries than immigrants who came in the past.  Additionally, we published a working paper that examined a quasi-natural experiment in Jordan where a large and sudden exogenous shock of migrants permanently moved there.  We found that the migration significantly increased economic freedom.  That paper was accepted for publication in the World Bank Economic Review, the 28th best peer-reviewed academic economic journal in the world.  More impressively, that publication marks the first peer-reviewed publication for my talented colleague Andrew Forrester. 

Unrelated to immigrant effects on public policy, we investigated whether immigrants could worsen U.S. economic growth by reducing the quality of firm management and found precisely nothing.

Immigration Policies in Foreign Countries

No analysis of American immigration policies is complete without a comparison to policies in other countries.  The United States ranks in the bottom third of wealthy countries in terms of net new immigrants as a share of total population from 2015 to 2017 as well as total foreign-born residents as a share of total population.  Singapore’s relatively open immigration policy provides a possible model for the United States.  About 47 percent of Singapore’s population is foreign-born, more than three-times greater than the United States as a whole and larger than any American urban area, but with fantastic economic effects compared to its neighbors.

Legal Immigration

One of President Trump’s immigration reform frameworks would have cut 22 million legal immigrants over the next 50 years and, if it was in place since 1965, it would have reduced legal immigration by about 23 million.  That latter figure doesn’t include the tens of millions of our fellow citizens born here since 1965 who would not be Americans if that framework was applied retroactively.  Consistent with the President’s plans to cut legal immigration, his administration has increased the denial rate for visas by 37 percent

President Trump and those who want to cut legal immigrants have frequently said that they want to reduce low-skilled immigration and boost the number of highly-skilled immigrants so that our immigration system looks more like the Canadian system.  This is unnecessary as our immigration system, on its own, is already admitting far more skilled immigrants than it used to.  On paper, the proportion of skilled new immigrants admitted to the United States from 2012-2016 is about the same as in Canada during that time:  49 percent with a bachelors or above education admitted to the United States compared to 52 percent in Canada.  Even immigrants who arrive via family-reunification and on the diversity visa are more educated than native-born Americans.

Although our legal immigration system is admitting more skilled immigrants on its own, serious problems remain.  For instance, Indian immigrants with advanced degrees face a 150-year wait for employment-based green cards.  That is shockingly unfair and economically destructive, even for a government bureaucracy.  Small tweaks to our immigration system could reduce that problem significantly.  More importantly, a small administrative change that is consistent with current law could increase legal immigration by 27 percent across the board and allow in far more skilled immigrants

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

President Trump’s so-called Muslim ban has cut Muslim refugees, immigrants, and travelers by 91 percent, 26 percent, and 60 percent, respectively.  Related to that, Trump’s refugee policy has also cut the number of Christian refugees by 64 percent.  Additionally, signing a Free Trade Agreement with the United States does not boost the number of refugees or asylum-seekers who come from those countries.  The Syrian Civil War is winding down, but a persistent criticism over recent years is that rich Gulf States have not sponsored any Syrian refugees.  While legally true, that analysis ignores the fact that the Gulf States have allowed over 1.2 million Syrians to enter and remain on their territory on non-refugee visas over that time in response to the humanitarian crisis.  

Terrorism

President Trump favored “extreme vetting” for new immigrants and travelers to prevent future terrorist attacks. But since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S government has done an admirable job screening out terrorists.  From 2002-2016, the government issued one visa to a radicalized terrorist for every 29 million non-terrorists and issued 379 million visas for each deadly terrorist.  The government undertakes many more counterterrorism activities than just visa vetting.  Since 9/11, they have spent $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism.  Assuming the statistical value of life is $15 million, that spending would have to have prevented about 188,740 murders in terrorist attacks during that time to break even – or over 1,000 times as many people as were actually murdered in terror attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11.  That is extremely unlikely. 

About 3,518 Americans have been murdered in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2017.  That’s about a one in 3.3 million chance per year of being murdered in a terrorist attack here committed by any terrorist.  By comparison, 7,548 people have been murdered by animals during that time – a death rate about double that caused by terrorists.  The annual chance of dying in a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom during that time is higher at about 1 in 1.1 million per year.  Since 9/11, the chance of being murdered in a terror attack in France has been about 7-times higher than in the United States.  Terrorism is obviously a threat to Americans that the government should seek to keep low, but its deadliness should not be exaggerated. 

The migrant caravan dominated headlines in 2018, but the terrorist threat from asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants has been very low since 1975 and not a single terrorist from Mexico or Central America has entered during that time.  The last year that illegal border crossers who were eventually convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil entered the United States was in 1984.  They came as children and were arrested in 2007 before they killed or injured anybody.  Furthermore, those apprehended along the border from Muslim countries haven’t committed any attacks on U.S. soil and none of the examples given meet that criteria

Welfare

On the basis of monetary value, immigrants individually consume about 39 percent fewer welfare benefits than native-born AmericansImmigrants and their native-born children consume about 33 percent less welfare individually than native-born Americans whose ancestors have been here for at least two generations.

Conclusion

Immigration has been one of the top policy issues since 2015.  Cato scholars have been at the forefront of publishing new facts and figures to illuminate this debate.  This post does not include our other activities such as our work with Rep. Grothman (R-WI) to reduce immigrant welfare consumption, our numerous public debates, summations of outside research, and weekly analysis of immigration-related events.  We hope to continue this pace of original research in 2019 and beyond.    

Alex Nowrasteh
He is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and elsewhere. His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice.

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