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Analysis: The blind spot in the immigration debate

February 23, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 23.7%. 3 min read.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 10: An applicant holds an American flag and a packet while waiting to take the oath to become a U.S. citizen at a Naturalization Ceremony on April 10, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. There were 49 people from 26 countries that became U.S. citizens. A group of Republican Senators are introducing a bill today to reduce legal immigration in the United States. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

The change in immigration policy that could most affect the US' long-term economic growth is at risk of falling out of the debate as the congressional maneuvering over the volatile issue intensifies.

With Republicans, under the shadow of former President Donald Trump, still mostly opposing all forms of immigration, and many Democrats narrowing their focus toward legalizing as many undocumented immigrants as possible, revisions to the nation's system of legal immigration may lack a plausible pathway to congressional passage, many participants in the legislative discussions say.

Yet immigration experts and economists across the ideological spectrum agree that increasing the future flow of legal immigrants will be essential to driving economic growth and maintaining a sustainable balance between the number of working-age people paying taxes and retired Americans drawing benefits through Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements for the elderly.

Given the slowdown in the growth of the working-age population, he says, "in the absence of immigration the US becomes Japan: We become smaller in size, older, less economically potent and less capable of projecting our values on our global stage. "

After Trump sought to slash legal immigration through legislative and administrative action, the legislative proposals introduced last week by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats would boost the number of new arrivals to a much greater extent than initial reactions to the bills recognized, according to a new analysis shared exclusively with CNN by Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a public policy group that studies immigration.

But those proposals could quickly fall out of the immigration debate if Democrats conclude that they have no chance of winning enough Republican support to pass a comprehensive bill -- and instead narrow their efforts to legalizing big chunks of the undocumented population, such as young undocumented people brought to the US by their parents, through the budget "reconciliation" process, which requires only a majority vote in the Senate.

That's likely to change only if enough Senate Republicans are willing to support comprehensive legislation that addresses both the undocumented and legal immigration.

Bush and Barack Obama tried to pass comprehensive immigration bills that balanced legalization for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants -- a Democratic priority -- with tougher border enforcement -- the top Republican goal -- and changes in the legal immigration system -- mostly a concern of the business community and a source of ambivalence, if not hostility, from organized labor.

As a result, the principal energy among immigrant advocates is toward convincing congressional Democrats to legalize as many of the undocumented as they can through the reconciliation process, which requires only a majority vote in the Senate.

Even under current levels of immigration, the Census Bureau projects that the senior population will grow by nearly 40% from now through 2035, almost exactly 10 times as fast as the working-age population.

And while those changes lowered the level of legal immigration only relatively modestly from its high point in 2016 (when it reached about 1. 2 million), Anderson says Trump's policies would likely have imposed much more severe reductions through a second term, perhaps cutting immigration levels to around only 600,000 annually.

In another recent survey of Trump voters by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, almost two-thirds said they wanted to reduce the number of immigrants admitted to the US and nearly as many said they wanted to deport all of the undocumented -- while most Americans in polls consistently say they would provide the undocumented a path to citizenship.

The older Whites in Trump's coalition enthusiastically backing Republican politicians who promise to cut immigration are voting to endanger the entitlements on which they rely by slashing the number of working-age taxpayers available to support them.

As the senior population grows over the coming decades, that would require roughly a 37% increase in legal immigration -- about 370,000 more people a year than the roughly 1 million to 1. 2 million annually the US has been admitting.

The most optimistic scenario is that even if legal immigration loses out in this year's legislative maneuvering, success in legalizing some portion of the undocumented population through the special reconciliation process will generate momentum for more action later.

"Without legal immigration, the United States is not going to see sustained population growth and we'll see declining economic growth as a consequence," says Cato's Bier.

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