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Napolitano’s Remarks Ignore Evidence About Immigration’s Economic Impact

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s comments to reporters yesterday that the economic downturn could pose a substantial hurdle to passing immigration reform legislation this year suggests that the Obama administration (and Congress) may be more influenced by politics than economic reality.

“When unemployment is up, anything that looks like you’re taking jobs away from … people who are lawfully here — citizens of the United States — is going to meet a lot of resistance,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters Tuesday morning.

Although acknowledging that anti-illegal immigrant sentiment may have eased due to decreased immigration — also the result of the economic slump — she said that “In balancing those things, I think it makes it more difficult.”

As Politico notes, it was the first time the administration acknowledged the difficulties that any comprehensive immigration reform that includes legalization will face in Congress due to the growing unemployment rate. But the comment also ignored the growing body of evidence suggesting that legalization of undocumented immigrants already here is likely to help rather than hurt the economy.

In late April, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan testified to just that. And in a new study released yesterday based on census bureau data,the Immigration Policy Center showed that there is no relationship between the number of recent immigrants into a particular area and the unemployment rate there among native-born workers.

“We commissioned this report in order to take a serious look at whether or not immigration is in fact impacting unemployment among the native-born and what we have found is that scary rhetoric is no substitute for good data,” said Ben Johnson, Executive Director of the American Immigration Law Foundation, in a statement released yesterday. “These findings are in line with other long-term studies conducted around the world which have shown that immigration has very little impact on native unemployment.”

As [I’ve written before](The report is chock full of facts and figures showing that legalizing undocumented workers would “improve wages and working conditions for all workers, and increase tax revenues for cash-strapped federal, state and local governments.” Comprehensive immigration reform legislation would “pay for itself through the increased tax revenue it generates,” and newly legalized workers would be better positioned to move into higher paying jobs, pay higher taxes, and spend more on goods and services – all of which would serve as an economic stimulus to the economy. The logic is simple. Legal workers earn on average 15 percent more than their illegal counterparts doing the same job, concludes a report done for the Department of Labor. Raising immigrants’ wages means they pay more in taxes, and have more money to spend in the economy. It also reduces the downward pressure on wages that’s long been exerted by the underground economy, where employers can skirt minimum wage and safety laws — which is why labor unions now support legalization, too.), a host of recent studies show that legalization of undocumented workers already in the United States tends to raise wages and working conditions for all workers, increases tax revenues, and puts more cash in the hands of more people who are then able to invest in homes, cars and other things that help stimulate the economy. Although restrictionist groups often cite studies showing that legalizing poorly-educated illegal workers causes the government to spend more on their benefits, they usually ignore findings in the same studies that show immigration brings an overall long-term benefit to the economy.

Immigrant advocacy groups hope the growing number of studies providing hard numbers in their favor will help persuade lawmakers to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that will provide a path to legalization for many of the 11 million or so undocumented workers already living in the United States. (Studies show that while fewer immigrants are coming here now, those already here aren’t going home.) But Napolitano’s statement may reflect the reality that what makes good politics isn’t always the same as what makes good sense.

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