The controversy over efforts at immigration reform continues. One of the latest strands involves the Heritage Foundation’s report claiming that the Gang of 8 bill will cost the government of the United States a lot of money over the long term. The bill, Heritage claims, will admit too many immigrants lacking a high school education, and such immigrants, it further claims, end up consuming more in government benefits than they pay in taxes.
The Heritage report is taking a lot of criticism, including this from the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank. Essentially, Milbank hits Heritage with Emma Lazarus, the American poet whose work “The New Colossus” is mounted inside the base of the Statue of Liberty. That poem, Milbank implies, captures the true American posture towards immigration, which the Heritage report betrays. America should say to the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” Instead, the Heritage Foundation only wants high school graduates who can pay their own way to come to America.
I have three thoughts on Milbank’s piece.
First, he omits the part in Lazarus’s poem about these huddled masses “yearning to breathe free.” The poem seems to have been written with the idea that America was almost uniquely free among the nations, and this idea was certainly common among Americans at the time it was written. One could wonder whether this is as much the case today as it was in the nineteenth century. Americans are proud of their liberty, but even the most ardent American exceptionalist would probably admit that free institutions have made some progress in the rest of the world. In any case, the idea that you can only breathe free in America is a claim more often asserted by contemporary conservatives than liberals. Is this a view that Milbank and the Post wish to endorse, even implicitly?
Second, Milbank neglects to note that when Emma Lazarus threw open America’s arms to the huddled masses, America had no welfare state to speak of, and certainly no system of government benefits defined in law as entitlements. We now have such a system, and any responsible government policy has to take into account the sustainability of those commitments. Suppose some Senators were promoting a bill that would encourage American citizens with a high school education to emigrate to some other country. Such a bill would deserve scrutiny precisely on this question of its fiscal consequences, and the same goes for immigration reform.
Third, for all of his aggravation, Milbank never really musters an argument against the Heritage study. His reply is weird combination of cynicism and sentimentality. The cynicism comes in when he suggests that Republicans had better not listen to the Heritage Foundation’s arguments against the bill, because the Republican Party needs Hispanic votes in order to win elections–as if it is the part of a responsible political party to try only to win elections and not to weigh the consequences of public policy for the common good. The sentimentality comes in when he simply makes a moralistic appeal to Lazarus’s poem without even trying to respond to Heritage’s concerns about the fiscal consequences of large scale immigration of persons without a high school education.