WASHINGTON — If you’ve spent any time pondering those dense reports on cutting the deficit, you know that there aren’t any pain-free answers around. Any remedy will hurt since it will have to include raising taxes and reducing benefits.
Recommendations for taming the deficit include raising the retirement age, raising the federal gas tax and ending the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners. Ouch!
But there is a palliative that would ease the pain: Put 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to legalization. And don’t touch birthright citizenship!
Yes, you heard that right: Granting legal residency to illegal immigrants will eventually help sop up some of the federal budget’s red ink. I know that’s counterintuitive since so many citizens have come to believe that Mexican landscapers and Guatemalan maids are a drain on the treasury. But the fact is that their relative youth is just what the U.S. economy needs.
The explosion of the long-term deficit is largely the consequence of an aging population, with more retirees depending on taxes from fewer workers. While the recession, two unfunded wars and Bush-era tax cuts fueled the immediate deficit, a tsunami of long-term red ink will swamp the budget in about ten years, as a massive wave of baby boomers leaves the workplace.
So we need as many younger workers as we can find to help support the coming crush of senior citizens. The U.S. is lucky enough to have a higher birthrate than many other Westernized democracies, even among native-born women. Immigrants are an added demographic bonus.
“When some people think of immigrants, they think of people coming in and immediately absorbing our resources,” said Emory economist Jeffrey Rosensweig. “Most immigrants come here to work. They’re young workers, and they’re paying taxes.” Why not add all of them to the federal tax rolls?
No economist claims that immigrants alone can solve the problem of paying for entitlements. But former President Bill Clinton, who left office with a balanced budget, has also noted the value of a growing pool of younger workers.
“I don’t think there’s any alternative but for us to increase immigration. . . .Taxes will be lower if we’ve got more taxpayers. The pressures on Social Security and the changes we’ll have to make will be slightly less draconian if you have more people contributing into the system,” Clinton said in April, speaking at a fiscal policy summit.
That will be a hard sell for the average American who has become convinced that illegal border-crossers are stealing jobs, burdening schools and running up the costs of health care. Until the economy improves, it will be difficult to persuade voters that providing those workers with a path to legal status is in everyone’s best interest.
Meanwhile, is it asking too much to expect political leaders to stop their harsh demagoguery? Might they refrain from making matters worse?
U.S. Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa), upcoming chair of a House subcommittee on immigration, has already announced that he will make a priority of pushing for a vote to rescind birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
“Many of these illegal aliens are giving birth to children in the United States so that they can have uninhibited access to taxpayer-funded benefits and to citizenship for as many family members as possible,” he insisted.
Well, that’s just nonsense. A child born in the U.S. has to be 21 years old before he can petition for citizenship for his parents. Even then, many hurdles remain.
King’s proposal — in the unlikely event it passed — would probably be ruled unconstitutional; it violates the 14th Amendment. But King and his allies are fueling the narrowmindedness and nativism that have frustrated comprehensive immigration reform since the Bush administration.
Climbing out of the deficit hole is going to be hard, no matter what. We need some new taxpayers who can help.