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Immigration reform bill may hang on economic effect of legalizing millions

Friday's testimony at first Senate hearing on the bipartisan immigration reform bill presented economic pros and cons of legalizing some 11 million people. A chief concern is wage suppression for low-skill Americans.

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After Kirsanow argued that the bottom line on immigration reform is “we have too few jobs for way too many people,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama concluded, “Colleagues, this is indisputable.”

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“We have more low-skilled labor than we can find jobs for today,” said Senator Sessions, a leading opponent of the immigration reform plan. “This is not considered properly in this bill, which was written too often by big business-big agriculture interests, rather than the public interest.”

But in the Judiciary Committee on Friday, the atmosphere seemed more hospitable to Holtz-Eakin’s view than to Kirsanow’s. Four architects of the bipartisan bill were at the dais, beside a clutch of lawmakers who have expressed support for the reform effort.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island lingered over past testimony from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, repeating Mr. Greenspan’s belief that “the benefits of [newly legalized immigrant workers] significantly outweigh the costs.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a long-standing champion of immigration reform, summarized the deteriorating fiscal state of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, citing a growing imbalance between the share of workers versus retirees. “Unless we have a massive baby boom," he concluded, "the numbers are going the wrong direction.”

Newly legalized workers would be accorded all the worker protections allowed to US citizens, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, and would no longer need to take cash under the table or to be paid through other surreptitious means.

As such, “isn't is harder for [employers] to take advantage [of workers] if they're legalized than if they're illegal?” Senator Schumer asked Kirsanow.

“Yes, senator, on the margins,” Kirsanow replied, before offering a possible middle ground. 

“Taking steps to ensure that it's difficult for rogue employers to employ illegal immigrants or employ anybody outside the framework of existing law would be very salutary,” he said, citing an employment verification system as one such measure to help deter illegal workers. “We can do that.”


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