Talk about out-of-touch Washington. At a time when the unemployment rate is 7.6 percent -- and would be far higher had not millions of jobless Americans become discouraged and left the workforce -- the topic of debate among many Democratic and Republican lawmakers is how many guest workers should be allowed into the U.S. each year.
Should it be 20,000? Ten times that number? How much new labor, most of it unskilled, should come to a country where millions already can't find a job? Those are the issues on the table in the bipartisan Gang of Eight's immigration reform proposal.
When debate over the plan begins in earnest, it will set off an intense argument over the economic consequences of reform. That argument will come despite reports the AFL-CIO and top business organizations have already agreed on guest workers. The unions, of course, represent fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S., and the Chamber of Commerce doesn't have a mandate to speak for all of American business.
It will be a debate in which the public hears doubts about the economic wisdom of reform from voices as disparate as Jeff Sessions, the conservative Republican senator from Alabama, and Paul Krugman, the liberal New York Times columnist.
"The comprehensive immigration bill being drafted right now would provide nearly immediate work authorization to millions of illegal immigrants while substantially increasing the future flow of workers," Sessions said April 5, when the latest unemployment numbers were released. "Our first priority must be to help American citizens, and current legal immigrants, find good employment." The alternative, Sessions argued, would be a system in which "a large and growing share of our population is permanently unemployed while jobs are filled by a constant supply of foreign workers."
In recent days, with reform on the agenda of a Democratic president, Krugman has said positive things about immigration. But back in 2006, when Republican President George W. Bush was behind reform, Krugman expressed serious concerns.
"A review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular," Krugman wrote at the time. Among those uncomfortable facts, he explained, were 1) "the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small"; 2) "many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration"; and 3) "modern America is a welfare state ... and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net."
When Krugman wrote those words, the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. Now it is nearly three points higher. The economic concerns about immigration reform are more serious than ever.
Back in 2007, reform died in part because some Democrats, backed by unions, opposed it. "This bill will flood the U.S. job market with millions of workers who will compete, at low wages, for jobs Americans are now doing," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., wrote in 2007. "I believe it will drive down American wages and living standards."
Dorgan is now gone from the Senate. Like Krugman, it was easier for him to oppose immigration reform in '06 and '07 because it was sponsored by a Republican president. This time, will any Democrats stand up to a president of their own party?
The question might be particularly acute for Democrats because of reform's expected effect on minority workers. Last week, three members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote to Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, arguing that legalizing currently illegal immigrants will have far-reaching effects on African-Americans.
"Such grant of legal status will likely disproportionately harm lower-skilled African-Americans by making it more difficult for them to obtain employment and depressing their wages when they do obtain employment," the commissioners wrote. "The increased employment difficulties will likely have negative consequences that extend far beyond economics." Among those consequences, according to the commissioners: increased crime, incarceration, family breakdown, and more.
Finally, the issue extends beyond the impact of legalizing the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. Recently the Los Angeles Times reported that one of the "biggest immediate impacts" of the reform proposal under consideration in Congress "would be a sudden, large surge in legal migration."
"The U.S. admits about 1 million legal immigrants per year, more than any other country," the newspaper reported. "That number could jump by more than 50 percent over the next decade under the terms of the immigration reform bill. ..."
That will have economic consequences. And the coming debate could be difficult for supporters of comprehensive immigration reform.
Byron York, The Washington Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.