CBO Report Leaves Conservatives With Nothing But Racial Anxiety To Fight Immigration Reform

The Congressional Budget Office report on immigration reform largely settles the economic argument over the bill's overall benefits. Now conservatives have little but their racial anxieties to fall back on.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 20, 2013

The Congressional Budget Office released a long-awaited report on immigration reform this week and found that in the near and long terms, the legislation will contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to reducing the federal deficit. For anti-immigration reform conservatives, the CBO analysis cripples one of their central arguments against the bill: that it will tank the economy. Without credible evidence to back up that position, lawmakers intent on killing the bill are left with nothing but the familiar cultural and racial anxieties that fuel their antipathy to any opening of the country’s immigration laws.

The CBO report estimates that the Senate immigration reform bill, if passed as it’s currently written, would cut the federal deficit by nearly $200 billion in the next ten years. Anti-reform conservatives have often said that an immigration bill will have negative long-term economic impacts. An already discredited report from the Heritage Foundation, for example, estimated trillions in negative economic impact. But the CBO report determines that the Senate bill will actually continue to cut the deficit even after the initial ten-year project, by a total of $700 in the next two decades. That’s a lot of money. And it comes mostly from new immigrants who’ll come to the US because of the legislation. 

The CBO estimates positive impacts on other economic indicators as well, including the long-term effect on average wages. Average wages will fall initially as low-wage undocumented immigrants who worked off the books will suddenly be counted.  But in the long term, the legislation will grow wages by half a percent. And even the initial decline won’t impact US workers already here–it’s just a result of better accounting of who’s actually working and for how much.  Importantly, immigrants themselves who will have new leverage as workers will feel the longer-term wage gains most significantly.

Republicans who oppose reform still lashed out, calling the report misleading. "This bill guarantees three things: amnesty, increased welfare costs and lower wages for the U.S. workforce," Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said in a statement. "It would be the biggest setback for poor and middle-class Americans of any legislation Congress has considered in decades."

But the truth is that there’s really no economic fodder left that Sessions and company can pull on in their battle to stop reform. So he’s also pulling on familiar tropes about dependent people of color. "An accurate analysis would acknowledge that half of that population does not have high school degrees, and is therefore more likely to receive far more in government support than they will pay in the form of taxes."

If Sessions is any indication of how the right of his party is likely to proceed (he is), there’s certainly still a fight ahead, but Republicans will increasingly wage that fight with their anxieties about a racially changing country laid bare.