America Should Welcome Latin American Child Refugees With Open Arms

by Benjamin Studebaker

America is rife with talk about a Latin American refugee crisis–tens of thousands of children are fleeing Central America for the United States. An estimated 60-80,000 will seek refuge this year, and that figure is expected to climb to 130,000 next year. The children are fleeing poverty and gang violence. The law entitles these children to a hearing and places them in the care of relatives or government operated shelters. If successful, they can obtain green cards, but many lack access to the sort of legal counsel that might make that happen. The focus in recent weeks in the American press has been on finding ways to get rid of these children and prevent more of them from entering the country. This is foolish mistake.

Americans have consistently favored lower immigration rates:

Many believe that immigrants are an economic loss for the United States–that they consume more government benefits than they contribute in taxes. But this isn’t what we find when we look at the figures. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s projection for the now-defunct immigration reform bill indicated that, had it been passed, immigration would have increased by about 10.4 million over the next decade. These 10.4 million would have consumed $262 billion in government services over that decade, but they would also have contributed $459 billion in tax revenues, leading to net savings for the state. Based on those figures, the average immigrant saves the government nearly $19,000 over just one decade:

US Immigration Cost-Benefit Analysis

If an immigrant works a further 30 or 40 years, that can be further multiplied.

Most immigrants come to this country as adults, with whatever skills and education they picked up in their native lands. Many of them are already some distance into their working lives. Child immigrants can still receive education and training and can contribute their entire working lives to the American economy. It’s possible that these children could eventually be above-average immigrants, given sufficient state investment in their welfare and education while they’re young. They certainly will have more working years prior to retirement than the average immigrant.

In sum, these child refugees are an economic opportunity for the United States. Regardless of whether or not we actually believe we owe moral duties to these children, we ourselves benefit from acting as if we do. If we take these children in, we are the beneficiaries in the long-run just as much as they are.

To get the benefits these children can provide, we need to give them green cards, but that’s just the beginning. To really maximize what we can get out of helping these children, we need to make investments in them, to provide the funding necessary to house them and educate them. We also need to recognize that these children would be better off (and indeed, so would our economy) if we let their parents come with them. Each of their parents will, on average, save us an additional $19,000 in the next decade. We are foolish to turn down that revenue.

All of this would entail major immigration reform to make it much easier for these people to immigrate legally. At present, it is extremely difficult for these families to gain legal access to the United States, forcing these children to put together what is for them small fortunes  to hire “coyotes” to smuggle them across the border. If we opened the gates to these immigrants, we could cut out these middlemen and let the immigrants use these funds to buy goods and services and strengthen the US economy.

There is no economic case for continuing to keep these people out. While there are limits to how many immigrants the United States can physically process (we have to build the infrastructure to house them and educate them), in the long-run, it pays to increase those limits as much as we can.

So why did the relatively modest immigration reform proposal die, and why are we still talking about deporting these children? The CBO report establishing that immigrants are worth $19,000 a piece to the state over a decade is widely available and certainly could have (and should have) been read by members of congress. Unfortunately, while many members of congress are likely acquainted with the report, their constituencies are not. Many Americans still think that immigrants are an economic loss, a cost to be endured, rather than a resource to be tapped. Members of congress, particularly republicans, know that their supporters think this way, and rather than attempt to educate them, they choose to be complicit in public ignorance and even to further it by campaigning on the issue in their districts. Why do they do that? Because public ignorance on this issue is so deeply entrenched that if they do not run against immigration reform, they risk the threat of primary challengers. Among conservative constituencies, the economic disutility of immigrants is treated as fact when it is fiction, and candidates who stray from that narrative will be expelled from the group and left to rot in the political wilderness.

The first step, then, is to break the stranglehold that this false notion that immigrants are a net cost has on the voting public. We should vigorously point out, at every reasonable opportunity, that each immigrant on average saves the country $19,000 per decade. We should not tolerate the presumption that immigrants are a nuisance to be gotten rid of, a parasite to be kept out. We need to challenge and overthrow the narrative. Share this piece or the CBO report if you agree.