On the day he took office, President Joe Biden proposed legislation that would radically change our immigration system.
Some of the president’s ideas — such as granting work permits to 11 million people living here without legal permission and expanding visa programs — would hurt U.S. workers by hugely expanding competition for jobs. The legislation could hit particularly hard in Arizona, as we reel from the economic fallout of the pandemic. Here, only 66% of jobs lost last spring have been replaced, and unemployment remains stuck at 7.5 percent, above both its pre-Covid level and the current national rate.
Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema may be our last line of defense against further economic pain — both for Arizonans, and Americans at large. In the closely divided Senate, the two moderate Democrats will have an opportunity to cast decisive votes against the president’s plan.
The problem is that while the U.S. immigration system needs an overhaul that protects U.S. jobs, Biden’s proposal won’t do that. It would grant amnesty to over 11 million people who are living here illegally — not just long-time residents, but people who arrived as recently as December.
Members of this group would be eligible to apply for green cards after five years. Once they have those green cards, they could sponsor family members to join them here in the United States. That means we would be setting ourselves up not just for more immigration now, but for successive waves of future arrivals.
In addition to granting amnesty to people living here without legal permission, Biden’s plan would increase legal immigration, removing per-country visa caps and expanding the number of work permits issued to foreign residents. It would even allow the return of certain people who were previously deported.
It all adds up to millions more people chasing jobs in an economy already weakened by the pandemic. Even without an increase in immigration, some of the sectors most hurt by the Covid recession — among them manufacturing, transportation, and hospitality — could take until 2025 or beyond to fully recover, according to a McKinsey analysis.
A new wave of mass immigration would disproportionately affect some of the most vulnerable Americans. People without high school diplomas earn about $25,000 per year. Over the two decades ending in 2016, immigrants increased the size of this low-skilled workforce by about a quarter, according to Harvard economist George J. Borjas. That, in turn, decreased the wages of U.S.-born low-skilled workers by $800 to $1,500 each year.
Mass immigration also creates a surplus of labor, allowing firms to pay lower wages. Data from the past 50 years shows that a 10 percent increase in the number of workers with a given skill set lowers wages in their field by at least 3%. Moreover, new immigrants generally pay less in total taxes, because of their lower incomes, and use welfare programs at higher rates than native-born Americans, imposing a cost on the government.
We are no doubt heading into months of debate over how to reform immigration. Fortunately, Sens. Sinema and Kelly both have reputations for constructive bipartisanship and prudent border policies. Sinema worked with Republican colleagues to propose Operation Safe Return, a program aimed at speeding up the process for asylum seekers on the southern border. Kelly says he supports strong border security and preventing “big corporations from exploiting migrant labor and undercutting American wages.”
They’ll soon be able to cast votes that reflect those principals. When Biden’s plan becomes a Senate bill, Sinema and Kelly should reject it, protecting workers across Arizona and the United States.
Rusty Childress is a Phoenix-based nature photographer and founder of United for a Sovereign America, which works to promote border security and comprehensive enforcement of immigration laws.