Does it matter that Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, tried to justify Donald Trump’s immigration cruelty with junk economics?
It’s definitely not the main issue. Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy is, above all else, immoral. The 800,000 beneficiaries of DACA – the so-called Dreamers – have done nothing wrong; they came to the United States illegally, but not of their own volition, because they were children at the time.
They are, according to all available data, an exemplary segment of our population: hard-working young people, many seeking to improve themselves through higher education. They’re committed to the values of their home – because America is their home.
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To yank the rug out from under the Dreamers – perhaps even to use the information they supplied voluntarily to harass and deport them – is a cruel betrayal. And it’s self-evidently driven by racial hostility. Does anyone believe this would be happening if the typical Dreamer had been born in, say, Norway rather than Mexico?
Still, Sessions chose to put economics front and center in his statement, declaring that DACA, which allows the Dreamers to work legally, has “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.” That’s just false, and the decision to lead with such a falsehood tells you a lot, not just about this decision, but about the Trump administration in general.
It’s true that Trump and company tell a lot of lies about economics (and everything else).
The day after announcing that he would rescind DACA, Trump gave a speech on tax reform in which he claimed, as he has on multiple occasions, that America is the “highest-taxed nation in the world.” As fact-checkers have pointed out every time he says this, this isn’t just false, it’s almost the opposite of the truth – the U.S. collects less in taxes, as a share of national income, than almost any other advanced economy. But Trump just keeps repeating the lie.
So having officials make false claims about the economics of DACA is, in a way, just standard operating procedure for this administration. Yet I’d argue that in this context it’s especially noteworthy, and especially vile.
For one thing, what was stuff about jobs even doing in a statement by the attorney general?
The official administration line is that Trump had no choice, that he was regretfully taking harsh action because DACA was an illegal exercise in executive power – which was also supposedly the reason the statement came from Sessions rather than the president himself. Actually, the legal case for DACA is pretty strong, and putting Sessions in front was probably about Trump’s cowardice more than anything else. But in any case, adding “and besides, they’re stealing our jobs” undercuts the whole pretense.
Furthermore, the claim was, as I said, junk economics. The idea that there are a fixed number of jobs, so that if a foreign-born worker takes a job he or she takes it away from a native-born worker, is completely at odds with everything we know about how the economy works. Hearing it from a conservative is especially surreal.
The truth is that letting the Dreamers work legally helps the U.S. economy; pushing them out or into the shadows is bad for everyone except racists.
To understand why, you need to realize that America, like other advanced economies, is facing a double-barreled demographic challenge thanks to declining fertility.
On one side, an aging population means fewer workers paying taxes to support Social Security and Medicare. Demography is the main reason long-run forecasts suggest problems for Social Security, and an important reason for concerns about Medicare. Driving out young workers who will pay into the system for many decades is a way to make these problems worse.
On the other side, declining growth in the working-age population reduces the returns to private investment, increasing the risk of prolonged slumps like the one that followed the 2008 financial crisis.
It’s not an accident that Japan, which has low fertility and is deeply hostile to immigration, began experiencing persistent deflation and stagnation a decade before the rest of the world. Destroying DACA makes America more like Japan. Why would we want to do that?
What about the claim that immigrant workers compete with less-educated native-born workers, driving their wages down and increasing income inequality? Most of the evidence suggests that this claim is wrong, but in any case it’s irrelevant here: The Dreamers are a relatively well-educated group, very different from undocumented immigrants who came as adults.
In short, letting Dreamers work is all economic upside for the rest of our nation, with no downside unless you have something against people with brown skin and Hispanic surnames. Which is, of course, what this is all really about.