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Here's the real 'immigration problem' Trump should be tackling

Protesters at a pro-immigration rally where organizers called for a stop to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations of illegal immigrants.
Ronen Tivony | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Protesters at a pro-immigration rally where organizers called for a stop to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations of illegal immigrants.

With the uproar over President Trump's new travel ban and the GOP plan to repeal-and-replace Obamacare, scant attention is being paid to the opening President Donald Trump seems to have created for immigration reform.

The Washington Post, no fan of the president, has suggested that his appeal to Congress last month for a bipartisan solution to the long-standing problem could be a groundbreaking development – positioning Trump as "the one man" capable of making immigration reform happen.

That may be true: But first the president must distance himself from the many fictions he's been peddling about immigrants.

For example, President Trump inferred that immigrants are responsible for a crime wave sweeping our nation. He announced in his address to Congress that he ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create a new office – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) – to provide a voice to those victimized by immigrants.

To illustrate the need for the new office, President Trump told the story of three people in the audience whose loved ones had been killed by immigrants. While their stories are tragic, they do nothing to demonstrate that there is an immigrant crime problem. With 43 million foreign born people living in the United States, some of them are bound to commit crimes – including murder.

The reality is that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native born Americans. Among men aged 18 to 49 years old, immigrants were 20 to 50 percent less likely to be incarcerated compared to their native-born counterparts. Overall, while about 7 percent of the population is foreign born, they make up only about 5 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons.

"President Trump similarly misrepresents the terrorist threat posed by immigrants in order to justify slowing immigration while imposing "extreme vetting." He claimed that "the vast majority of individuals convicted for terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country." But the people he is referencing are not immigrants!"

President Trump similarly misrepresents the terrorist threat posed by immigrants in order to justify slowing immigration while imposing "extreme vetting." He claimed that "the vast majority of individuals convicted for terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country." But the people he is referencing are not immigrants!

Over the last 40 years, 3,024 people have been killed in the United States by foreign born terrorists. But 2,834 of these deaths were caused by foreign born people who came to the United States on tourist visas.

Terrorist deaths caused by people with Lawful Permanent Resident, Asylum, and Refugee visas totaled only 15. In fact, you are nearly 300,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed in a terrorist act committed by a refugee.

President Trump misrepresented the fiscal problems created by immigration when he claimed, "According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs America's taxpayers many billions of dollars a year." Actually, the referenced study provided numerous estimates – some of which showed immigrants to be a net tax drain and others a net tax gain.

Like the National Academy of Sciences study, some serious academic studies on the long-run fiscal impact of immigration find fiscal gains, and others find fiscal drains. However, the estimates tend to be small and clustered around zero. When there are drains, the solution is to tweak fiscal policy to create gains, not to restrict migration.

President Trump incorrectly blamed immigration for economic hardships faced by middle-class families. He claimed that, "By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages [and] help the unemployed" and that eliminating low-skilled migration would "help struggling families enter the middle class."

He has no basis for such claims. Virtually no reputable scholarly study claims that immigration decreases the net number of jobs available for the native-born.
Economists debate how much wages are impacted by immigration – but not the wages of the middle class. The debate surrounds whether low-skill immigration impacts the wages of the native-born individuals without high school diplomas.

Estimates here range from no effect to a 7 percent average decline in wages. Research shows that immigration makes the native-born population, including most in the middle class – which doesn't directly compete with immigrants – wealthier, not poorer.

The real immigration problem in America is that about 11 million of the 43 million foreign born residents are here illegally. The overwhelming majority of these 11 million people are making Americans wealthier; the only "crime" they've committed is residing here illegally. Why not create a path to legality for them?

To paraphrase the President, "I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus" on real immigration problems and not populist fallacies.

Commentary by Benjamin Powell, a senior fellow with the Independent Institute, Oakland, Calif., director of the Free Market Institute and a professor of economics at the Rawls College of Business Administration at Texas Tech University.

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