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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Yglesias: Congress, listen to budget office on immigration

By Matthew Yglesias
Published: February 15, 2024, 6:01am

Last week, smack in the middle of a series of congressional meltdowns over border security, the Congressional Budget Office dropped the latest edition of its 10-year budget and economic forecast. It’s the kind of report that ought to — but won’t — shake up the immigration debate on Capitol Hill.

According to the latest numbers, the next 10 years of federal budget deficits will amount to about $20 trillion, with the debt-to-GDP ratio at 114 percent by 2033. That sounds scary. But it’s actually an improvement from last year’s report: This year’s projection sees the U.S. gross domestic product as $7 trillion higher over the next decade than last year’s, with $1 trillion in additional revenue. More revenue and a larger economy equals a lower debt-to-GDP ratio that, while not necessarily out of the danger zone, is at least closer to sustainability.

So what explains the good news? The answer, in a nutshell: Immigrants get the job done. To quote the report: “CBO now expects the labor force to have 5.2 million more people in 2033 than the agency projected last year. Most of that increase results from additional foreign nationals in CBO’s new population projections.”

None of this should be taken as an excuse for lax border security. The current situation, in which the asylum system is overwhelmed and people who enter the country and claim asylum status end up being scheduled for court dates years in the future, is unfair to people with legitimate claims and an enormous loophole for people looking for a chance to work under the table.

Nobody is happy about this. Democrats were right to come to the table and offer to make substantive changes to asylum law as part of a solution, and House Republicans were wrong to pull the plug, on Donald Trump’s orders, for craven political reasons.

But the unruly border politics and policy just make the CBO’s findings all the more remarkable. Immigrants and immigration are so economically beneficial that even a chaotic, lawless influx that was not designed for economic or fiscal benefit has large economic and fiscal benefits.

Imagine how much better the U.S. could do with a properly designed and properly managed immigration policy, which would deliberately select those who would advance the national interest.

What would that look like?

One obvious place is with skilled workers. A major flaw in the current situation is that while it’s relatively easy to come to the U.S. to work illegally, it’s very hard to practice a skilled profession without a legitimate visa.

The big fiscal crunch in the U.S. concerns the burden of meeting the government’s commitments to the elderly. And it’s here that a role for less-skilled workers — the kinds of people currently clogging the asylum system — clearly suggests itself. Let them come to the U.S. and work for a year (or two or three) and then go home. While here on a temporary spell, their employers will pay employer-side payroll tax and help cover the cost of Social Security and Medicare, but the employees won’t actually collect any benefits.

Last but not least, any new immigration program should allow for more local choice. Some parts of the U.S. are suffering from acute, long-term housing scarcity due to their own poor zoning choices. But other areas are suffering from chronic long-term population loss.

Maybe some of these cities don’t want more people. But Congress should give them the option of allowing foreigners to move in. This would be different than having asylum-claimants bused in, with no work permits and nowhere to live; it would be a properly organized flow of people with legal permission to live and work in the city that sponsored them. It would help the economy grow without bothering people who live elsewhere and have a different view of the situation.

Not everyone will like these ideas. But the concrete material impacts of migration matter — and as the CBO confirmed last week, they are strongly positive. Voters shouldn’t have to put up with chaos at the border, and neither should they be denied the economic benefits of a more deliberate and orderly immigration policy.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.