How “regularising” undocumented immigrants brings benefits

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ON OCTOBER 8th, the Trump administration issued a set of hardline “immigration principles and policies” that it suggested would be tied to any deal to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, an Obama-era executive initiative that stalled deportation for nearly 800,000 undocumented young people brought to America as children. The list of demands includes funding for Donald Trump’s border wall, further restricting of asylum applications and tighter rules for unaccompanied child refugees. These conditions are considered deal breakers for Congressional Democrats who in September announced they had reached a tentative deal with the president to replace DACA days after he had announced its end.

But the new “principles” are in line with countless calls from Mr Trump and his supporters for immigration curbs on the grounds that immigrants are taking jobs, bringing crime, and refusing to adopt “American values.” The irony is that ending the uncertainty faced by DACA immigrants and their families would have helped the process of assimilation and reduced the crime and economic risks, already small, that migrants represent.

In 2016 Candidate Trump claimed that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He has also complained that Mexicans won’t learn English and Muslim immigrants won’t assimilate. In September, when Mr Sessions announced the end of DACA, he echoed that language, suggesting that failure to enforce immigration laws in the past “has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.”

Similar fears have dogged waves of immigrants from the nineteenth century onwards. After a mass-lynching of Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891, the New York Times reported that the victims were “… sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.”

But migrants then and (even more) now are far from the law-breaking dregs of their home countries and they do assimilate when they arrive. Ran Abramitzky and Leah Platt Boustan, economists, find that recent migrants to America tend to be better educated than the average in their home country—an improvement over past waves of migrants. And when they arrive, immigrants are comparatively law-abiding. The Cato Institute’s analysis of incarceration rates suggests 1.53% of native-born Americans aged 18-54 are in prison compared to 0.85% of illegal immigrants and 0.47% of legal immigrants.

As those statistics suggest, regularising the status of undocumented immigrants further lowers crime rates. Paolo Pinotti of Bocconi University studied applicants for Italian residency permits who differed only by the fact some applied just before the time when the quota of permits were used up and some just after. Among those who received residency permits the crime rate was half of those who did not get permits.

The certainty of a residency permit or citizenship has other positive effects. Tommaso Frattini of the University of Milan has studied international data to document a strong consensus that security of residency both raises wages and improves social integration: secure immigrants join clubs, start reading local papers, and become politically engaged.

DACA recipients appear to fit this pattern: Tom Wong of the University of California conducted a (non-random) online survey of 3,063 recipients in 2017. Ninety eight percent were bilingual. Sixty percent reported that DACA status had encouraged them to pursue educational opportunities and 54% suggested it helped them get a job. The respondents also reported a significant uptick in organ and blood donation after their DACA status came through.

Mr Trump seemed to accept, briefly, that DACA beneficiaries (at least) don’t match his usual image of immigrants. On September 14th he tweeted, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!…..” His administration’s recent statement suggests he is having third thoughts. That re-reversal is a loss not just to DACA recipients and their families, but to the whole of America.

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