After falling off the radar for months, immigration reform is back. Late last year, Speaker John Boehner hired Rebecca Tallent — a veteran of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s efforts to offer a path to citizenship to large numbers of unauthorized immigrants — as one of his senior staffers. That decision strongly suggested that the GOP was on the verge of making a big immigration push. Laura Meckler and Kristina Peterson of the Wall Street Journal report that the Republican leadership is gravitating towards granting unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status that will give them the right to live and work in the United States, and that immigrants granted provisional status will eventually be allowed to apply for a green card.

This approach is not dramatically different from what has come before, and it is not at all clear why Boehner and his allies believe that conservative opponents of earlier proposals will now come on board. One possibility is that leading Republicans fear that Democrats will use the immigration issue as a weapon against them in the 2014 midterm elections, and that anything that takes the issue off the table is a win. Perhaps they believe that Republican lawmakers will fall into line to spare themselves a barrage of attack ads. Yet GOP critics of the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators, who’ve been the most aggressive advocates of immigration reform, are reluctant to grant the Obama administration wide discretion on immigration policy, particularly in light of the various creative ways the president has used his discretion to implement Obamacare.

The deeper disagreement among conservatives is over how immigration reform will interact with the welfare state. Immigration advocates insist that today’s immigrants are indistinguishable from the millions of immigrants who streamed into America’s farms and factories in earlier eras, and they often imply that the real reason immigration skeptics claim otherwise is simple xenophobia. The idea that less-skilled immigrants might become dependent on social programs in a fast-changing economy that prizes education more than the economy of the 1900s is, in this telling, highly offensive.

Immigration skeptics will often observe that in earlier eras, the United States didn’t have an expensive and expansive welfare state designed to help less-skilled women and men lead decent lives, not least because most native-born Americans were themselves what we’d now call “less-skilled.” Less-skilled immigrants of earlier eras thus faced great material hardship, and many of those who failed to flourish in the United States returned to their native countries, recognizing that American taxpayers were unlikely to come to their assistance. The concern among immigration skeptics is that granting unauthorized immigrants legal status is about more than granting them a right to live and work in the United States. It is also about eventually granting members of this constituency the right to apply for green cards and eventually the right to apply for citizenship, which will grant them not just membership in America’s political community but access to a full complement of benefits designed to shield poor Americans from the ravages of poverty, and to help them climb into the middle class.

It would be one thing if access to benefits were costless. But, as the Migration Policy Institute has found, only 14 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults live in households with incomes 400 percent or higher than the federal poverty level, the cutoff for Obamacare subsidies. Almost a third — 32 percent — live in households with incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, as do 51 percent of unauthorized immigrant children. Granting unauthorized immigrants legal status will, as a general rule, help them earn higher incomes. But given the skill levels of this population, it’s likely that many, if not most, of its members would be eligible for the earned-income tax credit, food stamps, and other benefits if granted citizenship. This is despite the fact that a large majority of adult unauthorized immigrants work.

One can both believe that unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are hard-working, admirable people doing whatever they can to better their lives and those of their families and also that many are so far behind their native-born and authorized immigrant counterparts in mastering basic literacy and numeracy skills that they will find themselves clustered at the bottom of the U.S. income distribution. For example, while 30 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults are proficient in English, 49 percent either do not speak English well (31 percent) or do not speak English at all (18 percent). Life at the bottom of the U.S. income distribution is in many respects preferable to life in the middle or the top of the spectrum in poorer countries. But in light of the large supply of hard-working, admirable foreigners who are eager to settle in the United States, it is not obvious that U.S. immigration policy shouldn’t favor those who have the skills to not only survive but to flourish in America. Immigrants who earn high incomes, after all, will pay higher net tax rates than those who earn low incomes, thus doing more to finance social programs for the native-born poor.

A number of immigration skeptics on the left, like David Goodhart, author of the excellent new book The British Dream, have argued that high levels of immigration might diminish support for the welfare state, as voters in more diverse societies tend to be less inclined to finance social programs that benefit people culturally different from themselves. This argument makes intuitive sense, and it seems to fit the European experience. And ironically, at least some libertarian-minded immigration advocates have seen this dynamic as a reason for a more open door immigration policy. But there is new evidence to suggest that in the United States, at least, the Goodhart thesis doesn’t quite hold.

Recently, the sociologists David Brady and Ryan Finnigan published a paper in the American Sociological Review analyzing public opinion data from 1996 to 2006, and they found that immigration does not reduce support for welfare provision, though a high foreign-born share of the population does appear to reduce the share of people who back the notion that government “should provide a job for everyone who wants one.” Rather surprisingly, Brady and Finnigan suggest that a high level of net migration and a rising foreign-born share of the population actually makes people more supportive of the welfare state. If Brady and Finnigan are right, Republican immigration advocates who believe that a sharp increase in immigration won’t lead to a much larger welfare state are almost certainly wrong.

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