New CBO report undercuts immigration bill’s central premise

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The authors of the Senate immigration bill have promised that their bill will dramatically reduce illegal immigration. Without that promise, the whole “comprehensive” package would fall apart.

That’s not my interpretation — that’s the Gang of Eight’s interpretation. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), a member of the Gang of Eight, said as much in a speech on the Senate floor last week: “I have always said a watch word of this bill is that the American people will be fair and have a commonsense approach to both future legal immigration and the 11 million [illegal immigrants] who are living here in the shadows provided, and only provided, we prevent future waves of illegal immigration.”

That’s why the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) finding that the Gang of Eight bill — also known as S. 744 — will only reduce illegal immigration by 25% is so damaging to this bill: it undercuts the legislation’s central premise.

Schumer, maybe more so than any other senator, has vigorously defended the bill’s efficacy. S. 744, he said recently, “ensures that we will never again have a wave of future illegal immigration.” Other Gang of Eight members have echoed these sentiments. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) argued last week that the Senate bill is “a tough, credible plan for preventing a new surge of illegal immigration.” Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has criticized the 1986 amnesty for not fulfilling its “promise to end illegal immigration” but says that “S. 744 … does not follow in the failed footsteps of the 1986 act and addresses future flow in real and meaningful ways.” Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has also promised that this bill would “stop future illegal immigration.”

The notion that this bill would stop illegal immigration has — at least rhetorically — been key for many Republican defenders of the bill. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has emphasized the importance of the bill for stopping future illegal immigration. “None of us wants to be here five years from now facing 5 million illegal immigrants more, another wave of illegal immigration,” Rubio said in a speech on June 11. As Conn Carroll has noted, the CBO has said that, under S. 744, there would be 8.3 million illegal immigrants 10 years from now.

The premise that this bill would radically curtail illegal immigration was also instrumental for New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte’s backing of it. As she wrote in her op-ed endorsing this measure, “We need to stop the flow of illegal immigrants … this bill does that.”

At the outset of the Senate debate, the Gang of Eight members laid down their policy marker: this bill would radically reduce, if not outright end, illegal immigration. The CBO has now suggested that this bill would do nothing of the kind. The CBO argues that the legislation would allow millions more illegal immigrants to enter the shadows, paving the way for yet another attempt to fix a “broken immigration system” a decade from now.

CBO projections are far from perfect prognostications, but this report does pose a challenge to the Gang of Eight. If the findings are wrong, why are they wrong? If they are wrong, by how much would S. 744 actually reduce future illegal immigration? If they are right or the Gang of Eight cannot dispute the findings successfully, will those senators who pledged to back the legislation on the grounds that it would end illegal immigration step away from it?

Promises on immigration enforcement have been broken before. The experience of the 1986 amnesty convinced many Americans about the dangers of putting amnesty ahead of enforcement. This CBO report suggests that the Gang of Eight bill, like the 1986 amnesty, might not live up to its proponents’ promises.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.