Benjamin Johnson: Florida’s stake in immigration reform


Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 3:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 3:08 p.m.

As Congress takes a summer respite to figure out how to move immigration reform forward in the House, mounting evidence shows that reform would be a plus to the national economy. For instance, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently estimated that the immigration reform bill which passed the Senate in June (S. 744) would reduce the federal deficit by roughly $1 trillion over 20 years and would boost the U.S. economy as a whole without negatively affecting U.S. workers in the long run. In addition, an April report from the conservative American Action Forum, authored by a former director of the CBO, went further, estimating that immigration reform has the potential to decrease the cumulative federal deficit by more than $2.5 trillion over the course of just 10 years.

This sounds good for the federal government, but what’s in it for Florida? Well, the numbers add up differently depending on what scenario Congress pursues. Lawmakers are now faced with the choices of moving to deport the undocumented, sticking with the status quo, or reforming the system once and for all.

Under the scenario of “deport them all,” estimates show that Florida would lose $43.9 billion in economic activity, $19.5 billion in gross state product, and approximately 262,436 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time, according to a report by the Perryman Group. The mass deportation of immigrants would cause a steep reduction in labor supply. Because labor is a key factor of production, a drastic reduction in its supply would in turn lead to a contraction of the state economy and a decline in overall state fiscal revenue. Pull people out of the economy and it shrinks. In fact, more than 60% of all undocumented immigrants have been living and working in the state for more than a decade which makes it even more destructive to the economy. Thus, “deportation only” is anything but good policy.

What would happen if nothing changes? If we fail to reform the immigration system, we may not necessarily lose a lot from an economic perspective, but we stand to gain very little. Immigrants, even the unauthorized, are already contributing to the state’s economy.

For example, Florida’s immigrant workers contribute an estimated $20 billion to the state in taxes each year, according to a study by Florida International University and unauthorized immigrants in Florida paid $806.8 million in state and local taxes in 2010, according to data from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy.

However, because of their status, undocumented immigrants are not contributing to their full potential. If they were legalized, many currently unauthorized immigrants would transition into the formal economy, which would lead to an increase in their average wages and a growth in their productivity. In addition, under the status quo scenario, the state would continue to deprive itself of new legal immigrant workers who could fill positions in occupations in high demand when the economy is growing.

Alternatively, let’s say finds the political courage to tackle reform and make sure all immigrants already in the state are working legally and fully contributing, and that new legal immigrants are welcomed when the economy is growing. Under this scenario, the economic contributions of immigrants will grow. According to a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, for example, a newly legalized immigrant workforce in Florida would pay additional personal and consumer taxes in excess of $41 million a year, and that goes directly into the state’s coffers.

Add to this the reality that millions of baby boomers are aging into retirement in the coming decades. As a result, immigrants (and their children) will play an increasingly important role in labor-force and small-business growth in this country. The number of people age 65+ will rise from 40.2 million in 2010 to 88.5 million in 2050. Immigrants will play an increasingly pivotal role in sustaining programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

The choices about immigration reform may seem purely political at times, but in reality this is an economic choice. Politicians who favor immigration reform that includes a workable strategy for dealing with undocumented immigrants are doing more than making a political calculation. They are showing that they care about the long-term economic outlook of the United States, the well-being of thousands of baby-boomers moving into retirement, and the fiscal and economic health of their states.

Benjamin Johnson is the executive director of the American Immigration Council in Washington.

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