Tuesday, January 29 08:00:56
The sluggish U.S. economy could get a lift if President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators succeed in what could be the biggest overhaul of the nation's immigration system since the 1980s.
Relaxed immigration rules could encourage entrepreneurship, increase demand for housing, raise tax revenues and help reduce the budget deficit, economists said.
By helping more immigrants enter the country legally and allowing many illegal immigrants to remain, the United States could help offset a slowing birth rate and put itself in a stronger demographic position than aging Europe, Japan and China.
"Numerous industries in the United States can't find the workers they need, right now even in a bad economy, to fill their orders and expand their production as the market demands," said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute.
The emerging consensus among economists is that immigration provides a net benefit. It increases demand and productivity, helps drive innovation and lowers prices, although there is little agreement on the size of the impact on economic growth.
President Barack Obama plans to launch his second-term push for a U.S. immigration overhaul during a visit to Nevada on Tuesday and will make it a high priority to win congressional approval of a reform package this year, the White House said.
The chances of major reforms gained momentum on Monday when a bipartisan group of senators agreed on a framework that could eventually give 11 million illegal immigrants a chance to become American citizens.
Their proposals would also include means to keep and attract workers with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This would be aimed both at foreign students attending American universities where they are earning advanced degrees and high-tech workers abroad.
An estimated 40 percent of scientists in the United States are immigrants and studies show immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses, said Nowrasteh.
Boosting legal migration and legalizing existing workers could add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy over the next 10 years, estimates Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a specialist in immigration policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. That's an annual increase of 0.8 percentage points to the economic growth rate, currently stuck at about 2 percent.
Other economists say the potential benefit to growth is much lower. Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard, believes most of the benefits to the economy from illegal immigrants already in the United States has already been recorded and legalizing their status would produce only incremental benefits.
While opposition to reform lingers on both sides of the political spectrum and any controversial legislation can easily meet a quick end in a divided Washington, the chances of substantial change seem to be rising. Top Republicans such as Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are not mincing words about the party's need to appeal to the Hispanic community and foreign-born voters who were turned off by Republican candidate Mitt Romney's tough talk in last year's presidential campaign. ( C ) Reuters