Should the GOP Come Out Against Legal Immigration?

Should the GOP resist not only illegal but also legal immigration?

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks to guests  at the Iowa Freedom Summit on January 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. The summit is hosting a group of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates to discuss core conservative principles ahead of the January 2016 Iowa Caucuses. (National Journal)

It has been many years since any political leader has celebrated the restrictive immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 that virtually extinguished migration to the United States for the next four decades.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)Rick Santorum appears determined to right that wrong.

Santorum, a 2012 and likely 2016 GOP presidential contender, has recently praised those laws while urging Republicans to embrace new restrictions not only on illegal but also on legal immigration. "When people say "¦ we have to do something about illegal immigration, they are right," he insisted at the high-profile Iowa Freedom Summit last month. "But we also have a problem with legal immigration."

Early polls suggest Santorum will struggle to find as much support as he received in 2012, when he emerged as Mitt Romney's principal conservative rival. But surveys also indicate that his criticism of legal immigration could strike a chord with the blue-collar Republicans he is targeting. And that could harden the anti-immigrant image the GOP is already risking with its scorched-earth legal and legislative battle to prevent President Obama from providing legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants.

Santorum has embedded his criticism of legal immigration in a broader message that admirably addresses an issue most Republicans have sidestepped: the economic strains on American workers who did not attend college. In Iowa, Santorum said his party must develop policies on training and manufacturing that expand blue-collar opportunity. But he centered his speech on the claim that immigrants have monopolized the jobs created since 2000. "There are fewer Americans working today who were born in this country than there were in "¦ 2000," he said. Santorum praised the 1921 and 1924 acts that suppressed immigration (until Congress reversed the policy in 1965) as a time when "Republicans and Democrats put you first" by recognizing that mass immigration was undermining native workers.

Santorum's history cut some corners, however. With the economy dipping, economic concerns did influence the 1921 law, as the late John Higham noted in Strangers in the Land, his classic history of nativism. But so did the disillusioned recoil from foreign engagement after World War I that also sparked the anti-communist Palmer Raids, protectionist trade barriers, and the Senate's rejection of the League of Nations. By 1924, with the economy recovering, Higham wrote, the push to limit immigration drew primarily on "an increasingly assertive racial nativism."

Santorum's claim that foreign-born workers have taken all of the net jobs since 2000 overstates the case too. He cites a 2014 study from the Center for Immigration Studies, a group favoring restrictions. The CIS study looked solely at workers ages 16 to 65, from early 2000 through early 2014. But looking at all adults 16 and older through all of 2014, native-born workers have gained 2.8 million additional jobs since 2000, and foreign-born workers about 7.5 million, notes Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. While the native-born suffered most in the 2008 crash, since the fall of 2009 they have obtained more than three-fifths of newly created jobs.

Those adjustments don't inherently discredit Santorum's larger point that immigration is hurting American-born workers. But most economists concur with a 2013 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas that found more economic benefits than costs from immigration. Pia Orrenius, a Fed senior economist who coauthored that paper, says it's wrong to assume that because foreign-born workers have landed more jobs, "they took them away from the native born." Compared with native-born Americans, she says, immigrants are more heavily concentrated in prime working ages and more willing to relocate to areas that are generating jobs. Some of the jobs immigrants are filling might not have been created without them. By increasing the labor force, Orrenius notes, immigrants can accelerate overall economic growth, which also benefits native workers.

That last point will loom larger as the baby boomers exit the labor force into retirement: Immigration is keeping America younger while its international competitors age. Frey projects that immigrants will account for more than three-fourths of the increase in the working-age population through 2030. And all of the increase in the native working-age population will come from American-born Hispanics and Asians; the number of working-age whites, in particular, will significantly decline. "You have an aging out of the native-born white population, and it is being replaced by the foreign-born and native-born minorities," Frey says.

No one suggests immigration is cost-free to low-skilled native workers. Yet, on balance, America will face an intensifying need for younger immigrant workers—not only to maintain a robust labor force but also to pay the payroll taxes that support Medicare and Social Security benefits for the graying native-born boomers. As Frey notes, while Santorum's focus on immigrants "might have made some sense 20 or 30 years ago," it ignores the country's demographic needs today. Tilting immigration policy to admit more high-skilled workers would make sense. But reviving the restrictive immigration policies of the 1920s would be a little like looking to Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover for advice on managing the Internet.