CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In times of plenty, it's easy to celebrate our historically high levels of immigration as a boon to the economy. But even with low inflation, a tight labor market, budget surpluses and the Dow hovering around 10,000, we shouldn't fall prey to the illusion that potential problems caused by immigration can be ignored indefinitely.
Every year, the United States admits some 800,000 legal immigrants, and another 300,000 illegal aliens manage to enter the country and stay. Such figures caused great consternation in the early 1990's, and as recently as 1996 President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress concurred that something had to be done about the rising cost of immigrants' participation in welfare programs. Their response was to deny many types of assistance to noncitizens.
Since then, rising prosperity has muted their sense of urgency. The most Draconian provisions of the welfare reform law -- like removing legal immigrants from the rolls of some programs -- weren't enforced. And President Clinton's 1999 State of the Union speech introduced programs to restore aid to some immigrants.
Talk of immigrants' taking jobs away from American-born workers has given way to a new pop sociology lauding the role of diversity in the labor market. ("Isn't it nice that we can all work together?") News coverage stresses that immigration has saved entire industries from extinction, including the garment business and California agriculture.
Last year, after reports of labor shortages in high-tech companies, Congress voted to increase the number of "high-tech braceros" -- the temporary workers whom these businesses import -- by 150,000 over three years. This despite the equally forceful claims by high-tech workers that the additional immigrants would lower their wages.
So what will happen when the economy hits a bump? The fiscal consequences of our current levels of immigration will be severe.
Immigrants still receive welfare disproportionately: 21 percent of immigrant households received assistance in 1998, compared with 15 percent of nonimmigrant households.
What do we do when there are extensive layoffs of the many immigrants employed in marginal jobs, or in the marginal industries that produce goods that can be just as cheaply imported from abroad?
We should also keep in mind that about a third of new arrivals lack a high school diploma, compared with 9 percent of American-born workers. It's great that these less skilled immigrants are boosting entire industries and that employers' lower labor costs are translating into lower prices for consumers. But many of these jobs would probably have been filled by less skilled natives.
And let's not forget that our current immigration policy is on autopilot: because immigrants can sponsor the entry of their close and not-so-close relatives, the annual influx of almost one million immigrants entitles millions more to enter the country at some future time -- perhaps a time when the economy is in a slump.
Without the political pressures of long unemployment lines and budget deficits, now is the time to consider whether the country would be better off with a different immigration policy -- a policy that pays more attention to fiscal consequences and to the economic impact on those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
George J. Borjas, a professor of public policy at Harvard, is the author of the forthcoming "Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy."