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Republicans' Failure to Pass Immigration Reform Has Cost Us $900 Billion

David McNew/Getty Images

Republicans have raised several objections to the White House's plan to address the child-migrant crisis, but none so self-discrediting as their objection to the nearly $4 billion cost of the bill.

That objection is self-discrediting for two reasons: First, because Republicans are on record in support of substantially more spending to shore up the border. Second, because with respect to immigration (and everything else) their claims to fiscal probity are a shell game they return to anytime they need a plausible-sounding reason to object to something they oppose for other reasons.

To demonstrate both, one need only look back to the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill, which Republicans helped design and pass just over a year ago.

The process of building wide stakeholder support for the bill required many complex tradeoffs and compromises, but the key partisan compromise was very straightforward: a "surge" of resources, including thousands of new border patrol agents and hundres of miles of fencing, to shore up the border for Republicans in exchange for a legal process by which 11 million unauthorized immigrants could earn citizenship.

This swap was mostly necessary because political realities stood in the way of either measure becoming law without the other. Republicans couldn't pass a border security bill on their own, and Democrats couldn't pass an amnesty provision on their own. Together, the votes materialized. But the provisions are also linked fiscally.

After all, the Republican half of the deal isn't free. The Congressional Budget Office estimated (PDF) that it would cost $22 billion over ten years. That's a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget, but it's more than five times what the White House thinks is required to address the acute migrant crisis. Those resources could probably be restructured and even increased, if Republicans decided to fulfill their promise and pass an immigration bill in the House. And unlike the $4 billion in spending they now oppose, those resources would be lasting.

They would also be paid for. Much more than paid for, actually. That's because the Democratic half of the deal is a big deficit reducer. By bringing the eleven million out of the shadows and into the labor force, government revenues would increase significantly. Some of those revenues would flow right back into the same community of eleven million in the form of social spending (think Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and so on). More still would go to the border. But the rest (almost $200 billion in the first decade, and another $700 billion in the second) would be headroom in the budget for other priorities, whether they be infrastructure spending, education, or deficit reduction. Or all three.

Turns out you could finance Obama's universal Pre-K program ($75 billion), seed money for a once-bipartisan infrastructure bank ($50 billion), and an extension of emergency unemployment benefits ($10 billion) with immigration reform savings and still have $65 billion left over in the first decade for sweet, sweet deficit reduction. Or more border security spending. But you have to pass the bill first. And despite the awesome and painless deficit-reducing power of comprehensive immigration reform, Republicans aren't interested. They want to deport rather than naturalize the eleven million, and they want that much more than they want the hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit reduction. That calculation has cost the country $900 billion, and will probably cost us another $4 billion just to patch a problem that an overhaul of our immigration policy would fix, and fix systemically.

I don't mean to suggest that budgetary effects should drive immigration policy. It's obviously a huge moral imperative even without the fiscal component. I believe comprehensive reform would be worth doing even if it increased the deficit—in much the same way that Republicans believe it isn't worth doing despite the reduction in deficit. But plainly the dollar figure isn't actually what's driving the GOP's objection to the border supplemental. And, if they're honest, that means they'll figure out a way to adjust the bill so that their policy concerns, rather than their fake fiscal concerns, are addressed. And they should do it no matter what the impact on the bill's cost. If they can't, it isn't because they think addressing the crisis is "too spendy" but because they think the politics of the border crisis are more valuable than fixing it.