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Pro-business Ehrlich should be pro-immigrant

In his debate Thursday with Martin O'Malley, Bob Ehrlich compared poor foreigners who sneak into the United States to criminals who break into a home at night. He couldn't resist mocking Mr. O'Malley's odd and patronizing references to undocumented immigrants as "new Americans."

"If someone breaks into my house, is that a new member of my family that night?" Mr. Ehrlich asked, pleasing the xenophobes who broadly associate immigration with criminality in their ongoing effort to demonize the millions of men, women and children who have crossed U.S. borders in quest for a better life.

Political scientists regard Mr. Ehrlich as a moderate Republican, but, given an opportunity to shore up his right-wing bona fides three weeks before Election Day, he played the immigrants-are-criminals card. Combined with the bashing of Casa de Maryland that took place on his radio show and with his recent characterization of that immigrant-support organization as an abettor of criminality — even though the state gave Casa hundreds of thousands of dollars while he was governor — Mr. Ehrlich has placed himself in the realm of the immigration demagogues.

The more moderate, principled and common-sense stand on immigration would approach what George W. Bush had proposed — closing borders and providing a path to citizenship for the millions of unauthorized immigrants already here.

But, of course, that compromise died in Congress in 2007, so Mr. Ehrlich apparently learned a lesson to take into his second run against Mr. O'Malley: Compassionate conservatism is admirable, but it won't get the red-meat Republicans stirred up, and it certainly won't get the Tea Party on your side.

It's depressing to see moderation and common-sense slip away like that, especially given the role immigrants play in regional economies.

Republicans and conservative Democrats eager to support Mr. Ehrlich should know this: His position on immigrants undercuts his claim to being pro-business.

Despite what the demagogues say, immigrants are good for business, they don't steal jobs from American citizens, and they actually contribute to better incomes for workers already here.

Research of regional labor markets, worker productivity and economic outcomes across the country — and over a decade and a half — led Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics and a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, to those conclusions.

"There is no evidence that immigrants crowd out U.S.-born workers in either the short or long run," Mr. Peri reported in a September article.

In fact, he said, the presence of foreign-born workers in a labor market creates more jobs and gives a significant boost in wages to workers who are already here. It takes time, but it happens. As immigrants with little or no education or language skills take lower-paying jobs, other jobs open up for less-educated Americans, improving their wages.

Applying his research model to the period between 1990 and 2007, Mr. Peri found an increase of about $5,000 in annual income for each native American in a labor market that includes significant numbers of immigrants.

He also found that companies employing immigrants improved efficiencies and created additional jobs.

"Data show that, on net, immigrants expand the U.S. economy's productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity," Mr. Peri reported. "Consistent with previous research, there is no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs for workers born in the United States."

One other thing, with regard to the common complaint that immigrants are part of an underground economy that sucks money out of the country and leaves nothing behind:

In 2001, then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan estimated that undocumented immigrants paid about $70 billion annually in taxes and received about $43 billion in government services. In 2005, the New York Times reported that undocumented workers contributed about $7 billion to the Social Security system. More recently, Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of the SSA, told veteran journalist Edward Schumacher-Matos that by 2007, the SSA trust fund had received a net benefit of between $120 billion and $240 billion from unauthorized immigrants.

"If we had not had other-than-legal immigrants in the country over the past," Mr. Goss told Mr. Schumacher-Matos, "then these numbers suggest that we would have entered persistent shortfall of tax revenue to cover [payouts] starting [in] 2009."

Bashing immigrants, characterizing them as criminals and calling for their deportation — that might sound good with an election coming up. But it's not good in the long run, and not good for business.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM.

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