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Why Immigration Is the New Gay Marriage

Immigrants become American citizens during a naturalization ceremony in Brooklyn, on June 21, 2013
Immigrants become American citizens during a naturalization ceremony in Brooklyn, on June 21, 2013Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

Last Thursday the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that was dramatic in its scope and potential impact. Its future in the House is in doubt, but discussion around the bill has already made one thing clear: Immigration is no longer an issue of political economy—it’s a cultural one, where opinions are driven by attitudes toward foreigners rather than by pocketbook concerns. Whether that’s good or bad for the prospects of meaningful immigration reform remains an open question, but the speed of the cultural shift on another hotly debated issue—gay marriage—suggests some reason for optimism.

In the runup to the Senate vote, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis showing that the Senate immigration bill would lead to a population 10.4 million larger than otherwise by 2023. That is a significant number—about 3 percent of the current U.S. population. But the CBO argued that all the economic impacts associated with that larger population are positive. The economy as a whole would be 5 percent larger in 2033, GDP per capita, productivity, and average wages would all be marginally higher, and the bill would decrease budget deficits by nearly $900 billion between 2014 and 2033. The CBO estimates that the relative wages of both skilled and unskilled workers might decline slightly—by a fraction of a percentage point—compared with those in the middle of the skill distribution. But absolute wages would be higher for all workers, whatever their skill level.