“I happen to think immigration is a good thing,” affirmed Republican presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been news for a Republican candidate for major office to declare such a thing. These days, it’s hard to name a single member of the GOP who is willing to campaign on anything but a restrictionist platform of attrition through enforcement, no “amnesty,” and “build the dang fence.” Johnson, however, would like to find some way to allow undocumented immigrants to legally work in the U.S. and doesn’t believe building a border wall is going to solve any of the country’s problems:
I view immigration as a job creator, not a situation that takes away jobs. [...] Regarding the 11 million illegal immigrants who are here in this country right now. This is one of those unintended consequences of government. Government has made it impossible for individuals who want to come in to this country and work to get a work permit. So they know, that if they get across the border — even illegally — [...] they’ll get that same job. [...] There needs to be a grace period where the 11 million illegal immigrants that are in this country right now can get a legal work visa. [...]
The notion of building a fence across 2,000 miles of border, the notion of putting the national guard arm in arm across 2,000 miles of border — in my opinion — would be a whole lot of money spent with very little, if any, benefit whatsoever.
Most experts agree that building a costly border wall may only put a small dent in the flow of undocumented immigrants entering the country looking for a way to feed their families. It would also do little to prevent determined drug traffickers from finding new ways to sneak illicit substances into the United States.
Meanwhile, an enforcement-only policy similar to the one supported by most Republicans could cost the country billions. A guest worker program — which sounds a lot like what Johnson is proposing — would have a rather mixed effect. According to the Center for American Progress, a temporary worker program would generate an increase in U.S. GDP of 0.44 percent and amount to $792 billion of cumulative GDP over then years. However, it would also lead to a decline in wages for both native-born and newly legalized immigrant workers.
In contrast, comprehensive immigration reform that establishes flexible limits on permanent and temporary immigration would generate an increase in U.S. GDP of at least 0.84 percent and amount to a cumulative $1.5 trillion increase in additional GDP. Unlike the guest worker program that Johnson seems to support, it would also boost wages for both native-born and newly legalized immigrant workers.
Although it’s refreshing to hear a Republican talk about immigration without demanding more deportations, Johnson’s line of reasoning is shaky. According to him, immigrants are not coming across the border and taking entry-level jobs from Americans because “we as Americans, we can sit at home and collect a welfare check that’s just a little less money or the same money for doing nothing.” It’s more likely that most U.S.-born workers aren’t directly competing for jobs with immigrant workers not because they’re on welfare, but because they are occupied in entirely different labor markets.
Johnson hasn’t received nearly as much media buzz as other potential GOP candidates. Yet he did surprise many critics with his third place finish in the February CPAC straw poll.