It is a bit unusual to address in the same post whether legal amnesty should be granted to aliens who knowingly entered the country illegally [let’s put Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients aside] and whether the federal government should expunge billions of dollars of college student loan debt, but I would suggest that these issues are perhaps alike in the most fundamental respect: each pits principle against pragmatism.
Before former President Donald Trump lent respectability to racially-biased xenophobia, both parties had generally agreed for decades that while America was refreshed and renewed by the entry of immigrants — those, in former President Ronald Reagan’s words, “from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness toward home” – we nonetheless needed border security: an effective and humane way to determine which, and how many, immigrants would be allowed to enter our nation. Today, it is commonly acknowledged that we have millions of people living here who knowingly broke the law when they entered our country. One can have sympathy for why they did what they did, and indeed, might even feel that if presented the same desperate options, might well do what they have done; but the fact remains that they are, in fact, law breakers. It is not only xenophobes who resent their presence; there are citizens who sincerely believe that the law is to be obeyed. I have also seen indications that many of our legal residents born outside this country, who had to wade through endless bureaucracy to secure their legal status here, do not have much sympathy for those who “skipped ahead.” For me, these are genuine issues of principle not easily dismissed.
At the same time, we are obviously not going to deport millions of illegal immigrants. We don’t have the resources to find them and deport them, and it seems universally accepted by economists that even if we did, such action would have an extremely adverse effect on American life and our economy. The pragmatic answer would appear to be to give those among this group who have not engaged in other criminal activity – again, reportedly the vast majority — a path out of the shadows to legal status, which would at least have the advantage of increasing our revenues through increased tax receipts, perhaps buttressed by a financial penalty (calibrated according to means) for having broken the law. While such a step would concededly provide an incentive for further illegal entry, our ever-more sophisticated border security is arguably the best way to address this concern.
Since World War II, the most certain ticket to economic security in America has been a college degree. Despite our growing need for tradespeople, such remains the case to this day: the college educated fared much better during the Great Recession and the COVID crisis than those possessing lower levels of academic achievement. It is accordingly not surprising that given the ever-increasing costs of college education during the last generation, ever-increasing percentages of aspiring college students were willing to take on ever-increasing levels of readily-available debt to go to college – including a number that failed to obtain a marketable skill or were not suited, for various reasons, for a college regime. One can sympathize with their aspirations. At the same time, one can also sympathize with the millions of other college students – some with a degree, some not – who have either paid off or are paying off their loans because it was what they agreed to do. I have seen indications that at least some these do not favor student loan forgiveness for those who will benefit from dispensation of obligations that they knowingly assumed.
On the other hand, the billions in student loan debt owed by those who lack the means to repay it constitutes a millstone around the neck of our future economic growth. As someone very close to me is fond of saying in a number of contexts: “We’re going to pay, one way or the other.” If these heavily-indebted people are consequently saddled with lesser career opportunities and lower credit ratings during their earning years, thus limiting their means to borrow for houses and “big ticket” durable goods and potentially increasing the welfare rolls, we are perhaps putting a permanent kink into our economic hose. (Who is going to buy the Baby Boomers’ homes? The electric cars?) Forgiveness of much if not all of this debt seems a means of spurring long term economic growth that will benefit not only those whose loans were forgiven but those who paid off their debts.
In our polarized political world, we strike stridently from our corners – insist that the way we look at an issue is the only right way. TLOML and I have close relationships with some born outside this country who stood in line to earn their legal status. We have very close relationships with certain citizens who assumed, and have paid off, hefty levels of student debt. If our nation enacts laws setting a path to legal status for those who knowingly entered the country illegally and/or forgiving large levels of willingly incurred student loan debt, the conservative part of me will be sharply offended for those who “played by the rules.” I nonetheless believe that we should set a path to legal status and effect forgiveness of a significant level of student loan debt because the practical part of me believes that these approaches will lead to the best long-term outcome for the United States of America.
I readily concede that what I suggest here is “best” is more accurately described as, “arguably the best we can do.”