Forget the long-running bipartisan concern about creating an educated, highly skilled workforce. What the U.S. economy desperately needs is more high-school dropouts – so desperately that we should import them hand over fist.

Such is the logic of the contention by advocates of lax immigration that the flow of illegal labor from south of the border is a boon to our economy. But it doesn’t make intuitive sense that importing the poor of Latin America would benefit us. If low-skill workers were key to economic growth, Mexico would be an economic powerhouse, and impoverished Americans would be slipping south over the Rio Grande.

The National Research Council reports that an immigrant to the U.S. without a high-school diploma – whether legal or illegal – consumes $89,000 more in governmental services than he pays in taxes during his lifetime. An immigrant with only a high-school diploma is a net cost of $31,000. Eighty percent of illegal immigrants have no more than a high-school degree, and 60 percent have less than a high-school degree.

Steve Camarota of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies estimates that illegal immigrants cost the federal government $10 billion a year. State and local governments lose even more. Illegals pay some taxes, but not enough to cover governmental expenses such as Medicaid and treatment for the uninsured.

According to Camarota, if illegal immigrants were legalized, their net annual cost to the federal government would only increase, tripling to $30 billion a year. Immigrant workers don’t earn enough to pay much in taxes, while they qualify for all sorts of governmental assistance. As they become legal, they will get even more assistance – the benefits that they get from the Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance, would increase by a factor of 10.

Whatever benefit illegals provide to the economy in general must be minuscule. All workers without a high-school education – illegal and otherwise – account for only 3 percent of economic output. Even if illegal immigrants were dominant in low-skill industries, their broader impact would be small. But they aren’t dominant, and that includes job categories associated with immigrants. Nearly 60 percent of cabdrivers are native-born. In only four of 473 job classifications are immigrants a majority of the workers.

The U.S. has an ample supply of native-born workers with a high-school education or less, but Camarota suggests they are being pushed out of the labor force by the influx of illegals. From 2000 to 2005, the percentage of high-school dropouts holding a job dropped from 53 to 48, and this trend was particularly pronounced in states with the highest levels of immigration. Illegals compete with the very workers least equipped to thrive in our economy.

Pro-immigration conservatives sometimes argue that, through immigration, we are importing social renewal. But the illegitimacy rate among Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. is 40 percent. They aren’t coming from countries that are paradisiacal models of social conservatism. The illegitimacy rate in Mexico is roughly one-third, and in El Salvador it is 73 percent.

With the U.S. population aging, don’t we need highly fertile immigrants to replenish our working-age population? Actually, there aren’t enough immigrants to change our age structure significantly. According to Camarota, 66.2 percent of the U.S. population was of working age in 2000. If all post-1980s immigrants and their U.S.-born children are excluded, the number falls to only 65.9 percent. With immigrants, the U.S. fertility rate is 2.1; without them, it would be 2.0.

Immigration from Latin America, in short, does not chiefly benefit our economy, government or society, but rather the immigrants themselves. Their motives, if not their means, are admirable – they want to improve their lives. Advocates of a lax immigration policy should admit that their policy has a humanitarian, not an economic, rationale, and its beneficiaries aren’t Americans but mainly people from rural Mexico.

If we really need more poorly educated workers here, we can always rely, unfortunately, on the public schools to produce them indigenously.

Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]