Arnold Kling  

Thoughts on Immigration

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Alvaro Vargas Llosa writes,


Whenever there is a disconnect between the law and reality, reality finds ways of making the law irrelevant...

It is always hard to oppose an emotional reaction with logical arguments and statistical evidence. Otherwise, the argument for the decriminalization of immigrants and a policy that helped match future demand for migrant workers with future supply would have been won long ago.


Don Boudreaux writes,

There is a legitimate debate over how open America's borders should be. But that debate today is far too soiled by those persons who think that merely calling "illegal" immigrants "criminals" settles the matter. It does not. "Illegal" immigrants are "criminals" only because government policy declares them to be -- in the same way that persons openly practicing Christianity or Judaism in Soviet Russia were "criminals" only because government policy declared them to be. The contours and specifics of this policy are precisely what is at issue in the debate over how widely open U.S. borders ought to be. This debate should be on the economics and the national-security issues raised by immigration; it should not be confused by the confusing (and often self-serving) application of the term "criminal" to persons who come to America without Uncle Sam's permission -- permission that is very difficult to get.

Read Don's whole post. He says, using a lot of Latin terminology, that murder would be wrong even if it were not illegal. However, crossing a border to find a job is not wrong purely by government fiat.

Also, Dani Rodrick points to an analysis that quantifies my co-blogger's argument that you really have to think that native-born workers are some sort of moral master race in order to justify bias against immigrants.

I think we ought to ration work visas by price instead of by quantity. That is, the government should charge people who want to work here a fee of, say, $1000 a year. People who are anti-immigrant could argue for higher fees. Those of us who are pro-immigrant might argue for lower fees. But either way, it would be a more credible and a more reasonable policy than what we have now or what is being proposed in Congress.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/711
The author at The Free Thinker in a related article titled Dani Rodrik on Immigration writes:
    Rodrik quantifies the value we would have to place on natives' utility relative to immigrants' utility in order to justify immigration restrictions:The bottom line is that under plausible assumptions about the rate at which marginal utility is diminish... [Tracked on May 24, 2007 10:02 AM]
COMMENTS (40 to date)
Horatio writes:

This is a more eloquent version of what I wrote in a previous thread. When right and wrong do not coincide with legal and illegal, we should still choose right.

Anglo culture has not been successful because "we are a people of laws" but because our culture respects individual rights. That respect often translates into good laws, but one can easily cite examples where it does not.

Robert Speirs writes:

"Permission that is very difficult to get"?? The US allows in more LEGAL immigrants every year than all the rest of the world put together. Is there any country in the world that does not have a law against immigration without permission? Doesn't common courtesy demand that you ask the owner of a house for his permission before you move in and take advantage of his protection and prosperity?

Nathan Smith writes:

There is no question whatsoever that permission to enter the US is extremely difficult to get. This is a no-brainer for immigration lawyers worldwide. Over 300 million people are inspected by the INS every year. 24 million people come and go from the US each year, some of them being repeat visitors. The 300 million are self-selecting, of course: if you know you won't get in, you won't bother to wait for months for interviews, pay multiple hefty fees, etc., so the 300 million are going to be better qualified than most would-be immigrants. The ugly fact is that the vast majority of the world's population is shut out of America permanently on the basis of their place of birth. That so few Americans are aware of this is disturbing, but then, why should they be informed? It doesn't affect their lives much. The migration decision should belong to the immigrant, not the American electorate which is so ignorant that most of them would be surprised to hear that coming to the US was very difficult.

I married a Russian. She had never been the US before she came here. We would go meet in western Europe because it's easier to travel there than to the US. Once my great-aunt heard that she had never been to America. "Why?" she offended. "Doesn't she like America?" I was stunned. This is a fairly educated woman, who had thought enough about immigration to complain regularly about Mexicans. Can it possibly not have occurred to her that the authorities would not let my wife enter the country. I'd venture to say that hardly any non-American in the world with a college education is unaware that getting the visa is a major obstacle to entering the US.

The idea of having people pay for immigration visas is the rational approach to the problem, following the example of trade which is regulated through tariffs, not quotas. I'd set the price higher than $1,000/year for the sake of social order, even though I'm not exactly "anti-immigrant." I made the same argument in "Don't Restrict Immigration, Tax It," over at TCS. Hopefully in a few years this debate will be over and the entire economics profession will speak with one voice advocating migration taxes. For government bureaucrats to be saying "no more than X immigrants per year" is as ludicrous as government bureaucrats setting the price of gas at $X a gallon by fiat.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

Waiting lists versus market prices.

At present the 'demand' for US immigration is apparently held-down by waiting lists - much as the demand for health care is held-down by waiting lists in the UK and other countries where it is provided by the state.

But waiting lists are inefficient, and penalize most those whose time is worth most.

The 'immigration tax' sounds a reasonable and much more efficient 'market price' alternative to waiting lists - given that (as seems obvious to me) there has to be some way of holding-down demand for US immigration.

The price of the immigration fee could be set by market forces (sort of) - to optimize the overall national profit from immigration.

But whatever the means chosen to hold-down demand for US immigration, the regulations will need to be enforced impartially (as seems obvious to me).

In Bryan Caplan's putative future, people who migrate to the US without paying the immigration tax ought to be caught and punished for breaking the law, just (as seems obvious to me) current US illegal immigrants who avoided the waiting lists ought to be caught and punished for breaking the law.

Kent Gatewoodc writes:

Let's give the migrant the right to come. But try it out on Greece or Israel first. Any Turk or Persian who wants to live in Athens or Sparta should be welcomed. Any Arab or Muslim who wants to live in Jerusalem should be moved to the front of the line.

8 writes:

The thing I find depressing is how the current system rewards illegality. Yes, the people are not criminals, but they are cheating the system, and it does damage a nation of laws when ignoring the laws goes unpunished. I have many friends in China who cannot get visas to come study in the U.S. because 75% or more of people who get visas overstay them or never go home. If it was difficult to be an illegal alien, the U.S. would allow far more people into the country. Instead of punishing illegals by deporting them and making it difficult for them to re-enter, the U.S. government restricts access to people in foreign countries who follow the rules.

So when I look at what is right, I think it would be right for the U.S. to say we clearly can handle 12-20 million immigrants. We will allow 20 million new immigrants in the next 5 years, but you must apply for a visa in your home country. Anyone here illegally will be deported and will not get a visa. Isn't that fair? Why shouldn't a foreigner who plays by the rules be treated better than a foreigner who breaks them?

Nathan Smith writes:

"it does damage a nation of laws when ignoring the laws goes unpunished."

What damages a nation of laws is to have laws on the books which have no basis in morality or justice and which people are motivated to break and justified in breaking. It's the same as with prohibition or the drug war. The law, not the reality, is wrong and needs to be changed.

Nathan Smith writes:

"In Bryan Caplan's putative future, people who migrate to the US without paying the immigration tax ought to be caught and punished for breaking the law, just (as seems obvious to me) current US illegal immigrants who avoided the waiting lists ought to be caught and punished for breaking the law."

Yes, but what's the crime and what's the punishment?-- that's the difference.

Under the current system the crime ("crime") is to be physically located in the United States without a visa. So the punishment, logically, is to remove the person from US territory. To remove 10-12 million people from US territory non-violently is not feasible and if attempted would be a crime against humanity. At the same time, the illegal immigrant has an overwhelming incentive to avoid complying with the law by turning himself in, which would result in deportation.

Under a system of migration taxes, the illegal immigrant's crime does not consist of being on US territory, since he has a right to do that. It consists rather of a form of tax evasion. The logical penalty, then, it to charge him a fine and/or confiscate his property. This is much more feasible for the state to do. Moreover, the inconveniences of illegality are likely sufficient that many or most immigrants would voluntarily bring themselves into compliance with the law-- as current law makes it impossible for them to do (except via deportation).

Non-enforcement will and should continue until more enlightened laws are enacted.

PrestoPundit writes:

Low wage immigrants who keep their noses clean cost us at least $4,000 a year net studies show .. and that's before they retire on Social Security and Medicare, which will cost about $36,000 a year beyond what they ever contributed to the system.

The per person cost of dealing with the criminal element in the immigration population is much higher -- in 2006 there were 37,000 such jailed in Los Angeles alone.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Doesn't common courtesy demand that you ask the owner of a house for his permission before you move in and take advantage of his protection and prosperity?

Yes, so don't let an immigrant into your house. They can buy or rent their own house.

Meanwhile, it is only common courtesy to let me hire an immigrant to clean MY house.

A country is not a house, a country is not private property. Not since we got rid of Kings anyway.

Horatio writes:

Is it really that hard to get into the US? Maybe we have that impression because we hear more people complaining about it.

Sheldon Richman writes:

"...the government should charge people who want to work here a fee of, say, $1000 a year."

How would that be consistent with individual liberty?

Dog of Justice writes:

I think we ought to ration work visas by price instead of by quantity. That is, the government should charge people who want to work here a fee of, say, $1000 a year. People who are anti-immigrant could argue for higher fees. Those of us who are pro-immigrant might argue for lower fees. But either way, it would be a more credible and a more reasonable policy than what we have now or what is being proposed in Congress.

Something like this (though with a much higher fee) may be reasonable; it's roughly how Singapore's guest worker program works. Since, after the fee, guest workers are just as expensive to employ as native workers, Singaporeans have nothing to complain about, and it's a win-win situation.

There is, of course, the practical problem of actually enforcing the fee.

Nathan Smith writes:

Sheldon Richman writes:

"...the government should charge people who want to work here a fee of, say, $1000 a year."

"How would that be consistent with individual liberty?"

Yes, that gets a bit thorny. It links back to the question of how/if taxation can ever be justified, and whether taxation is theft, as some libertarians will say. Of course it's impossible to run a government without taxation (except in some resource-rich places maybe, but anyway...) While a lot of people might willingly agree to a social contract of taxes-for-order, some wouldn't, so how do you justify compelling them to pay taxes? But if you don't, it's in everyone's interest to say they wouldn't agree, to avoid paying for a lot of non-excludable public goods that they get to enjoy anyway.

If you do accept that taxation is justified, however, it's not clear why taxation has to be non-discriminatory, or even what that would mean. Of course you can prohibit certain kinds of tax discrimination, and we do, and I support that. I would be horrified if we proposed a law to systematically tax blacks more than whites (on the basis of race alone, I mean, not because of some other trait that happened to be correlated with race). But we tax smokers more than non-smokers, high-earners more than low-earners, New Jerseyans more than Alaskans, and so on. Why not tax immigrants more than native-borns? I would agree it's a bit unfair, but it is not the same kind of radical injustice as our current immigration system is. If you can substitute huge injustices with mild ones, you're moving in the right direction, and that's good enough for me for the time being.

Nathan Smith writes:

Horatio writes:

"Is it really that hard to get into the US? Maybe we have that impression because we hear more people complaining about it."

Funny he's asking this when I just gave numbers to show it. But, to answer the question:

For the vast majority of mankind no, it's not hard to get into the US. It's IMPOSSIBLE to get into the US. Legally, anyway. These people are permanently excluded from US territory based on their place of birth (and social standing, native language, etc.). Most illegal immigrants undoubtedly fall into this category. That's why rhetoric about "going to the back of the line" is either ignorant or a lie. There was no line for them to be at the back of the line. Legal channels are not available for them.

For a comparatively small elite in this world, privileged by nationality, birth, access to higher education, etc., it is possible to get into the US, but hard, particularly if they want to work.

Larry writes:

The government should pick a quota for each of the visa categories and auction the slots. Companies could buy them and use them for importing workers, etc. The government could define the categories as things like "minor children, spouses and parents", "skilled workers", "unskilled workers", etc.

That would eliminate travesties like this year's H1-B program that was gone in a flash. It would put more money in the till, and give us an accurate measure of how the labor markets are doing. The higher the auction price, the higher the demand.

Has anyone noted that having larger numbers of job applicants for every career but mine increases my wages, because it lowers my cost of doing business and makes me more competitive, especially in my export-oriented industry?

Stan Whiting writes:

Throughout history, the idea that a person could leave the place and culture one was born into and go somewhere else was no more realistic than for an American to decide today that they wish to start a colony on a planet orbiting a star fifty light-years away.

The fact that it is practically impossible for most of the world's billions to come here is the only reason why life in the United States differs from, say, Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe. It is a fact I am very, very grateful for.

ben writes:

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Meanwhile, it is only common courtesy to let me hire an immigrant to clean MY house.

And I trust you will pay enough for the immigrant to cover there own medical expenses and tuition for their children's schooling.

There has been kind of a split in the pro-immigration argument. If you are auctioning off visas, then you aren't really helping the poor, or at least the poorest. There are billions of people who would like to emigrate to the US, any market set price is going to be high. BTW, I don't see why its a travesty that most people can't emigrate to the US because of their place of birth, isn't this almost by definition?

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan,

Did you spend more than 2 seconds thinking about that $1000 price? Did you try to estimate what percentage of the 5 billion people who live in countries poorer than Mexico would pay that price? Why do you keep posting things about immigration that make you the poster child for The Myth of the Rational Economist?

Horatio writes:

I should have written.

Is it difficult to get into and stay in the US relative to other countries?

Steve Miller writes:

Sailer needs a new line. Every post begins with "Did you spend more than x amount of time thinking about..."

And he whines about Bryan, even though this was Arnold's post.

Mensarefugee writes:

Pity that Sailer has a legitimate point then, isnt it Miller?

XD

Matthew c writes:

To remove 10-12 million people from US territory non-violently is not feasible and if attempted would be a crime against humanity.

Yes, precisely correct. I think this needs to be discussed in great detail, since this is what many of the anti-immigrant activists are suggesting as policy. I suspect that the majority of them have simply not thought through the implications of what they are proposing, and will lack the stomach for it when the details of enacting the proposal become clear.

I work with an avid anti-immigrant advocate who sends me links almost every day to Michael Savage audio clips, emails summarizing hispanic crime rates, stories about Mexican immigrant drunk drivers killing families. But he admitted to me that he doesn't have the cajones to see all these families lives destroyed by deporting them all back to their countries of origin. My faith in the decency of most Americans is that they would stand with him and be unable to actually watch tens of millions of working men and women and their children be rounded up and shipped off for deportation, along with the associated riots and deaths at the hands of the authorities. At least I hope that.

Mensarefugee writes:

Hmmm...
Then the decency of Americans - from keeping mum during all the civil rights legislations to immigration fiascos, will spell the death of America.

:|

notsneaky writes:

Apparantly the standard price that a migrant pays to a coyote to cross the border is 2000$. The US government could easily arbitrage that by selling visas or green cards and then use the money to, I dunno, whatever, give it to Steve Sailer if he promises to shut the hell up. Or cut some taxes. Anyway - the US gov could easily charge double that amount considering that it would eliminate the risk of getting ripped off/ starving in the desert/ getting deported.

John S Bolton writes:

Immigration on to net public subsidy is
a serious crime, even a capital offense
on the definition of treason, where foreigners can be accessory to treason and share its penalty.
It's aid and comfort to enemies, where the officials giving net public subsidy to a thereby-known hostile foreigner are guilty of treason, and the foreign hostile who participates in that is accessory to that treason.
We're not about to execute anyone for this, but the crimes are as serious as the allowance of extreme penalties indicates.
The foreign hostile who immigrates on to net public subsidy is also a party to an increase of the aggression on the net taxpayers of our citizenry, to whom loyalty is owed, and that places him in violation of the natural law.
No one who values the freedom of Americans could want to do this, therefore a cohort so defined, is known to be hostile in this additional way.

John S Bolton writes:

The citizen's property right, which is being treacherously ignored by one-worlders, is his right to call upon fellow citizens to take his side against the foreign aggressor.
We steal from him by dismissing his right to have fellow nationals forcefully take his side over against 'immigrants' who increase the level of aggression in our nation by being here, on net public subsidy.
The nation is the people who share those allegiances here. One-worlders have no rational argument for why we should be disloyal to fellow
nationals who are being attacked by foreigners here.
If they did, there would be no need for smears about master races. They would just prove that we gain from all kinds of immigration, and that immigration cohorts do not increase the level of aggression on any of those to whom we do owe loyalty and allegiance through the existence of the nation.
This they do not attempt, but use smears, appeals to maudlin emotional identifications, dreamed-up figures involving preposterous assumptions, and trying to shift the burden of proof on to those who are not asking for the nation to be forcibly changed.

Steve Sailer writes:

Arnold,

I look forward to your explication of Israel's immigration policy.

Larry writes:

You don't have to be a post-nationalist to want to think creatively about how to deal with immigration. You don't have to be an arch-nationalist to think that having a broken immigration system is idiotic.

Visa auctions give us a humane yet effective way to manage and monitor the process, and make a few bucks on the side. They're like an ongoing opinion poll about the desirability of the US as a place to live. We'll probably always be the most popular destination (as we remain, even in these days of widespread America-hating) but there can still be huge changes in demand that auctions would let us measure.

Steve Miller writes:

Actually, Sailer has no point; not here, anyway. Arnold threw out a number. It was intended to be arbitrary. To whine about that number is stupid. Arnold said you could argue that the number should be higher or lower. He apparently didn't bother to think about the post, or even look at it long enough to notice who wrote it.

stuart writes:

"Pity that Sailer has a legitimate point then, isnt it Miller?"

Great pity. What was that point? That immigration is bad? I think that Arnold would have been able to guess that Steve Sailer would go for a higher figure, does that really make it a dumb post?

I love the whole "did you even think for 2 seconds?" line when Sailer had not even taken the time to check who wrote the post.

Nathan Smith writes:

John S Bolton is the type of citizen who scares me. It is aggression if foreigners come into this country armed and intending to pillage and plunder. It is not aggression if they come into this country with the intention of peaceful labor. I cannot be John S Bolton's fellow-citizen because he wants a social contract whose purpose is not to protect our natural rights but to violate those of others. If John S Bolton wants to establish that kind of nation he will have to jail me and other people of conscience.

ben writes:

The standard price of a coyote helping a migrant cross the border may be 2000$. But that transaction is really limited to people who live near the US and don't have too much to loose. A visa auction that is legal and open to the world would have dramatically more potential bidders. The 1000$ estimate is ridiculously low. Its a very small percentage of what most people pay in taxes each year.

If the cost to buy a visa is large, then you still have the problem of poor low skilled illegal immigrants sneaking across the boarder.

Daublin writes:

First, I like the general take. It is absolutely ridiculous to have laws that do not correspond to how things are actually working. Having millions of criminals is just batty.

As written, though, your approach does not work, due to welfare. If someone stops working, and goes on welfare, then where does their $1000 come from? Is it really realistic to hunt people dow and ship them out if they stop paying their $1000?

It could be fixed by making it a one-time up-front cost to coss the U.S. border legally. However, if the cost is high, then still a lot of people are going to sneak across.

The best solution I can think of is to deny welfare to people who have not paid some dues into being a full member of our country. Physically ejecting people from crossing our borders is just not practical.


PS -- There are a lot of really idiotic posts on here. If you are an illegal, for example, how in the world are you going to draw social security? The comments prove Bryan right about irrationality, and Arnold right about the ability of people to rationalize.

stuart writes:

this post and comments illustrate that making immigrants pay to live in the states could raise an enormous amount of cash.

Enough to compensate American tax payers for the burden placed on them.

Wild Pegasus writes:

Kling starts by quoting Vargas about the problems that arises when law and policy disconnect, then ends his post proposing a policy which is basically unenforceable. How would Kling propose selling $1000 visas in Mexican, Hmong, or Somali villages? For Christ's sake, man, think about this.

The simple fact is, short of turning the southern border into a massive warzone or gulag, there is absolutely no way to stop the migration of Hispanics to America. Drop the nonsense: open the borders, open government land to settlement, and cut off their welfare.

- Josh

Matthew c writes:

As written, though, your approach does not work, due to welfare. If someone stops working, and goes on welfare, then where does their $1000 come from?

It seems clear to me that you absolutely should not allow immigrants to collect welfare.

Lord writes:

I look forward to your post on what price a rational third worlder should place on such a visa. I have no doubt it would be considerably more than $1000.

ChrisA writes:

There is precedence for this idea elsewhere. You can obtain permanent residency in Canada if you deposit $400K (Canadian) into Government funds for 5 years getting a zero interest rate. In terms of lost interest I make that about $100k. Of course there are tests to make sure that this cannot be money obtained through criminality. This might be an idea for the US, anyone who can scrape together this amount and afford this sort of cost should surely be the kind of immigrant you would want to attract.

John S Bolton writes:

A social contract to violate the rights of others?
Has there ever been claimed a right of hostile immigration, that is, a general one?
It shows no recognizable conscience, but enmity
against fellow citizens, to take the side of the foreign hostile within the borders.
This loyalty to fellow citizens over foreigners can be commanded; a conscientious objector can refuse to fight on the battlefield, but he can't go over to the hostile side.
Those who are loyal to despotic, hostile states like Russia, while becoming suddenly too'conscientious' to be for the proper defense of those to whom they do owe loyalty, are good candidates for being turned into permanent resident aliens.
The more resistant a national population has been to the rise of dictatorship, the more it is urged to enthuse over the mass immigration of those from countries least resistant to tyranny.
This consideration reveals the unspeakable
malice involved, quite often, in the enthusiasm for mass immigration today.
That wish for changing towards the world average of politics and below, is, none too surprisingly, found most densely-grown, among power-greedy officals and scholars who want to test theories about how to re-imagine society in an 'elegant' way.

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