Lawbreaking as our immigration policy

Published 11:33 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2016

America today strictly limits legal immigration while adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” toleration of illegal immigration.  A legal guest worker program, I think, would better serve our economic, social, and security interests.  We could legally realize the economic contribution of immigrants, avoid the problems caused by nearly 12 million illegal residents, and promote respect for the law.

We do not have open borders, despite the political rhetoric.  Immigrants from Mexico pay around $4,000 to hire a guide or “coyote.”  Crossing is still dangerous; Customs and Border Protection reports that over 6,300 people died crossing our border with Mexico between 1998 and 2014.  Illegal immigrants from India pay $60,000 to try to get here.

Having millions of illegal residents worsens problems of exploitation and crime, precisely because illegals cannot turn to the authorities for protection.  Sweatshop working conditions and human trafficking in the U.S. often involve illegal immigrants.

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American farms, restaurants and other businesses often must hire illegal workers just to get crops harvested, food prepared, and dishes washed.  Turning Americans who just want to run a business into lawbreakers is unjust and undermines respect for the law.  And some business face ruinous prosecution because our policy so limits legal immigration.

Strict limits on legal immigration create the demand for hundreds of thousands of illegal crossings by people who just want to work.  This demand supports the network of smugglers and tunnels, and creates demand for a wall to secure the border.  Terrorists who want to do us harm could use the infrastructure for illicit crossing to enter the country.

Assimilation of immigrants who want to stay here longer is a laudable national goal.  Immigrants who want to live here long term should embrace and not oppose America’s freedoms.  Yet our current policy also fails us on this score, because once here, illegal immigrants can stay for years with no legal encouragement of assimilation.

While new Americans should embrace our values, we can also benefit from doing business with people who differ from us.  Successful business owners know that their customers and employees need not share all of their personal values.  We should have a legal option for individuals who only want to work here briefly to improve their lives.

A guest worker program, like the Bracero program we had with Mexico between 1942 and 1964, accomplishes this.  A shortage of agricultural workers due to World War II drove initiation of the Bracero program.  In total the program brought 4.5 million agricultural workers to Southwestern states.

The Bracero program did not allow the workers’ dependents to come to the U.S., which in retrospect was wise policy.  As I discussed last time, research shows that low skilled immigrants receive more government benefits than they pay in taxes, largely due to education, and especially if the children do not work and pay taxes in the U.S. as adults.  Low skill guest workers will not earn enough to have their children educated in our public schools.

The Bracero program allowed stays of six months, which could be lengthened but should remain relatively short.  I would want guest workers enrolled in Medicaid (or insurance of some sort) to ensure coverage of basic health needs. Guest workers should pay payroll taxes, with their Medicare contribution going to Medicaid, and the Social Security portion refunded if they leave on schedule and do not illegally return.

Demand by employers should largely determine the size of a program.  With the proper rules, guest workers will only be here to work, and American businesses should be able to legally fill the low skill, low wage jobs that few Americans want.  Furthermore, sufficient legal immigration will eliminate the demand for crossing by people who just want to work, driving the human smugglers out of business and making securing the border easier.

Immigration has been perhaps the dominant issue of the Republican presidential primary race.  Sensible legal immigration will allow us to capture the economic gains and better achieve other important national goals like assimilation and security.  We can also end the hypocrisy of tolerated illegal immigration.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  Respond to him at and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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