Can we end illegal immigration?

Published 3:00 am Thursday, March 2, 2017

Our immigration policy prior to the election of President Trump could be fairly described as strict limits on legal immigration combined with toleration of large-scale illegal immigration.  Tolerated illegal immigration as policy has a number of weaknesses.  I think that we should put immigration on a legal footing.

We could end tolerated illegal immigration by ratcheting up enforcement of current laws, which is what President Trump promised on the campaign trail and what his efforts to complete the border wall with Mexico implies.  Or we could significantly increase legal immigration.  I think either option may now be preferable to hypocrisy as policy.

Let’s consider the current limits on legal immigration.  The wait for visas under the family reunification program can be a decade or more, while the H-1B and lottery visa programs have far more applicants than available slots (13.6 million lottery applications for 50,000 visas in 2008).  Generally only graduate or professional degree holders can secure long-term work visas.

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Illegal immigration is also far from easy.  Almost 250,000 people were deported in 2016, and over 500,000 were apprehended trying to enter illegally.  The difficulty of legal or illegal entry allows human traffickers to charge huge sums for assistance: $4,000 to cross from Mexico, and $60,000 for entry from India.  And this hefty payment does not guarantee entry.  Over the past decade, over 3,700 people have died crossing from Mexico. 

Large-scale illegal immigration entails several costs.  For starters, illegal immigrants are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they cannot turn to law enforcement for protection once here.  Reports of sex trafficking and sweatshops in the U.S. frequently involve illegal immigrants.  Illegality creates space for truly inhumane treatment.

Persons here illegally can impose avoidable costs on Americans.  For example, many illegal immigrants drive without licenses and insurance, contributing to 12% of drivers nationally who are uninsured.  Billions of dollars of accident costs each year then get passed on to insured drivers.

More ominously, we cannot perform background checks on illegal immigrants.  While the overwhelming majority of legal and illegal immigrants come here to work, we can and should protect against entry by criminals and terrorists.  We essentially outsource background checks, which should be done by the Department of Homeland Security, to the human traffickers.

Perhaps most significantly, tolerated illegal immigration causes a loss of respect for the law.  The law should assist people in leading productive lives.  Order in society relies on people largely voluntarily following the rules regulating our behavior, like driving and paying taxes.  We follow the rules because we understand that life is better when everyone does so.

Furthermore, our policy basically forces Americans who just want to run businesses to break the law.  Many firms must hire undocumented workers to remain cost competitive because few Americans are willing to do jobs in agriculture, food service, and construction.  And some entrepreneurs get prosecuted for hiring illegal workers, which the system essentially forced them to do.

Should we end illegal immigration by more enforcement or liberalizing legal immigration?  One’s answer depends on one’s personal values.  Each option entails costs and consequences.  As the status quo demonstrates, enforcement has limits.  Immigrants come here illegally because wages are much higher than in their home countries.  Consequently tougher enforcement will just increase the price of illegal crossings.  The cost of totally securing the border may be prohibitive.

Furthermore, tougher enforcement will leave us with fewer immigrants willing to do hundreds of thousands of jobs, which might go unfilled.  A lack of labor will increase prices for many of the things that we buy.  And it could increase imports: we might have to import grapefruit and tomatoes from countries where labor is available.

Ultimately I think increasing legal immigration will increase respect for the law and improve border security.  President Trump should make sure that the border wall has a big gate to welcome people wanting to come here to work.  This will put most of the human traffickers on the border out of business and allow us to focus on people still trying to enter illegally.

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.  The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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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