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» Becker on The (Fatally Weakened?) Case for Open Immigration: from The Volokh Conspiracy

Gary Becker: "Open immigration to America worked well during the 19th century because the government did very little for immigrants and their f...

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How immigrants voted after becoming citizens also mattered little because government decisions were not so important.

This comment intrigued me... care to explain more? Why were decisions less important then? Arguably those were the "formative years" of America, the time that led to its current might and prominence.


The highlighted issue that you've taken into limelight is quite inquisitive....there's a need to study it more closely before saying anything.

James Wilson

Very interesting post. I have lived in the United Kingdom since 1998, and illegal immigration has been a prominent issue for the duration. Most if not all at some point apply for political asylum, for that grants them an automatic right to stay whilst their claim (including an automatic right of appeal) is determined. During that period they are also entitled to state housing and other assistance. They are not, however, permitted to work.

Needless to say, whatever your view of Britain's obligation to refugees, and however many of the immigrants are genuine political refugees (both points being the subject of fevered public debate), that system produces the worst of all worlds. It precludes immigrants from offering labour. It encourages cheating of the system, both in filing false claims and working illegally, without tax contributions on the one hand and without union protection on the other.

The situation has become so politically charged that it is hard to find reasoned debate in the media, and certain important subjects, such as the incidence of communicable diseases amongst illegal immigrants (reputedly very high amongst those from sub-Saharan Africa) are taboo.

I think the lessons for America, and indeed Britain itself, are, first, that precluding immigrants from working is no disincentive to them coming. Precluding them from health care or subsistence food isn't an option either - a civilised society doesn't let those within its borders starve however they got there. So it is no use stating that illegal immigrants should be entitled neither to work nor to benefits; Britain and I very much suspect the USA would not allow that. Secondly, there are real public health issues that have to be confronted, not brushed under the carpet. Third, the system needs to encourage a positive contribution, not simply funnel handouts towards refugees while telling them they cannot work.

It is said that immigrants are needed because of low birth rates, an ageing population and the attendant spiralling pension costs. But it is no solution in the long term, since immigrants themselves will just get older. Taking a national sovereignty view, perhaps something along the lines of that operated by several of the Gulf states might be in order. There immigrants are allowed so long as they have jobs, but are allowed only on a finite basis and must return by the time of their retirement. That suites both: the donor countries receive reparations from expatriates in the Gulf, while the Gulf states receive labour and taxes. Perhaps the US might think of something along those lines for Mexico.

Peter Pearson

The fact that our present policy does not prevent a lot of illegal immigration does not mean it's worthless: it biases the population of illegal immigrants toward the fit, the energetic, and the motivated.

Steven Strnad

First, I think the important thing to remember is that immigration has been a huge boon for this country historically. Why is now any different? If we assume that immigration continues to be a good thing for the USA then the question should be...how can we ensure that we get the most bang for our buck? Some ideas might include:

1) increase legal immigration (in a major way)but do not have a cap on how long an individual can stay in this country. If an immigrant has a job, is contributing to society...why would we kick her out? By eliminating the cap, we would encourage immigrants to invest in learning about the country, its customs, its cities, etc...some immigrants would still return to their native home, others would want to become citizens.

2) stop paying for services for illegal immigrants over a one-two year time period...this would allow illegal immigrants that are in this country time to go through normal channels to gain reentry into the country (this deters illegal immigration). It also is more politically feasible...if we have an easy way to gain access to this country legally then people who are here illegally should be treated as law-breakers.

3) work more closely with the Mexican government to tighten the border - this is a national security issue - we should know who is in the country and our borders should be secure. The carrot for the Mexican government is the increased number of visas that the US will offer to its emmigrants...

F.E. Guerra-Pujol ('paco')

Dear Professor Becker:

I have three comments to your posting on illegal immigration:

1) I'm not so certain that illegal immigration is a true 'problem'; we must balance the social benefits as well as the social costs of illegal immigration, and like Posner, I believe that the benefits tend to outweigh the costs (i.e. there is an 'optimal' amount of illegal immigration, though I would concede that it is a difficult empirical question to determine whether 500,000 illegals per year exceeds that optimum);

2) I understand your argument in favor of jail sentences, but I wonder if the social cost of imprisonment far exceeds the benefits (deterrence); as you yourself correctly noted in your 1968 crime and punishment paper, the use of prisons is often not the most cost-effective method to deter anti-social behavior (i.e. fines are often more efficient than prisons, though I understand that most illegals might lack the funds to pay a fine to the INS);

3) this leads me to my last point: you mention the existence of 'coyotes' (middlemen who help illegals cross the border) but I believe you are mistaken when you state that they don't charge much. In relative terms, illegals often invest their entire life savings to pay a coyote to help them cross the border. If they are caught and sent back, they in effect lose their investment (and, as I see it, such loss operates as a makeshift fine).

One more thing. I;m puzzled that you did not mention your earlier proposal to, in effect, sell 'immigration licenses' to people who want to come to the United States (I read this proposal in the book of short essays you co-wrote with your wife, which you signed and dedicated to me when I met you at the University of Chicago last month).


The most desirable type of immigrant commits to this country, its values, language, and culture.Not so long ago, I moved from Michigan to California. I didn't have to prove that I was committed to the values and culture of California or that I liked the government of California or even that I was favorably disposed toward the people of California.I just decided to move there for my own reasons (job opportunities, actually) and once I got there I went through the paperwork of registering as a "citizen" of California (that is, getting a California driver's license and registering to vote).Now, Californian's would undoubtedly benefit in a number of ways by restricting "immigration" to California from other states. They could, for example, only allow people to move to California who were likely to contribute to California's economy. They could also exclude people for other reasons such as criminal records.I'm not sure why they don't restrict this "immigration" but I assume that it is because of a core American value: "Freedom isn't free." The people of California are willing to sacrifice economically because of their commitment to freedom.Californian's could also benefit in terms of security if they implemented strict border inspections along their border with other states. There are undoubtedly many people bringing drugs and weapons and other items into California from other states that are then used in the commission of crimes against Californians.I'm not sure why Californians don't defend themselves by implementing strict border controls but I assume that it is because of another core American value: "Live free or die." The people of California are willing to sacrifice their security because of their commitment to freedom.Any argument for why the United States should control its borders with other countries applies to why Californians should control their borders with other states. Personally, I want to live in a world where moving to another country is as easy as moving to another state. Then again, given that Republicans control the United States and given that freedom is far down the list of things that Republicans care about, such a world is a long way off.

Arun Khanna

1. Jailing illegal immigrants for any deterrent length of time will be too expensive. Why not send some 'extra' illegal immigrants to U.S. underdeveloped areas like Guam.
2. On the supply side, U.S. should examine ways to provide Mexican government incentives to stop emigration from that country.
3. On the demand side, economically significant penalties on U.S. employers hiring illegal workers are needed.


I think the follwoing measures should be taken to solve this growing problem.

First of all children born to illegal immigrants should not be given citizenship. I understand that we need to changethe constitution for this. Given the severity of this problem this step is a must.

second, no schooling or medical facilities should be allowed for these immigrants. Emergency medical cost, deportation cost or any other cost incurred on these immigrants should be billed to their respective countries.

Border patrols should be incresed.

Anybody reporting about these immigrants should be awarded. This will motivate people to report anyone they know of.

Work authorizatiion card should be cancelled for the employers who hire such immigrants.


We could stop illegal immigration tomorrow with 75 arrests and 25 expulsions:
1. Arrest 25 executives of major corporations that employ illegal aliens.
2. Arrest 25 executives of banks that profit off giving illegal aliens mortgages, deposting their money, and sending their remittances.
3. Arrest 25 corrupt politicians who are in effect paid to look the other way by #1 and #2.
4. Expel 25 Mexican consuls. (Since they've got more consulates in the U.S. than any other country, perhaps that number would need to be increased.)

All the greatest schemes in the world mean nothing if they aren't enforced. Any laws that were passed would be just as ignored as our current immigration laws, and for the same reason: corruption. That's what lies at the heart of the illegal immigration issue, and that's what needs to be addressed.

See my link for hundreds of posts with background information on illegal immigration, and see immref.com for some of the lies Bush, other politicians, and the media use.


How about we annex just Mexico?

Arun Khanna

Brian said: How about we annex just Mexico?
Some would argue the statement should be: How about we complete the annexation of Mexico.

Mark B.

IllegalImmigrationNews simply proves how often more heat than light is brought to this subject.

In the spirit of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal, he could increase the effect of his proposals by suggesting that the CBP round up 25 of those attempting to enter the US each week and shooting them.

The fact is that the economic incentives for migration into the US are so strong (and, apparently, the opportunities for a life outside abject poverty in Mexico and other Latin American countries so small) that none of the proposals Prof. Becker makes are likely to have much effect on the decision to migrate or not.

Life in the US would have to become hellish awful to compare to the utter lack of opportunity that faces so many in Mexico. Furthermore, I do not believe that the American people, no matter how much they claim to dislike illegal immigration, would be willing to abide the harshness of the measures that would be required to remove the millions of aliens now here illegally.



I simply don't understand what your argument for denying illegal immigrants services is. It seems to rest on an unsupported assumption that allowing illegal immigrants to come here and get services is a bad thing. That is far from clear for me.

In particular this seems to rest on some assumption that it is better to use our resources to help US citizens. Yet surely we don't think that US citizens are somehow more capable of suffering or more worthy human beings. Then why should we favor US citizens with wealth transfers, social security or other forms of charity. Surely the poor from other countries would benefit more from our tax dollars than most Americans would.

Of course there is a limit to how 'unselfish' we should be, if we are too generous/fair our social system will fall apart. If we donated all our tax revenue to help Bolvia we wouldn't have anything to donate next year. However, we are a far cry from this situation.

In short I'm arguing we should be taking as many immigrants as we can without breaking our resources. It isn't morally acceptable to put the interest of US citizens above that of mexicans or other nationalities and if these immigrants are lowering wages, taking tax money or whatever I say GREAT. These immigrants tend to be far poorer than even the badly off in the US and thus they probably benefit more from what they take than we are hurt.


Ohh and some form of fallback on "but it's the law" won't help you at all. The real question is what should the law be. I tend to believe the law should just make it illegal to be caught being an illegal immigrant but give amnesty after 3-5 years of living in this country with no convictions and avoiding the law. Thus giving a hurdle so we aren't overrun by massive waves of immigration but making sure they are ultimately given the same status as US citizens. Still it is an imperfect solution, I would prefer some other form of hurdle which makes sure only the immigrants who are really dedicated make it here but doesn't encourage them to dangerously cross borders or expose them to potential blackmail.

In any case the argument that 'it's the law anyone who violates it ought to be dealt with harshly' doesn't fly unless you favor the death penalty for speeding. Sometimes speeding is worth the risk of a ticket and sometimes immigration is worth the risk of the penalty. We don't have to view the immigration laws as any more serious than speeding laws, a penalty meant to deter too much of certain behavior nor really meant to cut it off entierly.


Thank you Prof. Becker.
Some thoughts

1. The term is "coyotes". At the end of the day, the coyotes are the ones who benefit the most from stronger border controls. It just lets them raise their price. Those with ÔøΩknow howÔøΩ quickly take monopoly control at the expense of those hard working immigrants who are rational (and wealthy) enough to leave their country to go to America.

2. We should remember that immigrants are rarely come from the poorest stratum in their own countries. Illegal immigration requires a substantial amount of persistence, creativity, personal drive, and a certain love for risk. More importantly, it requires a substantial amount of capital.

3. You are right in pointing out that the ultimate solution to immigration is improving prospects for jobs in countries of origin. The signing of CAFTA is a step towards this and I wish Congressmen recognized this. I think that the US administration should take a cold look at China and the effects that Chinese competition has on low income countries like Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras that have (or had!) a comparative advantage in cheap labor. Then they should realize that they have a chance to warn of future political instability and more migration by strengthening economic growth in these regions today. The signs coming from CA are heartbreaking.

Mexico might take a turn for the worse. My dislike for Obrador does not temper my dislike for the current president. He was given a historical mandate and he spent it poorly. What a sham. He has been unable to counter rampant drug related violence in the north of the country. This is something that the former ruling party held relatively under control. Since the Mexican government can do nothing about drug legislation in the US, their next best choice is to choose a ÔøΩchampionÔøΩ and give him hegemony over other drug lords. It is true that the business will always have potential entrants due to high profit margins, but something must be done to counter the gory violence and shootouts that occur midday in northern Mexican towns.

4. We should strengthen the instruments by which immigrants, illegal or not, send remittances home. In some cases these flows represent the bulk of poverty spending in the countries of origin.

5. I would like to hear your thoughts on the gang problem in Central America how it relates to immigration. An aspect of the problem that economics has a harder time dealing with is the breakdown of the family structure that arises from immigration. Many children are left behind with their grandmothers meanwhile their parents scrap a living in America. These children do not have an authority figure, and then no jobs. At the end of the day, a gang member realizes that the returns (and risks) to being a gang member are much higher in the US, and so they export the problem into our borders.

I hope America takes advantage of immigration instead of trying to ignore it like Europeans do. There is no reason why immigration cannot be channeled into being an overwhelmingly positive thing for a country. We have the choice between being an impetuous Prince that takes advantage of the window that Lady Fortune opened for us, or we can be like autoworkers in the 80s and whine whine whine and then become uncompetitive and perishÔøΩ


Dear Mark B.:

If not for the groups I mentioned, there would be no illegal immigration problem.

If employers were afraid to hire illegal aliens, there would be no jobs. If bankers were afraid to take their money, they'd have a great deal of trouble living here as they do now. And, if corrupt politicians were afraid to support illegal immigration, it would be greatly reduced.

I mentioned the heart of the problem: corrupt employers, corrupt bankers, and corrupt politicians.

And, of course, the corrupt oligarchy of Mexico.

Those are the underlying reasons why we have illegal immigration, and until they're dealt with the problem won't be solved.


At the end of the day, the coyotes are the ones who benefit the most from stronger border controls. It just lets them raise their price. Those with ÔøΩknow howÔøΩ quickly take monopoly control at the expense of those hard working immigrants who are rational (and wealthy) enough to leave their country to go to America.

Your argument violates common sense. Higher prices = fewer customers. Rich people already have a way in to the U.S. and have no need for coyotes.



Thank you for your response.

I am certainly not an expert on immigration, nor do I have perfect information about the market. I admit I was making several assumptions about the cost structure and the composition of the market for smuggling people over to the US from Mexico.

I first assumed that it must be expensive to become a Coyote and very expensive to develop and maintain clandestine entrances into the United States. Then I assumed that it was easiest (cheapest) for one or a few coalitions of Coyotes to provide the service to those seeking illegal entrance into the US (I do not know this empirically). The fact that Coyotes are notoriously violent and that they may work along with the drug trade strengthens this view.

Putting these together, what I said does not violate common sense. If Coyotes hold a monopoly on the illegal passage to Mexico and we see that border control are reinforced, it would seem to be logical that this would increase barriers to entry and therefore strengthen the hold that existing Coyotes have on the market. Of course, I am simplifying things and may be leaving out elements that are crucial to the profit stream of Coyotes. I may even be overestimating the coordination and cohesiveness of a Coyote organization.

In light of these arguments, I believe that my statement seems not to violate common sense (do please let me know how I may correct my understanding of this issue).

Now, it may prove to be empirically wrong, but your argument about the passage of rich people misunderstands my use of ÔøΩwealthy enoughÔøΩ. Immigrants are commonly misconceived as coming from the poorest strata of their country of origin. In economic literature, immigration is typically seen as an investment decision, and in this context, it involves a lot of capital and heavy risks for those involved. The price people pay to be smuggled is high, but not high enough to confuse the argument as stating that only ÔøΩrichÔøΩ people can afford to cross. Furthermore, those you call ÔøΩrichÔøΩ probably have the resources to stay in Mexico and do well at home. Overall, maybe rich Mexicans cross the border for education rather than wages. Ultimately, it is because they can afford the higher risk and income forgone of pursuing higher education.

In any event, we would need to find out the mean payment to a Coyote for smuggling and the cost structure and composition of the market. We would also have to know the average wage of a potential immigrant and how he or she perceives an economic downturn at home and relative wages in the US. In addition, though larger families may make it harder for an immigrant to move to the US, larger families may be better at accumulating the capital necessary for some members to attempt a move across the border. I have started to look at the literature on the subject to see if it may shed light on these questions.

One paper by Audrey Singer and Douglas S. Massey (1998) makes the interesting point that those that cross over more than once probably increase their border-crossing abilities and therefore have a lower demand for Coyote smuggling in subsequent games. To me this sets an incentive for Coyotes to act in a very predatory manner with first time crossers.

Please let me know if you find any good evidence on the subject or your general argument.


here is something that worked...

New Jack

It would seem to me that allowing large amounts of Immigrants into the United States would have a negative effect on those Latin Americans that stay put, a negative effect on current low-income Americans, and a positive effect on wealthy Americans. I'll go over my reasoning one group at a time.

What are the group characteristics of successful immigrants? I don't know of any data on this, but I would bet that they are the wealthier, more intelligent, and more ambitious members of whatever nation they're fleeing. By permitting high levels of immigration, we're skimming the demographic cream off of any country with significant emmigration, making it much harder for stability, free markets, and democracy to take hold. This is bad for the people living in those countries, and for Americans, whose security very much depends on the third world's ability to offer opportunities to their citizens that don't involve bomb belts and machetes.

More unskilled workers bid down the price of unskilled labor, resulting in fewer/worse jobs for poor Americans. That's pretty straightforward.

Wealthy Americans benefit from cheaper unskilled labor; all of a sudden a live-in maid, gardener and grape-peeler don't seem so expensive, along with fast food and many of the goods we buy. The influx of labor would also bid up the price of capital, resulting in better returns on investments for those who can afford them.

Basically, what is it we want to accomplish with mass immigration that we couldn't accomplish more easily with pure free trade? Let the jobs chase the workers, instead of vice versa.


"...require denying illegal aliens access to most health, education, and other benefits"

In regards to health benefits, isn't access already restrictive? Illegal aliens don't have access to health insurance, and I would imagine many would not wish to present themselves to receiving particular health benefits in fear of jeopardizing their ability to remain in the US. Moreover, a de facto "denial" of such benefits perhaps would give rise to (an already existing) underground market to provide health benefits (and even at lower costs) to illegal immigrants.

Furthermore, for access to educational benefits, aren't most illegal immigrants already categorized amongst the lowest rung of education? George Borjas, I believe, recently published a study that categorizes the poor educational attainment potential for certain demographics, particularly amongst Latino immigrants [who comprise the majority demographic of illegal immigrants], and illegal immigrants in general. If it is the case that illegal immigrants (b)have a more difficult time gaining educational access at even the most basic levels (elementary and secondary schools), and (b)do not have incentives to gain an education [by wishing to earn money via cheap labor, stickiness of their particular communities, and so forth], then what effect would a de facto denial of educational benefits do to curb illegal immigration?

Bill Korner

What makes Prof. Becker think that cutting off access to health, education, and welfare services would make people that much less likely to come? Most people (including immigrants) presumably are much more aware of wage differentials than they are the value of these services. On the margin withholding services must, admittedly, make a difference. But the difference between immigration levels without benefits and immigration levels with benefits may be negligible in light of the wage differentials.

Becker also does not address the option of extending a number of permanent resident worker visas that approaches the anticipated number of illegal immigrants. This is way different from simply ignoring illegal immigration, particularly from the perspective of the immigrant, who does not have to live in fear of CIS. Such a visa program is also perhaps the most popular legislative option under consideration. The issue remains, of course, about what kind of worker visa to offer those out of status who are already here.

Bill Korner

My mistake. It's not (I don't think) CIS that those out of status have to fear.


Hi Bill,

I look forward to the answer of your first question.

What is CIS?

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