I find little to disagree with in Becker's post, except with regard to his disapproval of amnesty--but here our disagreement may be merely terminological, as I shall explain.
The path of reform, if one ignores the politics of immigration reform, seems obvious. If there are indeed 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, then since only a tiny fraction will ever be deported, the status of all of them ought to be regularized, which means put on the path to U.S. citizenship. That is amnesty, which for some reason horrifies a lot of people. Amnesties are a long-established device for dealing with social problems. Tax amnesties are especially common. An amnesty need not, and in the case of tax amnesties is not, a get-out-of-jail-free card. The taxpayer has to pay his back taxes in order to be spared criminal punishment. He benefits because paying taxes is a less severe penalty than being imprisoned for nonpayment of taxes, and the government benefits by obtaining additional tax revenues that it would not have obtained had it not offered the amnesty but instead had tried to catch the tax cheats, because it would often fail. Similarly, in the immigration case, the illegal immigrant is offered the chance to avoid deportation at the cost of having to pay a fine (or in Becker‚Äôs proposal, a fee for purchasing the right to remain in the United States as a lawful resident.). Hence the program currently before Congress is an amnesty program although the politicians carefully avoid the word. If the fine is too stiff, however, many illegal immigrants will prefer to remain in that status since the probability of being caught and deported is for most of them slight.
I would not, save in exceptional circumstances, approve of amnesty for people who commit serious crimes. However, an illegal immigrant whose only violation of U.S. law is entering the country without authorization or overstaying a tourist visa is, though of course subject to deportation ("removal," as it is now called), not treated as a criminal.
I agree with Becker that there is no sense in limiting amnesty to a subclass of illegal immigrants. That would just leave several million illegal immigrants in the country, their status unchanged. There is also the difficulty of determining how long an illegal immigrant has been in this country. In the context of legal proceedings potentially involving 12 million persons, anything that requires difficult evidentiary determinations in even a small percentage of those proceedings would place enormous strain on the adjudicative machinery of the federal government.
Becker is correct that the downside of an amnesty is that it reduces deterrence by creating an expectation of a future amnesty. But I do not consider that a substantial objection in the present instance. The reason is that there are two parts to sensible immigration reform. Amnesty is only one. The other is sealing our borders against future illegal immigration. If we do not seal our borders--which I do not mean literally, as that is impossible: I mean if we take effective measures to drastically reduce the flow of future illegal immigration--then in a few years we will be back where we are today, with once again millions of illegal immigrants. If we do succeed in drastically reducing the inflow of illegal immigrants, we won't have to worry a great deal about the effect of the prospect of a future amnesty on illegal immigration. For there are two methods of preventing illegal immigration. One is to deter it by threat of sanctions, such as deportation or criminal punishment. The other is physically to prevent the entry of an immigrant who is not authorized to enter the country. It is a substitute for deterrence as a mode of prevention, and if it is effective the need for deterrence is reduced.
It is possible too that the inflow of illegal Mexican immigrants will slow drastically. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts on immigration reform, when a nation's average GDP reaches one-third the U.S. level, illegal immigration to the United States drops to a very low level. Mexico is a potentially wealthy country, held back from realizing its potential by its political culture. If there is anything we can do to help Mexico prosper, it will reduce our problem of illegal immigration. But even without our help, Mexico may turn the corner to prosperity, as so many countries have done in recent years.
The problem with sealing the borders, apart from the cost of building, maintaining, and patrolling an immensely long fence on the Mexican border, as well as controlling our coastlines, is that virtually anyone can obtain a tourist visa to enter the United States, and once here can disappear. However, there are other measures for reducing illegal immigration, including requiring all persons in the United States to carry biometric identification, imposing stiffer penalties on employers of illegal immigrants, and criminalizing first-time illegal immigrants rather than just repeats. But what I think would be particularly promising would simply be to make legal immigration from Mexico and Central America much easier.
I am not enthusiastic about guest-worker programs. Guest workers may disappear into the illegal-immigrant pool, and if they have children in the United States the children will be U.S. citizens, so that sending the guest workers back to their country of origin may result in breaking up families.
I agree completely with Becker that we should allow a million highly skilled workers a year into the United States. Everyone will benefit because workers are usually unable to capture in their wages their entire social product. Even the highly skilled workers already in this country are likely to benefit in the long run, even if their wages are temporarily depressed by the surge in competition from the new immigrants. The reason is that the increased number of highly skilled workers will increase the rate of technological progress in U.S. industry, which in turn will increase the demand for highly skilled workers.