Selling Illegal Residents the Right to Stay -Becker
No one knows for sure how many illegal immigrants are in the United States, Europe, and other countries, but there are surely many millions. Figures for the US, the country with the largest number, vary widely, but The Department of Homeland Security estimates that this country in 2006 had close to 12 million illegal residents. There is even greater disagreement about what should be done about these residents. This can be seen from the widely different stances taken by the presidential candidates and others.
At one extreme are those who call for the apprehension and eviction of as many illegal residents in the US as is possible. Yet this seems a very unrealistic goal when there are so many illegal residents; the US will not apprehend and return millions of persons to Mexico, or wherever else illegal residents came from. Nor is it desirable to go to the other extreme, and just give blanket amnesty to all illegal residents, for amnesty now would encourage future illegal immigration since they too would expect amnesty. Complete amnesty just makes a mockery of immigration laws, and rewards those who came to the US illegally, as opposed to the many potential immigrants who wait years for the right to immigrate legally.
I argued earlier on this blog that selling the right to immigrate would be the best approach to legal immigration (see my post on May 28, 2007 for details of this proposal). This approach would lead to acceptance of greater numbers of legal immigrants, perhaps by a lot, since the revenue from the payments by immigrants could replace other taxes. Paying for the right to immigrate would also negate the argument that immigrants get a free ride because they gain access to health care and other benefits. Moreover, making immigrants pay for to come attracts the type of immigrants who came much earlier in American history: younger men and women who are reasonably skilled, and who want to make a long-term commitment to the United States. These types would be more willing to pay a perhaps sizable price for admission because they would stand to benefit significantly from migrating. To prevent the price from excluding young and ambitious men and women who would like to immigrate but do not have the financial means, the US government could encourage a loan program to help finance the cost of immigrating that would be similar to the loans available to college students. The analogy to college students is close since immigration is also an investment in human capital.
One great advantage of selling the right to immigrate is that the same approach can be used to deal with illegal residents, so that it also helps solve the vexing problem of illegal immigration. Instead of offering free amnesty to illegal residents, this approach gives them an opportunity to legalize their status without giving them advantages over those who wait to come as legal immigrants. Illegal residents would be able to come forward and pay to change their status to that of legal residents. Many illegal residents would gladly pay for the right to become legal since that would open up enormously job and other opportunities available to them. The ability to buy the right to stay would be especially attractive to immigrants who want to make a long term commitment to this country since gaining this right stabilizes the future not only for them, but also for their children. Even though children of illegal immigrants born in this country are automatically citizens, younger children would tend to return with their parents if the parents are sent back.
Allowing illegal residents to convert their status to legal residents by paying the price to immigrate should satisfy both the hawks who do not want to give free amnesty to illegal residents, and the doves who do not want to force illegal immigrants to leave the country when they have been working and contributing to the economy. Under this proposed system, illegal residents would not get free amnesty since they would have to pay for the right to stay. Neither would they be forced to return to the countries they came from since they could buy the right to stay. Illegal residents should be required to pay more than those coming legally to punish them for having come illegally.
To be sure, the problem of illegal immigration would not go away even if all illegal residents could convert their status by paying the immigrant price (plus something extra). Some residents here illegally would try to avoid paying this price by remaining in the underground economy. These would be mainly illegal residents who only plan to work for a short while, accumulate a nest egg, and return to their home countries. If these immigrants were apprehended and want to stay, they should have to pay a higher penalty to stay than illegal residents who came forward voluntarily. If they refuse, they should be returned to where they came from, with possibly other penalties as punishment.
If one of the present immigration quotas prevented a person from coming legally, he can then either wait possibly a long time for a chance to come legally, or he could try to enter immediately as an illegal immigrant. A market for immigration gives these persons a legal alternative to immigrate when they want to because they can buy the right to immigrate legally. For this reason, an approach that sells the right to immigrate should greatly reduce the numbers of persons who come illegally, or remain as illegal residents. Effective policies have to be developed to cope with the remaining illegal residents and immigrants, but they will be a much smaller problem when many illegal residents would be able to legitimatize their status by paying for it. I do not believe that the problem of illegal immigration when everyone can buy the right to immigrate legally will be much more serious than is the black market in cigarettes, alcohol, and gasoline that has emerged in order to avoid the high taxes on legal transactions of these products.
The proposal I have made to sell the right to immigrate has been criticized as "repugnant", and contrary to the tradition of free and unlimited immigration to this country in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the immigration issues at present are also very different from those in earlier times. Immigration is no longer unlimited, for it is severely constrained by various quotas. Is selling the right to immigrate as repugnant as forcing millions of hardworking illegal immigrants to return home to countries they left possibly years ago? Or is a sale of immigration rights as repugnant as giving free amnesty to millions of persons who violated US laws by coming illegally? Selling the right to immigrate is a contemporary solution to a major contemporary immigration problem that has created deep divisions within the American population by pitting persons of different ethnic and skill backgrounds against each other. Instead of mindlessly using the word "repugnant", critics should concentrate on whether selling immigration slots to illegal residents as well as to immigrants who enter legally is a good way to help resolve these immigration conflicts. I believe it is.