I agree with Posner that illegal immigrants are generally productive members of the labor force, and make relatively little use of taxpayer-funded programs, such as Medicaid and other welfare programs. On the other hand, they pay little in taxes since they are frequently paid in cash and often do not pay either social security taxes or income taxes. In effect, they largely receive as take home pay what they add to the output of the country.
It is also abundantly clear that, despite the rhetoric in the Republican campaign debates, the US will never try to ship 11 million illegal immigrants back to Mexico or the other countries they came from. Some form of de facto amnesty may be inevitable for the vast majority of these immigrants. Still, I find it difficult to simply accept wholesale violation of US immigration laws, especially since, as Posner indicates, illegal immigration will pick up again as the American economy continues to recover from the Great Recession. Further immigration from Mexico is surely to be expected as long as typical young Mexican workers can increase their earnings several fold by migrating illegally to the United States.
Beyond amnesty, what can be done to discourage further illegal immigration to America, and reduce the number of illegal immigrants who are already here? Perhaps extending the wall on the Mexican-US border would help a lot, although I anticipate that would-be illegal immigrants and their “mules” would create additional crossing points into the United States where there is no wall.
A more promising approach is to tighten the enforcement of laws against employers who hire illegal immigrants. That is much more efficient than directly hunting down illegal immigrants since the number of employers using illegal migrants is much less than the number of illegal immigrants. Tightening laws against employing illegal immigrants might be effective even without sending more illegal immigrants back to Mexico since the cost of employing them would rise, and that would reduce the earnings and jobs available to illegal immigrants. As a result, fewer immigrants would want to come here illegally, and some of those already here would decide to return voluntarily to the countries they came from. However, employers of illegal immigrants have political clout, and they complain to government officials when enforcement efforts against these employers is stepped up- recently Chipotle Mexican Grill voiced such complaints when they were caught employing many illegal immigrants. This opposition to enforcing the law more diligently against employers of illegal immigrants reduces the political attractiveness of that approach.
Despite the many difficulties they face, some illegal immigrants have done well: they have risen into good jobs, and they are very much committed to staying in the United States. These (and other) illegal immigrants would be willing to pay a lot to change their status to legal residents. Why not accommodate them, and offer all illegal immigrants the opportunity to buy their way into legal residence? A price would be set, say for concreteness $50,000, such that illegal immigrants who pay that price could change their status to that of legal residents.
Allowing illegal residents to buy their way into legal status would reduce the opposition to these residents because of a belief that illegal immigrants get a “free ride” into the various advantages offered by the United States. Yet it could also be attractive to illegal immigrants, especially those who have made commitments to the United States, because it removes the risk that they would be deported, perhaps after many years in America. It would also have the political attraction of adding money to federal revenues that is especially welcome in these days of large federal budget deficits.
To be sure, it could be hard for even successful illegal immigrants to raise $50,000, or any other significant payment to become legal residents. A way to handle such liquidity problems would be to require only a partial payment up front-perhaps 20%, or $10,000 in my example- and start a government loan program that would make the rest available to be paid off over time. In many respects, immigration loans could be modeled after student loans. Such a loan program would be especially attractive to the well established successful immigrants who have been in this country for many years, but do not have much in the way of liquid assets.
I have argued elsewhere (see my monograph ”The Challenge of Immigration: A Radical Solution”, 2011) that the right to immigrate by paying an “admission fee” should be available to all potential immigrants, not just to those who immigrated illegally. However, even without such a radical change in overall immigration policy, the right to pay for legal residence could apply only to illegal immigrants. In fact, it might be politically much easier to implement such a policy only for illegal immigrants because of the considerable opposition to these immigrants. Many in the US and in other countries with considerable illegal immigration might support a system that requires these immigrants to pay for the right to stay legally.