I completely agree with Becker that the bill introduced last week in the Senate—the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013”—would if enacted as written be a big step in the direction of reforming our immigration policy, a policy that Becker rightly calls “simply a mess!” However, the bill is unlikely to be enacted as written. To be passed by Congress in this era of ferocious partisanship will doubtless require numerous compromises that may frustrate many of the sponsors’ aspirations for reform.
Even if enacted without change, the proposed law would leave much to be desired. It is an unreadable 880 pages in length (legislation has become obese in tandem with the increasing obesity of the population). There is fortunately a very helpful 17-page summary, see http://www.aila.org/content/default.aspx?bc=25667|44052 (visited Apr. 21, 2013)—yet, helpful as it is, were it the proposed law rather than the 880-page monstrosity, it would still be too complicated—a bureaucratic nightmare. At a time of legitimate or at least widespread concern with the growth of government bureaucracy, the proposed law if enacted as written would substantially expand the bureaucracy (or rather bureaucracies) involved in the enforcement of the immigration laws. Doubtless the changes made to the bill as it runs the congressional gauntlet will increase its bureaucratic complexity and opacity.
One respect in which the bill would expand bureaucracy is its ambitious, expensive effort to make our long border with Mexico impermeable to illegal immigration. The effort probably is Quixotic, like all previous efforts to seal the border, and so will fail. And Becker points out that given the decline in recent years in illegal immigration from Mexico, the effort to “secure the border” may also be superfluous—a waste of money designed to assuage, though admittedly for what may be imperative political reasons (democratic politics is an art of compromise), the paranoia of citizens of the states that abut the border.
It’s difficult to understand why illegal immigration from Mexico is considered by so many Americans a very serious problem. The idea that illegal Mexican immigrants take jobs away from Americans appears to be largely false, as it seems that most of the jobs they get in the United States, notably in
agriculture, are not attractive to Americans. And the idea that they are moochers, who have crossed the border to take advantage of our social welfare policies, seems wrong because they have far fewer entitlements to social welfare than lawful residents of the United States have. The estimated 11 million illegal immigrants (mostly from Mexico and other Central American countries) are a large and productive component of the supply of labor in the United States (Mexicans are famously hard workers—“to work like a Mexican” is a California expression for working too hard), usually earn only modest wages, and do not partake largely of social welfare largesse.
It is desirable that they be allowed to become citizens, and the proposed law provides a “path to citizenship” for them, provided they are not criminals or otherwise undesirable. The path is expensive for low-wage workers, however, and also long—10 years or more: thus steep and long. And actually longer than it seems, because the “path” is not to open until the burder with Mexico is “secured,” which it may never be. Many illegal immigrants may therefore prefer to remain in their illegal status, since few illegal immigrants are actually deported, provided they are law abiding and keep a low profile. The length and gradient of the path to citizenship are designed to rebut charges that the new law will proide “amnesty” for illegal immigrants; the fear is that amnestry operates to increase illegal immigration by implying that future illegal immigrants will be the beneficiaries of a future amnesty. Some current or future illegal immigrants may be motivated by hope of a future amnesty; but for many, and I would guess for most, such a hope would not be decisive in persuading a person considering immigrating illegally to take the plunge. However, although I don’t expect the enhanced border security to have much of an effect on illegal immigration, it should at least offset the lure that hopes of a future amnesty would create for some foreigners contemplating immigrating to the United States illegally.
The proposed law contains, as Becker points out, a confusing medley of provisions designed to ease barriers to the immigration of highly educated foreigners—multiple paths, in short, to citizenship. The actual easing of barriers by virtue of these provisions is likely to be offset by the amount of red tape required to wade though in order to take advantage of the provisions; just choosing which provision to invoke in aid of being permitted to immigrate is likely to baffle many potential immigrants. Still, though needlessly complex, these provisions would not be seriously objectionable if, as Becker sensibly proposes, we offer would-be immigrants the option of simply buying the right to immigrate to the United States. Depending on the price, the option will more or less automatically open a quick path to citizenship for precisely those foreigners whose skills, matching U.S. business needs, will give them reasonable assurance of earning enough money in this country to make the exercise of the option cost-justified to them—and to us as beneficiaries of the labor of high-skilled workers.Of course “selling” U.S. citizenship, like selling kidneys and other organs, is just the kind of sensible economic proposal that shocks people who lack an understanding of economics—and that’s almost everybody.