Becker rightly divides the immigration issue into two parts. One is the criteria for lawful immigration,
and specifically whether a potential immigrant’s contribution to the U.S. economy should be eighted heavily. The other is what to do about illegal immigration.
I agree that a foreigner’s potential contribution to the U.S. economy should be weighted heavily in favor of allowing the foreigner to be admitted to the United States as a permanent resident eligible for citizenship after a few years. I wouldn’t limit eligibility for favored treatment to specified skills, however, because it’s difficult to know which skills will be valuable in the years to come. I would llow any foreigner (provided of course that he or she was not a criminal or otherwise undesirable) to purchase permanent residency for a stiff fee, without regard to the foreigner’s skills or education. The stiff fee is a contribution to American wealth, and in addition wealthy people tend to be productive and to have a high IQ, though of course there are exceptions. I am aware of the body of thought, associated with ethicists such as Harvard’s Michael Sandel that not all commodities should be salable—some people want to exclude organs for transplant, others medical care or admission to elite schools—but I can’t think of a practical objection to selling citizenship to foreigners at a stiff price, though I am sure many Americans would think it a repulsive transaction, whereas giving preference to persons with needed skills does not trigger negative emotions—except among Americans who, having similar skills, fear competition from immigrants. Many countries, however, such as Switzerland and Canada, do give preference to would-be immigrants who will bring substantial money into the country.
The question what to do about illegal immigration is analytically more difficult, and certainly politically more difficult, than the issue of preferential treatment of foreigners with special skills. As I wrote in my immigration post of November 14 of last year, “The standard answer [to the problem of illegal immigrants who are already here] is to provide a ‘path to citizenship.’ The difficulty is in doing this without reverting to the policy of unrestricted immigration that prevailed in the United States until the 1920s, a policy that would not be feasible now, given the density of the U.S. population today and the enormous size of the world population (7 billion). If government makes it easy for an illegal immigrant to become a legal immigrant and thus a citizen, this amounts to a policy of de facto unrestricted immigration. To amnesty the entire existing illegal immigrant population (excepting criminals) would encourage further illegal immigration by creating an expectation of future amnesties. Coupling an amnesty with an effective policy of preventing future illegal immigration would be optimal if that prevention were feasible, but apparently it isn’t…One answer may be to allow [the present illegal immigrants] to become citizens, but to impose a penalty sufficient to reduce the flow of future illegal immigrants. Another may be to assist Mexico to raise the Mexican standard of living, since the rule of thumb is that when a nation’s per capita income reaches 40 percent of the American per capita income immigration to the United States from that nation will fall to a low level.”
Becker is optimistic that the rising standard of living in Mexico, coupled with the decline in the birth rate, will do much to solve the problem of future illegal immigration without need for other measures. I agree, and it is a very important point, because it is so much less expensive (in fact free) than the proposal in the Senate bill to spend tens of billions of dollars on enhanced border security, which will probably have little effect because the illegal immigrants and their aiders and abettors will take countermeasures.
But if neither changes in Mexico nor enhanced border security turn out to be effective in stemming illegal immigration, this will cast a shadow on providing a quick path to citizenship, let alone outright amnesty, because either measure reduces the cost of illegal immigration and therefore should stimulate it. I don’t have a solution to this problem.