Selling Work Visas

Professor Giovanni Peri today made an interesting proposal to auction work visas to the highest bidding employer. His reform is similar to an auction proposal made by Gary Becker, but more specific. His idea is innovative and deals with transitioning from the current maze of quotas, visa categories, and other barriers to a more open system that better allocates visas to the highest bidders.

The one  problem with Peri’s proposal is that it does not meaningfully increase the number of work visas. The limited number of work visas, not the distribution, is the main problem with America’s immigration system.  Instead, he calls for reallocating visas from families to the employment based category. He then wants American employers to bid for the limited quantity of work visas issued quarterly. A government commission would adjust the quantity and immigrants would be free to move between employers who purchase visas.

Economists like Becker and Peri are rightly concerned with how societies allocate scarce resources to different uses, but the scarcity of work visas is an artificial one created by the government, not one that results from a scarcity of the factors of production or other inputs. This is why there should be no numerical limits on the quantity of work visas issued even if they are priced. Charging for work visas is a substantial improvement over the current system, as I say here, here, here, and here. Most of the welfare gains come from allowing the quantity of visas to adjust to the price, not the other way around. An efficient visa selling process will operate more like a tariff than an auction.

For normal goods and services, a rising price incentivizes consumers to limit their consumption and producers to increase production. A government commission tasked with adjusting visa quantities would face political rather than market incentives and not increase visas in response to rising prices. Unless the incentives are carefully aligned, the result would probably be a more arbitrary and numerically limited immigration system.

Another problem with Peri’s proposal is that it only allows employers to bid for work visas. Immigrants should also be able to bid because they have the most to gain from migrating and have a better notion of their value on the labor market. Immigrants already pay to be smuggled into the United States—some Chinese pay $75,000 per person—so that money might as well be collected by the federal government instead of a coyote. If employers buy visas for specific immigrants, contracts or bonds can effectively guarantee compliance.

Peri’s proposal is a thoughtful and serious attempt to reform immigration but it does not address the main problem with our immigration system: too few work visas.