Selling Work Visas: Auctions or a Tariff?

Yesterday Professor Giovanni Peri presented an immigration reform plan that would auction work visas to employers.  As I wrote yesterday, Peri’s plan would diminish the misallocation of current visas but not do much to increase the quantity of work visas.  Since the real problem with America’s immigration system is a lack of work visas and green cards, Peri’s plan seeks to solve a rather miniscule problem by comparison.

Proponents of selling visas either support auctioning a limited number of visas to the highest bidders or establishing a tariff that sets prices but allows the quantity to adjust.  An immigration tariff is far superior to an auction of numerically limited work visas.  You can read my proposal in more detail here or listen  me explain it here.

Here are three reasons why an immigration tariff is better than an auction:

First, a tariff is the most market friendly way of restricting work visas.  Limiting the government’s role to setting the price of work visas, allowing the purchased quantities to adjust, would make for a much more market-friendly and flexible system.  A tariff would decrease immigration relative to open borders, but misallocation isn’t a big concern because immigrants with the most to gain would pay the tariff.

Second, an immigration tariff is more economically efficient because the quantity of work visas would adjust to market demand unlike an auction of numerically limited work visas.  When there is economic growth more people would buy work visas to keep pace with labor demand.  In slow economic times the number of visa purchases would automatically shrink.  With an immigration tariff, there is no need for a government commission to somehow figure out how many are demanded.  They can just set the price and let the market figure out the quantity.

Third, an auction system will not do much to diminish unauthorized immigration going forward.  An immigration tariff allows immigrants, temporary workers, American businesses, and families to plan ahead, save, borrow, and pool resources to pay the tariff.  Tariff prices will change, no doubt, but they won’t change all of the time as they would under Peri’s system.  An auction would provide less price certainty, fewer guarantees of entering legally, and incentivize more unauthorized immigration than a tariff.