Tag: Smuggling

Why Are There So Few Unlawful Immigrants?

Labor markets are heavily distorted by immigration restrictions, producing wide and persistent wage differences for observably identical workers in developed and developing nations. Income for low skilled American workers is 16 times as high as Haitians in Haiti, about 7 times as high as Indians in India, and about 4 times as high as Mexicans in Mexico—all adjusted for purchasing power parity. Just by moving here immigrants can largely close that wage gap. 

There are very limited avenues for low skilled immigrants to immigrate legally, which raises an important question: if the economic benefits of immigrating are so high, why are there only 11 to 12 million unlawful immigrants here?  

Below are the two broad reasons: 

First, the benefits of immigrating are not as high as they seem. The probability of being employed in the destination country is a vital variable because unemployment does not confer any benefits on the immigrant. The skill level of prospective unlawful immigrants restricts job opportunities to certain occupations. If the sectors where low skilled immigrants work have high unemployment rates, as many do now, the chances of earning higher wages here is lower so the economic benefits of immigration are lower. Downward wage bargaining by immigrants is limited but unlawful immigrants do take a wage cut, all else being equal, of about 20 percent to compensate their employers for the legal risk of hiring them and other reasons. Growing economies in places like Mexico, China, and elsewhere might partially offset the benefits of immigrating by promising higher incomes in the near future.   

Second, the cost of unlawfully immigrating is very high. Opportunity costs, search costs (including language barriers), transportation costs, legal costs, the probability of dying en route, the probability of being sold into slavery, and the probability of not making it to the United States despite paying the smuggling fee are all high and increase risk. Immigration enforcement is very effective at deterring most would-be unlawful immigrants. High smuggling fees are a high up front cost. 

Immigration can be understood as an investment over a period of years.  The length of time the immigrant spends here employed at higher wages increases the economic benefits of immigrating. The costs of immigrating, like paying for a smuggler, are fixed while there seems to be a low marginal cost for staying here to avoid immigration enforcement. The psychic costs could shift with time.

Here is an example:

The Consequences of Our War on Low-Skilled Immigrant Labor

Credit: Chiapas state government website

Authorities in Mexico intercepted two semi-trucks on Tuesday containing more than 500 migrants being smuggled across the border from Guatemala and presumably headed for the United States. An x-ray of one of the trucks that revealed the migrants struck me for its resemblance to those 18th century woodcarvings of slave ships crossing the Atlantic.

That analogy shouldn’t be taken too far, of course. According to the news reports, the migrants voluntarily paid $7,000 each for the chance to be smuggled into the United States. But like the slave ships, the conditions in the trucks were horrific, putting the lives of the men, women and some children in real danger.

People across the spectrum will try to make hay from this, but to me it argues that the status quo is unacceptable. No respectable party is in favor of illegal immigration. The real debate is over how to reduce it and all the underground pathologies that accompany it.

We can continue to ramp up border and interior enforcement, as we have relentlessly for more than a decade, driving low-skilled migrants further underground while driving smuggling fees higher and higher. Or we can expand opportunities for legal entry into the United States, and by doing so shrink the underground network of smuggling and document fraud.

Like the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, real immigration reform would go a long way to eliminating the human bootlegging that was exposed in Mexico this week. A robust temporary worker program would allow foreign-born workers to enter the country in a safe, orderly, and legal way through established ports of entry. It would allow resources now going to smugglers to be collected as fees by our government and otherwise put to work in our economy. It would save the lives of hundreds of people who needlessly die each year trying to re-locate for a better job.

If Congress enacted the kind of immigration reform we have long advocated in my department at Cato, our economy would be stronger and the human smuggling networks a lot less busy.

The Dangerous Trade in Black-Market Cigarettes

NPR reports:

Black-market cigarettes are costing many states hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost tax revenue. And the lucrative, illicit trade is attracting violent criminal gangs that can be lethally ruthless.

The rewards, and the risks, of dealing in contraband cigarettes became quite clear recently in northern Virginia, says Capt. Dennis Wilson of the Fairfax County Police Department.

Undercover investigators working with his department “had two cases where contacts that we were working with had asked us to murder their competition,” Wilson says.

The problem is that exorbitant taxes in New York state and especially New York City can add as much as $60 to the cost of a carton of cigarettes. No wonder criminals including “organized crime groups with ties to Vietnam, Russia, Korea and China” are getting into the business of buying cigarettes in lower-taxed states and driving trailers full of them to the high-tax states.

A Cato Policy Analysis warned about the problem of black markets and crime back in 2003, when the New York City tax was only $3.00 a pack ($30.00 a carton):

The failure of New York policymakers to consider the broader effects of high cigarette taxes has been a mistake repeated across the country in the stampede to maximize tax revenue from this demonized product. Too often, policymakers do not consider these effects in the erroneous belief that people do not respond to government-created economic incentives. The negative effects of high cigarette taxes in New York provide a cautionary tale that excessive tax rates have serious consequences–even for such a politically unpopular product as cigarettes.

The Laffer Curve Strikes Again

In the private sector, no business owner would be dumb enough to assume that higher prices automatically translate into proportionately higher revenues. If McDonald’s boosted hamburger prices by 30 percent, for instance, the experts at the company would fully expect that sales would decline. Depending on the magnitude of the drop, total revenue might still climb, but by far less than 30 percent. And it’s quite possible that the company would lose revenue. In the public sector, however, there is very little understanding of how the real world works. Here’s a Reuters story I saw on Tim Worstall’s blog, which reveals that Bulgaria and Romania both are losing revenue after increasing tobacco taxes.

Cash-strapped Bulgaria and Romania hoped taxing cigarettes would be an easy way to raise money but the hikes are driving smokers to a growing black market instead. Criminal gangs and impoverished Roma communities near borders with countries where prices are lower – Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine – have taken to smuggling which has wiped out gains from higher excise duties. Bulgaria increased taxes by nearly half this year and stepped up customs controls and police checks at shops and markets. Customs office data, however, shows tax revenues from cigarette sales so far in 2010 have fallen by nearly a third. …Overall losses from smuggling will probably outweigh tax gains as Bulgaria struggle to fight the growing black market, which has risen to over 30 percent of all cigarette sales and could cost 500 million levs in lost revenues this year, said Bezlov at the Center for the Study of Democracy. While the government expected higher income from taxes in 2010 it has already revised that to the same level as last year. “However, this (too) looks unlikely at present,” Bezlov added. Romania, desperately trying to keep a 20 billion-euro International Monetary Fund-led bailout deal on track, has a similar problem after nearly doubling cigarette prices in 2009 then hiking value added tax. Romania’s top three cigarette makers – units of British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris – contributed roughly 2 billion euros to the budget in taxes in 2009, or just under 2 percent of GDP. They estimate about a third of cigarettes in Romania are smuggled and say this could cost the state over 1 billion euros.