Three Ideas to Improve Legal Immigration

The Republican presidential debates this week marked the first serious start to the election cycle. Immigration dominated the first debate with each candidate scrambling to condemn illegal immigration more than the other. The bland bromides of support for “securing the border” and more immigration enforcement are out of date in 2015. The changing facts of immigration and our dynamic economy require an update.

You wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric, but the illegal immigrant population has stopped growing. The numbers have been between 11 and 11.5 million since the Great Recession, because many are leaving and fewer are coming. In 2013, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended on the border and returned was 306,000 — about the same as in 1970. In 2006, that number stood at 1 million.

Mexicans are still a majority of all illegal immigrants living in the United States, but they are not the majority of new immigrants, legal or otherwise. In 2014, more non-Mexican immigrants entered the country illegally than did Mexican immigrants — for the first time. Fewer Mexicans are coming because it’s harder to find a job here in the sectors where they can work, opportunities in Mexico are greater and the population of Mexicans seeking to immigrate has moderated.

America needs an immigration system for the future. Here are some good ideas to get the ball rolling.

Asian immigrants are taking their place. Since 2009, new Asian immigrants have outnumbered new Hispanic immigrants. By 2013, both the new Chinese and Indian immigrants outnumbered new Mexicans.

The American economy demands immigrants of every skill level, but Indian and Chinese immigrants are more educated than Mexican immigrants. Up to 71.6 percent of Indian immigrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 53.4 percent of Chinese immigrants do. Only 10.1 percent of Mexican immigrants are as educated. Whereas Mexican immigrants were mostly less educated than Americans, Indian and Chinese immigrants are much more skilled.

This shift from lower-skilled immigrants to higher-skilled ones makes reforming our immigration laws even more urgent. Fortunately, there are at least three new ideas that could significantly improve legal immigration.

The first idea is a new merit-based green card category that was introduced in 2013. A merit-based system would issue up to 250,000 new green cards a year, half of them set aside for mid-skilled workers and the rest for those possessing myriad skills like English or computer programming.

The second new idea is to allow states to create their own guest worker visa programs. A recent Cato Institute policy analysis by Brandon Fuller and Sean Rust shows how similar programs in Canada and Australia were huge successes. They could invite in entrepreneurs, investors or workers for any skill level or occupation, instead of relying upon an unresponsive one-size-fits-all federal program. American states test different policies like welfare reform, gun laws and tax policies on their own — it’s time they do it with migration, too.

In 2015, both Texas and California have considered asking the federal government for permission to experiment with their own migration programs. In previous years, at least 14 other states have considered setting up their own migration systems, asking the federal government for permission to do so, or lobbying for a special allotment. It’s time the federal government allows states to do this.

A third new idea is an immigration tariff that charges a fee for a permanent work-visa or a green card. Such a fee, say $20,000, could replace the immigration bureaucracy with a revenue-generating machine. Ideally, this system would allow any peaceful and healthy immigrant to come here based on the economic demand, instead of government created preferences. If the economy is booming, more migrants and employers would be willing to pay. If the economy is slow, then fewer will come.

Immigrants, their families and American employers currently pay thousands of dollars in lawyer fees to immigrate — better to cut out those middlemen and charge a single price. The late Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, Australian Sen. David Leyonhjelm and others support a tariff to replace this current system. The government could sill meddle by charging different prices based on skills or age, but that is less harmful than quotas or reams of regulation. Under a tariff, at least everybody has a shot of immigrating.

Other than screening out security and health threats, the U.S. government cannot pick immigrants who will succeed. Only the immigrants themselves, American employers and consumers of American products can identify the immigrants who offer the most. These three new policy ideas allow more immigration flexibility and openness — especially since the source of immigrants is switching to Asia. America needs an immigration system for the future. Here are some good ideas to get the ball rolling.

Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.