Commentary

Immigration Shuffle … and Mood Music

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on January 12, 2004.
Whatever you may think of President Bush’s proposed immigration reform, it is by far the most dramatic immigration plan I can recall. It quickly drew predictable comments from those for or against immigration. But that puts me in a somewhat unique category because I am a fan of immigration but a critic U.S. immigration policy. Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in 1998, I said, “Given the slowing and aging of the population, a plausible argument could be made that the U.S. might benefit from more rapid increases in the number of working-age immigrants than we have experienced in recent years. … Growth of the U.S. labor force has already slowed dramatically from more than 1.6 percent a year in the 1980s to about 1.1 percent in the 1990s.”

Growth of the labor force would have slowed even more were it not for immigration, which accounted for about half of the increase. Without substantial immigration, the United States would soon be running short of willing and able workers. Important as it could be, however, U.S. immigration policy is simply incoherent.

Immigration policy is all about rationing. Many more people want to live in the United States than U.S. voters seem willing to allow. So long as this is true, the annual inflow of immigrants has to be rationed in some way.

Four devices can be used for rationing — the price system, the queue, the lottery and political clout. Economists much prefer the price system, which would mean auctioning rights to live in the United States, or at least charging a fee to separate the motivated from the indifferent. Yet the U.S. government eschews the price system (aside from a fee for H1-B visas) and relies instead on political priorities, long waiting lists and the most random device of all — a lottery.

Political clout determines the overall quota of annual immigrants and how that quota is divided among interest groups. Waiting lists and a lottery do the rest. The group most active in the quota-setting process consists of recent immigrants who want to bring in as many relatives as they can. Another interest group represents people who live in terrible countries and feel that entitles them to refugee or asylee status. A million immigrants a year thus become legal and permanent residents only because they have family members here, go online to marry someone here or happen to live in a country our politicians deem suitable for exporting refugees.

The United States allows few immigrants from affluent democratic countries, so people from those countries have no recently arrived relatives here to push for their admission. A lucky few with specialty skills may nonetheless qualify for the 65,000 H1-B visas that allow them to stay three to six years unless they lose their jobs. Another 50,000 win a lottery for green cards and, since they lack special skills, get to stay here forever. British and Canadians can’t play this lottery because they don’t speak diverse languages.

That is U.S. immigration policy. But it accounts for less than 80 percent of total immigration, because arbitrary priorities and long lines are an invitation to evade the system. Letting politicians and bureaucrats decide who waits the longest to get into the United States was sure to encourage what would otherwise be called a black market and smuggling. In this case, we call it illegal immigration or “asylum” (an illegal immigrant with a lawyer). Those who want to greatly restrict the sheer numbers of legal immigrants are, in effect, advocating even greater use of illegal alternatives.

This is where the Bush plan comes in. The president wants to give illegal immigrants a three-year visa if they prove they have a job and pay a fee. These people are here anyway. That doesn’t change. But until now they never had to prove they could support their families, pay a fee or leave after a few years. This is a carrot-and-stick plan to document the undocumented and hold them to some standards. It moves part of the underground economy out into the sunlight.

My favorite paper, The Washington Times, asks “what effect such mass legalization would have on U.S. efforts to keep out terrorists.” The answer is that millions of undocumented immigrants who are currently invisible to authorities would become fully documented. Authorities would know exactly who they are and where they work and live. And people who crossed the Canadian or Mexican border without a work visa could then be subject to relatively more scrutiny.

Critics say this plan would depress wages for other low-wage workers. Why? They’re already here. What changes is that they can no longer stay indefinitely. And they can more easily move up from the shadows of the underground cash economy, where minimum wage laws do not apply.

Critics say this is not a temporary work program at all but an invitation to stay forever — amnesty in disguise. On the contrary, illegal immigrants are now much more likely to stay as long as they like because authorities do not know who or where they are.

Half of all illegal immigrants did not sneak across borders but arrived here with a tourist visa and never returned home. In contrast with tourist visas, which are also being tightened up, immigration officials know exactly who is here on a work visa. The Bush plan can compel people to return home after a few years precisely because it converts illegal immigrants from undocumented to documented.

It is trivially unfortunate that the Bush plan was couched in term of the cliche that illegal aliens do jobs that no native American would do. If the supply of unskilled workers had not been augmented by illegal immigration, the worst jobs would either pay better or we would figure out ways to do without them — like using wheeled luggage to replace porters. Yet the fact remains that these people are already here, like it or not. What the Bush plan does is identify them and subject them to a few sensible rules.

The task of rethinking U.S. immigration policy is well worth tackling, and the Bush administration deserves credit for having the guts to tackle it in a serious and rather clever way.

Alan Reynolds is a nationally syndicated columnist.