International Economics, Development & Immigration

January 23, 2020 2:00PM

The Laughable “Security” Justification for Cracking Down on Birth Tourism

The U.S. Department of State announced a new rule for tourist visa applicants today: prove you’re not going to give birth in America. The rule will not protect national security, will create more fraud and crime, and will cost America people who will contribute productively to this nation.

The tourist visa statute allows noncitizens to visit the United States for “pleasure,” which State has always interpreted to mean “legitimate activities of a recreational character, including tourism, amusement, visits with friends or relatives, rest, medical treatment, and activities of a fraternal, social, or service nature.” — in other words, most anything. But now, “The Department is revising the definition of ‘pleasure’” (p. 2) to exclude giving birth in the United States.

The State Department asserts that the “rule addresses concerns about the attendant risks of this activity to national security.”

The previous regulation failed to address the national security vulnerability that could allow foreign governments or entities to recruit or groom U.S. citizens who were born as the result of birth tourism and raised overseas, without attachment to the United States, in manners that threaten the security of the United States.

The State Department not only doesn’t present any evidence that this is occurring or has ever occurred, but it doesn’t even explain what the threatening “manners” might be that could somehow harm America. It can’t even imagine a hypothetical scenario to give flesh and bones to nightmare. The evidence that it does provide is that “Birth tourism companies advertise their businesses abroad by promoting the citizenship‐​related benefits of giving birth in the United States” (emphasis added). In other words, these are capitalist enterprises led by the market, not governmental efforts led by foreign security agencies.

I have dug through hundreds of national security and terrorism cases over a 30‐​year period to identify the origins of the offenders, and not a single case that I have reviewed followed this fact pattern.

The State Department lists the following reasons for people choosing to give birth in the United States:

obtaining a second citizenship for their child, the perceived low‐​cost medical services available to women in the United States, the lower cost of obtaining U.S. citizenship through birth tourism than through a U.S. investor visa, and the perceived guarantee of a better socioeconomic future for their child.

Not included on this list: developing stealth agents to (somehow) undermine America.

It’s also interesting that the State Department didn’t include the evasion of China’s 1‑child/​2‑child policy. One woman named Liou said in 2015 that she only came to the United States to “skirt China’s one‐​child policy” and will return to China after giving birth. The reason is that the child limit only applies to children born in mainland China. A Shanghai reporter assessed the situation this way in 2011:

American journalists continue to generate stories about birth tourists from China, most often explaining them as seekers of the American dream. They rarely touch on what the Chinese people, and their media, know is a leading cause of the phenomenon: an attempt to evade the Chinese government’s population controls.

This explains why — as I described in 2015—out‐​of‐​county births to mainland Chinese have spiked all around the world, not just in the United States. You would think that the State Department would want to treat people thwarting Chinese totalitarianism as potential allies, rather than threats. Obviously, these women choose to give birth in the United States rather than elsewhere because they believe their children could benefit from having the option to come and live here, but it takes a bizarre sort of nativist paranoia to see this aspiration for the American dream as a threat rather than an opportunity.

The State Department cites a few instances of birth tourism companies defrauding immigrants, hospitals, and property owners, but those actions are already illegal and this rule does nothing to stop fraud. Indeed, by banning this activity, this rule will inevitably push the industry underground and lead to more fraud. Far from protecting women seeking to give birth here, it will place them in much more vulnerable situations.

This rule has no justification other than a desire to keep out foreigners. Indeed, it repeatedly cites the fear that parents of the child could eventually receive green cards when their children reach adulthood. That’s not a fear any reasonable person would treat as a security threat. In fact, the State Department notes that the birth tourists are hoping their children will eventually return to contribute to America. How is this a problem?

The State Department is denying the public the ability to comment on the rule before it becomes finalized — as all other rules must do — because it wants to avoid having to “respond publicly to pointed questions regarding foreign policy decisions.” It must be nice to have the power to harm the lives of tens of thousands of peaceful people, all without the fear of having to answer any questions about it.

January 11, 2020 1:29PM

Refugees in Texas

On Friday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) sent a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo stating that Texas would not accept any refugees going forward. Governor Abbott is the first governor to request that refugees not be settled in his state since President Trump announced that states and localities would now have to opt in to receive refugees. Texas was the first state to refuse refugees after 42 other states decided to continue to accept them.

Trump’s new executive order requires states and localities to opt in to accept refugees, which is a clear ploy to get them to refuse. There’s no good reason for that as Trump reduced the nationwide number unilaterally, a power given to the president by a Congress that has decided that it doesn’t want to make law anymore, from 84,994 settled in fiscal year 2016 to a cap of just 18,000 to be resettled in FY 2020.

Texas’ refusal to settle refugees won’t reduce the total number settled in the United States, it will just remove Texas from the list of locations where they can settle initially. And that’s significant, because 2,457 refugees were resettled in Texas last year, accounting for 8.1 percent of all refugees resettled in the United States. Of the 978,939 refugees resettled in the United States since 2002, about 9 percent, or 88,572 refugees, were resettled in Texas.

Of course, refugees can move to Texas after they get to the United States but they will have to give up certain public benefits. Since Texas has resettled so many refugees over the decades, many likely will move there to take advantage of the job opportunities and large populations of coethnics which, incidentally, seem to help integration and assimilation. Governor Abbott’s decision changes the initial distribution of refuges, with less impact on their final location.

Ultimately, Governor Abbott’s decision to block refugees in his state is shortsighted. At some point in the future, refugees will be legally resettled in Texas and that state’s Republican Party will pretend that a governor from their own party never blocked them in the first place.

There are a lot of problems with refugee resettlement in the United States, but blocking their resettlement is a cure worse than any mild ailment. Abbott’s decision does nothing to reduce the total number of refugees in the United States, but it certainly makes the Texas state government look bad.

January 10, 2020 1:35PM

The H‑2A Touchback Requirement Makes No Economic or Security Sense

By Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Nipomo Farm Workers, CC BY-SA 2.0,

California Farm Workers By Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States — Nipomo Farm Workers

The House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 5038) last month. The House bill made some improvements to the H‑2A program, which allows farmers to hire foreign guest workers, but it incorporated into the statute the current regulatory requirement in 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(5)(viii)(C)) that an H‑2A worker may not live in the United States continuously for more than 3 years. The Senate should not copy this mistake.

This provision makes no sense from an economic or security perspective. It imposes costly, needless turnover on U.S. farmers, and by forcing out workers, it unnecessarily creates many more opportunities for visa violations. These arguments actually apply even more forcefully under the bill because it expands the H‑2A program to include year‐​round jobs, unlike the current seasonal jobs that by their nature have a defined end date.

H‑2A Touchbacks Waste Economic Resources

The economic argument against an arbitrary time requirement is simple: losing workers who are creating economic value imposes economic inefficiencies on employers. Turnover has costs associated with lost productivity when the position is unfilled, recruiting and hiring a replacement, training the new hire, and lost productivity from the employee learning the position.

Table 1 reviews the cost of job turnover in a variety of occupations and industries. Unfortunately, I found no study estimating the cost specifically in agriculture, but the consensus across a broad range of industries is that businesses end up paying about a quarter of the person’s salary to replace them.

Table 1: Costs of Turnover in Various Occupations

Turnover Cost Studies Industries Percent of Annual Wages Average Costs Hourly Wage
1 Seninger, et al (2002) Supported Living 24% $3,631 $7.56
2 Larson, et al (2004) Direct support professionals 17% $4,333 $12.45
3 Patterson, et al. (2010) Emergency medical 25% $7,926 $15.71
4 Hinkin & Tracey (2000) Hotels 29% $13,104 $15.95
5 Frank (2000) Grocery Stores 31% $10,848 $17.50
6 Dube, et al (2010) Various 12% $4,563 $18.55
7 Jones (1990) Nurses 37% $19,402 $25.94
8 Barnes, et al. (2007) Teachers 36% $13,446 $30.23
9 Appelbaum & Milkman (2006) Various 25% $16,461 $32.92
10 Wise (1990) Nurses 31% $22,557 $36.89
11 Milanowski & Odden (2007) Teachers 17% $13,969 $41.44
Median All Above 25% $13,104 $18.55

Sources: See Table Text

The average H‑2A worker’s annualized salary was about $25,000 in 2019. One quarter of that would be $6,500. For seasonal farms that plan to hire new crews every year, this requirement may be less of a burden, particularly since the regulations allow the workers to reenter after a 60‐​day departure, so seasonal workers can return home and reenter. But for year‐​round employers, this mandate will be much more expensive. In 2019, the State Department issued 204,000 new H‑2A visas to seasonal workers. If as many nonseasonal workers enter — which is reasonable, should Congress amend the program — simple math would indicate that the three‐​year restriction would cost them more than $1.3 billion annually after the 3rd year.

Of course, some might argue that this requirement forces H‑2A employers to retest again the labor market and so create jobs for U.S. workers. For seasonal employers, the employers have to test the job market every year because the jobs are inherently temporary, and the law requires the labor market test before rehiring. In any case, the Department of Labor reports that the H‑2A labor certification rarely produces any U.S. hires, and it’s worse than a neutral move because the turnover costs get passed on to consumers, which harms U.S. job creation and wages in related industries where U.S. workers are more common.

H‑2A Touchbacks Harm Security

The H‑2A touchback has no benefit for U.S. security either. Every time the law requires a legal temporary worker to return home, it creates the risk (and incentive) for a visa violation. The more required departures, the more visa overstays, and the more immigrants living illegally in the country. The touchback requirement imposes additional overstay risk in two ways: first, it forces out an existing worker, and second, it triggers the entry of a new worker who may or may not be as law‐​abiding as the one who exits.

The best evidence indicates that H‑2A overstays are a very small problem: less than 1 percent of the estimated overstay population had an expired H‑2A visa, according to an estimate by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2012. Nonetheless, forcing legal workers out will create more overstays, and there is no reason to force out a qualified, law‐​abiding worker: just the opposite, there’s every reason to let them continue to work.

The original justification for the three‐​year regulatory requirement limit in 1987 was that a worker cannot qualify as a “nonimmigrant” (i.e. non‐​permanent resident) if the law didn’t require the worker to leave periodically. But this notion is antiquated given the developments in immigration law since then. There are numerous nonimmigrant designations for which there is no time‐​limit. Most relevantly, H‑1B visas provide for indefinite renewals if an employer sponsors them for a green card. Moreover, the workers’ status as nonimmigrants is grounded in the fact that their residence is conditional — permitted only so long as they perform agricultural labor or services in this country.

The economic, security, and legal arguments for the H‑2A touchback lack merit. The requirement actively undermines the economy and security of the country. It is not required by current law, and if Congress reforms the law, it should not require it, particularly for year‐​round employers. Indeed, it should remove the requirement entirely.

January 8, 2020 3:05PM

8 People Died in Immigration Detention in 2019, 193 Since 2004

An important portion of President Trump’s immigration enforcement policy is immigrant detention. Immigrants who are apprehended at the border or in the interior of the United States are detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities until they are removed from the United States. In recent months, many reports have surfaced of immigrants who have died while in detention or shortly after being released to medical facilities for treatment. The rate of death in ICE detention facilities is an important metric of how humane those facilities are.

There are two primary pieces of data required to calculate the death rate in immigration detention: The number of people in detention each year and the number of deaths. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) runs all of the detention facilities and they provide the number of deaths and admissions. The American Immigration Law Association provides some more recent numbers of deaths in detention, but I only include those that ICE also counts. The admissions into ICE detention facilities variable is closest to the number of unique individuals who were present in a detention facility in each year. The numbers for both variables run through the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2019.

Eight people died in immigration detention in FY2019, down from 10 in FY2018. During the same time, the number of admissions into ICE detention facilities increased from 396,488 to 510,854 (Table 1). The FY2019 death rate in ICE immigration detention was 1.6 per 100,000 detainees, a 38 percent drop from FY2018. That’s good news, but is likely the result of so many younger asylum seeker with fewer health problems being detained along the border rather than improved detention conditions.

Table 1

Deaths in ICE Detention, Death Rates, Detentions

Fiscal Year


Death Rate (per 100,000 detentions)






































































Sources: ICE and Author’s Calculations.

Figure 1 shows the total number of ICE detentions and the total number of deaths in custody. The deaths in ICE detention facilities were highest during the George W. Bush administration at 91 total deaths with an average rate of 6.4 per 100,000 per year. Those death rates fell rapidly after FY2004, the first full year when ICE was operational, from 11.9 per 100,000 detainees to 2.9 per 100,000 detainees in 2008. The death rate rose 26 percent during the first year of the Obama Administration in 2009, then started falling again the next year with an average annual death rate of 2.3 per 100,000 detainees during his entire presidency. We only have data for three years of the Trump administration where the annual death rate is 2.4 per 100,000 detainees, which is well below the 2.7 per 100,000 death rate during the first three years of the Obama administration.

Figure 1

ICE Detentions and Deaths in Detention Facilities


Sources: ICE and Author’s Calculations.

This excellent study of death rates in ICE detention gives three reasons for why death rates fell so much during the Bush years and remained low thereafter. The first is that the length of time that immigrants spent in detention fell, which means there was less opportunity for each individual to die even though more were in detention. The second was that ICE increasingly relied on Secure Communities and local law enforcement to first arrest illegal immigrants and then transfer them to ICE. Local law enforcement agencies typically provided any healthcare that the immigrants needed before being transferred to ICE or, tragically, many of them died in local law enforcement custody. The third is that ICE medical policies and practices improved over time. 

Even though the number of people in ICE detention is increasing, the chance of dying in immigration detention is on a generally downward long‐​term trend that has been stable for the last several years.

January 7, 2020 11:55AM

No Unusual Migration Trend for Mexicans to Justify Deporting Them to Guatemala

The Trump administration has announced that it will begin deporting Mexican asylum seekers to Guatemala, where they will face homelessness in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Last year, Guatemala signed onto a deal with the United States to accept deportees from other countries, and the administration had sold it as a way to resettle refugees “closer to home.”

But this announcement demonstrates that this justification was simply a farce, as most Mexicans crossing the border live closer to the United States than Guatemala.The administration is apparently justifying the move by citing a major increase in Mexican arrivals. The New York Times states:

about 17,000 Mexicans were caught crossing between ports of entry in October, a 34 percent increase since July , according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The Homeland Security Department has been searching for ways to stem the uptick for the past month.

But this excuse is also inaccurate. Border Patrol apprehensions of Mexicans crossing illegally have been roughly stable over the course of the year. They dipped down in July — as a result of the hotter weather — but in December, the most recent month available, Mexican numbers were lower than earlier in the year. Figure 1 shows the Mexican apprehensions by month since April 2019, when CBP started publishing monthly totals by country online.

Nor are Mexican arrivals particularly unusual on an annual basis. Here is the last decade of Mexican apprehensions by year. As it shows, Mexican apprehensions declined dramatically since 2010 from nearly 400,000 to 166,000 in 2019, and while 2019 was up from 2018, it came nowhere close to reversing these gains and was nothing like what the border has seen in terms of changes from Central America in 2019 (9 percent increase compared to a 172 percent increase).

The administration has absolutely no business deporting Mexicans to Guatemala using the extraordinary and already inhumane policies that it has implemented for Central Americans. The administration needs to channel these immigrants into legal avenues for entry, not forcibly remove them to a country that they do not know and do not want to go to.

Update 1/9/2020: This blog was updated to reflect apprehensions through December 2019.

January 3, 2020 12:12PM

H‑2A Guest Worker Minimum Wages Up in 2020, 57% above New State Minimums

Two dozen states are raising their minimum wages in 2020. While the federal government’s minimum for all workers remains the same, the feds have hiked one minimum wage in 2020: the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) paid to H‑2A foreign seasonal farm workers. Despite the state changes, this rate will still far exceed the federal or state minimum wage in every state in 2020 by an average difference of 57 percent.

The AEWR is the Department of Labor (DOL)-mandated wage for H‑2A seasonal farm workers. Farmers who hire even a single H‑2A worker must also pay the AEWR to every American worker as well if it is higher than what they would otherwise receive. Except for Alaska, each state has its own AEWR, which run from $11.71 to $15.83 per hour in 2020 (based on 15 regions). State minimum wages start at the federal minimum of $7.25 hourly and go to $13.50 in the state of Washington.

In every state, the AEWR far outstrips every state minimum. The average difference between each state’s AEWR and its minimum wage is 57 percent in 2020. In Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, and Wisconsin, the AEWR is fully double the state minimum wage. In 2020, DOL is raising the straight average by 5.5 percent from $12.96 to $13.68 hourly. Every state will see the AEWR increase with Ohio seeing the largest increase of 9.5 percent.

The 2020 rate increases continue a 2‑decade AEWR march higher. Since 2000, the AEWR has increased from a nominal wage of $7.21 (straight average) to $12.96. This 80 percent growth in the AEWR has doubled the pace of general price inflation as calculated by the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Index.

The AEWR is unfair discrimination against farmers who are trying to follow the rules and hire foreign workers legally. It is supposed to reflect the actual hourly wage that farmers are already paying workers. But in practice, this is not the case.

The DOL uses the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Labor Survey of U.S. farmers to calculate the AEWR. To determine the wage, DOL annually divides the total monetary compensation to all farm workers in a region in the prior year by total hours worked. Of course, this wage overlooks differences between localities, detailed job types, skills, and experience, leading to a misleading average.

More importantly, by treating all monetary compensation as “wages,” the AEWR scoops in overtime, hazard pay, bonuses, performance incentives, and all other additional payments. This means that the AEWR artificially inflates the base hourly wage in the following before including these types of extra compensation.

In addition, by pricing out workers with below‐​average wages — typically less experienced workers who received less bonus pay — the mandate further inflates wages in each successive year. The AEWR is obviously designed to suppress hiring of foreign farm workers — which is why labor unions and left advocacy organizations argue that the AEWR should increase even more. This is ironic given the common claims that the minimum wages don’t suppress hiring.

This analysis actually understates the difference between the AEWR and the state minimums because farmers who hire H‑2A workers must also provide their workers many other benefits that — unlike most state minimum wages — they cannot deduct even partially from the workers’ wages. DOL requires, for example, that farmers provide housing at no cost to the worker, cover their transportation to and from their home country (or state, for U.S. workers), and daily transit to and from work.

At the end of the day, there is no evidence that hiring foreign workers harms U.S. workers and substantial evidence that unemployed U.S. workers refuse to take H‑2A jobs even though they all have a shot at them first.

The AEWR is a political wage that the administration or Congress should terminate. I have previously written about the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that now has passed the House that would help rein in the AEWR. If we want to end illegal immigration, we should start by making it easier to hire needed workers legally.

December 30, 2019 10:39AM

Congressional Republicans Dominate High Immigration Periods

Of all the concerns about immigration, perhaps none is more important to politicians than how immigration affects political control. In particular, many Republicans believe that immigration has clearly boosted the Democratic Party and that higher immigration will obviously doom the GOP. But historically (and recently), congressional Republicans have performed much better during periods when the immigrant share of the population is high. By contrast, Democrats dominated the low immigration periods.

GOP Almost Always Controls a House of Congress During High Immigration Periods, Rarely Controls Either House During Low Immigration Periods

The Republican Party came into existence in 1854, and while it quickly dominated, the Civil War and Reconstruction make its early history anomalous. Looking solely at the period since Reconstruction, Republicans have controlled at least one House of Congress 85 percent of years when the immigrant share of the population was greater than 10 percent, while not controlling either House 83 percent of all other years (Fig. 1). Moreover, they have controlled both houses 59 percent of the high immigration years, compared to just 7 percent of the low immigration years.

Starting this analysis earlier or later hardly changes this relationship between high immigrant shares and GOP success. From 1936 to 1994, when the immigrant population share fell below 10 percent, the GOP won a majority in House elections just twice. It had slightly better success in the Senate. In 1995, the immigrant population would again exceed 10 percent of the population, and the GOP has controlled the House or Senate 92 percent of the years since. Figure 2 shows that regardless of the period considered, Republicans outperformed Democrats when the immigrant share of the population was high.

This relationship is less dramatic for presidential elections, where the parties have basically split White House control regardless of the immigrant population. Republicans have held the White House 61 percent of years with immigrant populations greater than 10 percent, while they held it 47 percent of other years (Figure 3). In other words, the outcomes of presidential elections appear to have little relationship with immigration.

Why Republicans Succeed Despite Immigration

Explaining results in 72 elections with any simple narrative is obviously impossible. But some theories make more sense than others. To begin with, it is true that Democrats have generally benefited from the immigrant vote, so Republicans have had to win even more votes from the native‐​born population. 

It is likely that backlash against immigrants can explain at least some of the GOP’s success. The Republican “revolution,” when the GOP took over the House in 1994 for the first time in decades, corresponded with the peak in support for immigration restriction since polling began in the 1950s, and they quickly tried to limit illegal immigration. Though support for restriction quickly dissipated and, by 2019, the public had never been more supportive of immigration, it is possible that the backlash caused a sustained political realignment (particularly in the South).

A related explanation is that high immigration periods have undermined support for key Democratic priorities (at least starting with FDR). Even if they aren’t opposed to foreigners being in the country, people appear less willing to support more expansive welfare benefits if they might benefit foreigners. For this reason, economists Paul Krugman and Vernon Briggs have contended that the New Deal and Great Society entitlement programs of FDR and LBJ might never have happened had immigration remained open. Consistent with this view, one of the first actions that the GOP took when it took over in 1995 – 96 was to restrict welfare, particularly to immigrants.

Perhaps the best explanation for the GOP’s continued success focuses on the fact that high immigration occurred during periods when Democrats have lacked a key Democratic constituency: unions. Like naturalized citizens, a majority of union members have backed Democrats throughout U.S. history. Beyond members’ votes, unions also fundraise, donate, and campaign for Democrats. Since 1895, Republicans have controlled at least one house of Congress 85 percent of years in which the unionization rate was below 13 percent, while they haven’t controlled either house 83 percent of all high unionization rate years (Figure 4).

Unionization spiked thanks to the Wagner Act of 1935, but while Congress never repealed it, economic factors have produced a steady decline in unionization since the 1950s. Unionization rates fell as the foreign‐​born share of the population rose, and vice versa. But the lost union members made up a much larger portion of voters than the increase in naturalized citizens, leaving Democrats worse off.


This brings up another important consideration in this analysis: the fact that native‐​born citizens are still 92.2 percent of U.S. voters, meaning that natives will always play a much more important role in the elections than naturalized citizens. The fact that immigrants tend to clusters in certain cities and states further dilutes their effect. Helping Democrats win California, for example, by an even larger margin than they would otherwise does little to influence the overall outcomes.

Not only are immigrant voters a small part of the electoral picture, but immigration policy is only one part of the debates in each campaign. Party success depends on many other factors, policy choices, and strategies, and it would be impossible to consider every change. History need not be destiny, but it is nonetheless evidence for the proposition that Republicans can continue to win elections even during times with many more immigrants in the country.