Commentary

Let Immigrant Families Pay Us—Not Cartels—to Come

Last November, Cintia paid $8,000 for herself and her daughter to travel from Honduras to the border seeking asylum. A few months before, Christopher from El Salvador paid $12,500. They aren’t alone. Nearly all—between 80 and 95 percent—of illegal crossers are paying to come, with smuggling fees reportedly as high as $9,200 a person. A report released last week by the Rand Corporation quantifies the total amount given to smugglers as $2.3 billion in 2017 and since then illegal immigration has doubled.

Who gets all this money? Human traffickers. Criminal cartels. Corrupt officials.

This system enriches criminals, hurts immigrants, and undermines U.S. security. There’s a better way: the U.S. government should charge a fee for a work permit. Peaceful immigrants who pass a background check could skip the extortion racket and fly legally to U.S. airports, passing through security screening like everyone else.

Not only would this system effectively eliminate the border chaos, it would provide billions of dollars in revenue to the U.S. government to further upgrade border security if Congress still felt that was necessary. President Trump has demanded money for a border wall from Congress, but immigrants themselves could easily give him far more than Congress ever will.

Customs and Border Protection is on pace to arrest 1 million immigrants this year—nearly all of whom, the agency reports, aren’t criminals. Suppose Congress sets the visa fee at $10,000 for a five-year renewable visa. That’s $10 billion in the first year alone. If almost everyone renews after five years with another payment, that’s $150 billion over a decade.

That’s more than three times what the Border Patrol spent in the last decade. With that money, Congress could pay for a border wall and have billions left over for workforce training, college scholarships, or vocational education for U.S. workers. Or it could fund local police to help them catch rapists and murderers. Or it could pay for infrastructure improvements. Or anything else it wanted.

The opportunity to spend lots of money is a powerful inducement to bipartisanship—especially if the spending spree doesn’t require a tax increase.

Consider our current system. Immigrants pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to get here. Then, most wait in lines at the fence to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents and request asylum. They get background checks and are generally released into the country, pending an asylum hearing. After 180 days, they can apply for a work permit, and when most are denied asylum, they still stay illegally.

Now consider a work-visa fee system: The immigrants would still pay, but it would eliminate the smugglers. Immigrants would still wait in line, but they would do it at a consulate abroad. Immigrants would still get the background checks and work permits, but they wouldn’t need to rush the border to request asylum or stay illegally if rejected.

Of course, many more immigrants would apply under a legal system where they could safely fly to America than would sneak to the border. But that would be a good thing for America if they were paying into the system, and in any case, America wouldn’t need to take everyone to stop the problem. It could turn away those without job offers from U.S. businesses, for example. We just need to give people a realistic hope that they could apply for a legal way to come.

We already know that work visas can dramatically reduce illegal immigration. After World War II, illegal immigration spiked from Mexico and Congress responded by massively expanding the Bracero guest worker program for Mexican farm laborers. In combination with more enforcement, the program effectively ended illegal immigration until Congress abolished the program in 1965.

Some might find it unsavory to make immigrants pay for the right to come to the United States. But they are already paying and rather than going to criminals, those payments could better the lives of Americans.

During his State of the Union address President Trump said, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” If that’s really the administration’s policy goal, there’s an easy solution—and one that would pay for the president’s other budget requests too.

The border situation is getting out of control, and the status quo isn’t helping anyone, but letting immigrants pay to come would make immigration a win-win again.

David Bier is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

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