IRCA

E-Verify Could Have Increased Crime in Arizona

Illegal immigrants who can’t work are more likely to commit crimes in order to support themselves, according to a superb new paper by Matthew Freedman, Emily Owens, and Sarah Bohn that is forthcoming in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.  They examined administrative data from Bexar County, Texas and found an increase in felony charges filed against residents who were most likely to be illegal immigrants after the Immigration Reform and Control Act made it unlawful for illegal immigrants to work in the United States.   

Their finding is especially relevant for the current debate over E-Verify, an electronic eligibility for employment verification system that is supposed to exclude illegal immigrants from the workforce.  The goal of E-Verify is to turn off the wage magnet that attracts illegal immigrants to the United States and open up jobs for American workers.  Although E-Verify fails to lower unemployment and only has a very small effect on dimming the wage magnet, the paper by Freedman et al. points to another possible unintended consequence of mandating E-Verify: higher crime.

Arizona provides a wonderful opportunity to test whether an E-Verify mandate affected crime.  In March 2007, the Arizona House passed the Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA).  The state Senate passed it in May and governor Napolitano signed it in July.  Among other things, LAWA mandated E-Verify for all new employees beginning on January 1, 2008. 

Response to Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan of George Mason University posted some comments I sent him along with some questions about a recent blog post of his.  His questions are in quotes, my responses follow.  First, some background.

It’s important to separate immigration (permanent) from migration (temporary).  Much of what we think of as “immigration” is actually migration as many of them return home.  Dudley Baines (page 35) summarizes some estimates of return migration from America’s past.

Country/Region of Origin            Return Rates

Nordics                                     20%

English & Welsh                         40%

Portuguese                                30-40%

Austro-Hungarians & Poles          30-40%

Italians                                      40-50%           

 

Gould estimates a 60 percent return rate for Italians – similar to Mexican unauthorized immigrants from 1965-1985. 

There were three parts to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that all affected both immigration and migration.  The first part was the amnesty.  The second was employer sanctions through the I-9 form that was supposed to turn off the jobs magnet.  The third was increased border security to keep them out.  For the first two questions, I assume the rest of IRCA was passed.

Do Amnesties Increase Unlawful Immigration?

One popular argument against a legalization, or amnesty, of unlawful immigrants is that it will merely incentivize future unlawful immigration.  Unlawful immigrants will be more likely to break immigration laws because they will eventually be legalized anyway, so why bother to attempt to enter legally (ignoring the fact that almost none of them could have entered legally)?  This claim is taken at face value because the stock of unlawful immigration eventually increased in the decades after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that amnestied roughly 2.7 million.

However, that doesn’t prove that IRCA was responsible for the increase in the stock of unlawful immigrants.  The stock of unlawful immigrants may have been increasing at a steady rate prior to the amnesty and that rate may have just continued after the amnesty.  Measuring the flows of unlawful immigrants is the best way to gauge whether the 1986 Reagan amnesty incentivized further unlawful immigration.  If the flows increased after IRCA, then the amnesty likely incentivized more unlawful immigration.  The number of annual apprehensions of unlawful immigrants on the Southwest border is a good way to approximate for these cross-border flows.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think that an amnesty of unlawful immigrants could increase their numbers in the future.  There are at least two ways this could occur.  The first is through knowledge of an imminent amnesty.  If foreigners thought Congress was about to grant legal status to large numbers of unlawful immigrants, then some of those foreigners may rush the border on the chance that they would be included.  Legislators were aware of this problem, which was why IRCA did not apply to unlawful immigrants who entered on January 1st 1982 or after.  IRCA had been debated for years before passage and Congress did not want to grant amnesty to unlawful immigrants who entered merely because they heard of the amnesty.  To prevent such a rush, subsequent immigration reform bills have all had a cutoff date for legalization prior to Congressional debate on the matter. 

Even with the cutoff date, some recent unlawful immigrants would still be able to legalize due to fraud or administrative oversights.  An unlawful immigrant who rushes the border to take advantage of an imminent amnesty still has a greater chance of being legalized than he did before, so legalization might be the marginal benefit that convinces him to try.  This theory of a rush of unlawful immigrants prior to an imminent amnesty is not controversial.

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