Answers are only helpful if you know the question. That’s the problem with our efforts to build a sane, reasonable immigration scheme. Markets could provide us with solutions to our immigration challenges, but not until we decide exactly what problem we want those markets to solve.
Is the mere presence of a large number of migrants from Latin America a problem, or are we trying to address the broader problem of illegal immigration? The reason we haven’t settled on an immigration reform scheme that we still aren’t being honest about our priorities.
There are good reasons why illegal immigration should be discouraged. Having a large pool of people who exist beyond the reach of basic legal protections – essentially outside of the social contract – is harmful. Even if it created no economic costs, and in reality illegal immigration probably benefits us far more economically than anyone wants to admit, there are social and moral consequences to this situation that we should not be willing to bear.
That said, when we debate immigration issues it can be difficult to separate authentic problems from cultural biases. Chicago, for example, has a very large population of illegal migrants from Latin America. It also has many from Poland. Guess which population gets the most attention from law enforcement and the public?
When someone says that we should address our immigration problems by first “securing the border” they tipping their hand. It’s gentle way of saying that their main concern is not whether people can come here but who is coming.
We have the most militarized, secured border in the free world. The West has seen nothing that compares to it since the Berlin Wall collapsed. We don’t need a single additional customs agent to address illegal immigration. In fact, with a decent proposal we could send a lot of them home. The solution to the problem of a massive illegal workforce neither starts nor ends at the border.
Securing our physical border in the context of the immigration debate means stopping people from coming here. It means that the problem we are trying to solve is not illegal immigration, but Latin American immigration. If that’s our problem then we are in trouble.
The East Germans had their hands full guarding 800 miles of border stretching across well-settled, easily guarded territory. Our border with Mexico stretches across more than 2000 miles of hell and we are not a monolithic totalitarian state. We want to be able to trade across that border. We want trucks and trains passing through on a consistent basis loaded down with mangoes and strawberries and Volkswagens and computers.
Our campaign to stop illegal immigration so far costs about $25,000 per detainee. That cost will go significantly higher as we seek to achieve even tighter enforcement. The size of the border patrol has increased by more than 500% since 2003. All the while, immigration traffic across our Mexican border has been falling. Estimates of the cost of increased border security range between $28-40bn, a little more than half of what we spend on the entire food stamp program.
That doesn’t begin to account for the billions in lost economic output incurred by the unnecessary delays at border crossings. A universal forced deportation scheme being pressed by the far right would cost roughly $250bn, just shy of what we spend on Medicaid. “Border security” is an extremely expensive solution in search of a problem.
There is no small irony in the fact that the same people moaning about government spending, liberty, and Federal power happily embrace the exploding economic and political cost of a militarized border. It’s almost as if their concerns about government spending were little more than rhetorical cover for some other, deeper concern. What might that be?
On the bright side, if our real concern is the impact of illegal immigration then we have some very powerful options. Many, if not all of the problems presented by mass illegal immigration would be eliminated or at least mitigated if these people had legally protected status and the accompanying responsibilities. We could potentially reform our immigration system to open realistic, practical options for people to immigrate here by choice.
It is virtually impossible to immigrate legally to the US now without existing family ties and even then it is an extremely complex, lengthy and expensive process. Practically none of the Latin American migrants we see in the news have any realistic option for immigrating through official channels.
If we made that kind of immigration possible in numbers more in line with actual demand we could address many of the problems that rise from illegal immigration. Market mechanisms could help cope with some of the problems of mass migration.
The biggest problem with mass immigration is the way it would depress wages at the low end of the labor market. Over time immigration is an economic bonanza, but it has to be understood in much the same context as a capital investment. Immigration does not produce a massive social return on day one. It takes time for new migrants to become established. Some of them, as in any speculative venture, will fail. Opening the floodgates to mass migration of people with little or no modern work skills might produce fantastic returns over time – after all that’s how we built this country. The near term costs could be very painful, though.
What if we could structure labor market incentives in a way that encouraged the outcomes we want while pricing away the outcomes we do not want? Maybe, if we tuned down the rhetoric just slightly, we could build an immigration law structure that made it relatively easy to come to America if you are skilled and prepared to contribute now. Maybe we could also keep the door open for lower skilled labor, but require them meet a higher standard of productivity. Maybe we could make the crime of hiring an illegal migrant or abusing a green card holder, too dangerous for anyone to risk – without having to impose a draconian regulatory scheme.
Best of all, the most powerful mechanisms could come from markets and private action rather than a bigger government. But that would depend on building an intelligent structure. More to come.
Once you know what problem you want to solve, the solutions become clearer.