We could dry up the flow of illegal immigrants into America fairly quickly, without drama, mass deportation, or Governors posing in front of machine guns, merely by changing the economics of the matter. There are easy market solutions that would dampen the demand for illegal labor overnight while slashing our enforcement costs.
We aren’t going to implement them.
Illegal immigration would cease to be a meaningful political problem if we took simple steps to make the hiring of legal or illegal immigrants much more expensive. The reason we will not be implementing such a plan is that we don’t really care that much about illegal immigration, not enough to write a check to end it.
Serious, intelligent immigration reform would offer hefty benefits along with the hefty price tag. A freer immigration system, greater access to a talented global labor pool, and the reduced burden on schools and hospitals in marginal areas would be just a few of the advantages. In the short run though, the cost of ending the era of cheap semi-slave labor would be a shock to the system, radically increasing the cost of some items like a restaurant dinner or a carton of strawberries, while other goods and services might disappear from the market more or less permanently.
Here’s what a practical solution might look like.
– Raise the minimum wage to $10. In economic terms, the presence of a mass pool of exploitable illegal immigrant workers has more or less the same effect as a mass of exploitable domestic labor. When labor prices sag, innovation stagnates and aggregate demand stagnates with it. Our illegal worker problem is to a very large extent a cheap labor problem.
– Set a higher minimum wage for green card holders, say, $12.50. Why should the wage be higher for migrants than for citizens? First, to eliminate the incentives to exploit foreign labor. Migrant labor isn’t merely cheap, it is also weak. At comparable prices many employers would still prefer illegal migrants because they are too desperate to resist terrible working conditions. A wage premium will dampen the urge to lure vulnerable and exploitable workers from abroad.
Won’t contractors and companies simply ignore the rules, leading to a larger black market? Not if the enforcement incentives are set intelligently.
– Enforcement is where this plan gets its relevance. Give workers, even illegal workers, the right to sue an employer in state court to enforce the higher wage, including triple damages and attorney’s fees. Illegal or migrant laborers may be generally reluctant to get near a courtroom. That’s why illegals who have a pending wage suit prior to initiation of deportation proceedings can stay deportation until the suit is completed. Attorney’s fee awards mean that there will be a pool of lawyers ready to serve this community.
– Employers found liable for more than $50,000 in back wages over a one year period can be subject to criminal prosecution and the loss of their corporate status – in other words, responsible individuals within the corporation can be subject to personal liability. The use of fraudulent documents by the worker in question would be a defense. These enforcement provisions would only apply to offenses committed after the law was passed.
– Optionally, some similar provision could apply to higher-earning green-card holders. Perhaps an across-the-board 5% income-premium for green card workers based on a comparison to similar job titles in the same company. These provisions are probably less important at the higher end of the wage scale as those workers are usually better positioned to represent their own interests, but such a provision might make it politically easier to loosen immigration rules.
– Make it relatively easy to obtain a work visa with a biometric ID at a US Consulate. Charge a significant, but not punitive annual fee for the visa, perhaps $500. Instead of admitting 140,000 new work visas each year as we do now, raise that number to at least 2m, if not more. Let the market decide who stays. How much enforcement and new infrastructure could we develop from $1bn a year in visa fees?
– Open access to annual work visas to immigrants already present illegally in the US if they pay a substantial fine, perhaps $3,000, and have no arrest history. Yes, “amnesty.”
– Create an option for green card holders who have been here for a significant length of time, perhaps five years, to transition onto a track toward full citizenship.
The key to this approach is the way it would handle enforcement. Everyone who uses “cheap” migrant labor would not only have to watch the horizon for ICE agents, they would also be subject to an expensive, potentially ruinous lawsuit from every worker they deal with. Immigration enforcement would become every business’s business.
Would there be a flood of new lawsuits? Probably not. Illegals are generally reluctant to get involved in court cases. However, there wouldn’t need to be a lot of lawsuits to radically change the way many businesses operate. Merely by changing the balance of power between workers and the people who hire them we would make the crime of hiring an illegal worker too expensive to commit. The risk of enforcement actions could not be easily mitigated.
Won’t millions of impoverished people from all over the world flood into America to soak up the largesse of our welfare system? Er, no. That’s one of the most bizarre fantasies afflicting America’s immigration reform debate.
Illegal immigrants are not entitled to welfare. Illegal immigrations feed themselves and their families by working, taking whatever jobs they can get no matter how dangerous, dirty, or demeaning. They struggle to get access to schools. According to well-known Communist agitator Sen. Marco Rubio, even legal migrants with immigration status are locked out of access to most of our social welfare benefits. Immigrants admitted under this program should have access to health insurance coverage, but none of the rest of the social safety net.
This approach could effectively end our immigration “problem” in its present form without a border fence, thousands of new border patrol agents, or any other border security measures. It would generate new revenue from visa fees while easing the strain on schools and public hospitals in border areas.
We will not adopt this approach because we do not want to pay the price. It turns out that shutting off the tide of cheap, desperate labor is much more expensive than the political alternative – border security theater and anti-migrant hysteria. Better to have them here, cleaning our restaurants and our kitchens while we publicly revile them then pay the price a post-illegal migrant economy.
What would that price be? It would effect nearly every household in America, forcing us to begin paying the actual, legitimate costs of hundreds of common goods and services rather than shifting those costs on the backs of people fleeing the developing world. More on that to come.