Immigration Reform: Evaluating Policy Options

By Ivan Light

What is the immigrant situation in the U.S. today?  What might be done?  What should be done?  A leading expert addresses those issues and concludes with what in the current hysterical context seems a shocking solution.

Between 1995 and 2008, the number of unauthorized (illegal) immigrants in the United States rose from 3.6 million to 8.3 million, representing approximately 2.5 percent of the total US population and one-fifth of the foreign-born population. However, since 2008 the number of illegal immigrants has stopped growing and was slightly below the 2008 peak in 2014 (Pew Research). The end of Mexican migration explains most of this stabilization. During its peak years, Mexican migration added 2.3 million persons to the US population between 1995 and 2000. Since 2009, however, net migration from Mexico to the United States has been negative. That is, 140,000 more Mexican-born persons returned to Mexico than crossed from Mexico into the United States in this five-year period. Realistically speaking, the United States has had zero net migration from Mexico since 2009, and, since Mexicans have composed half of the total population of illegal immigrants, zero Mexican migration has also meant no growth in the population of illegal immigrants in the United States.

The causes of this historic reversal are straight-forward. Border controls were a minor contributor. Most importantly, the economic recession of 2007 to 2009 reduced the availability of jobs for everyone, Mexicans and illegal immigrants included. Immigrants do not now and never have entered a country that has no jobs to offer.  Only 16 percent of Mexican returnees were deported from the United States. The others left of their own accord, usually for economic reasons

That said, a second less important consideration is the aging of the Mexican immigrant population. As they reach middle age, Mexican immigrants have elderly parents at home for whom they wish to care and, in many cases, they have accumulated enough money to return and do just that. Living abroad is a hardship for many Mexicans because they do not understand English nor do they participate fully in American culture.  They are homesick. If they have the money to do so, many Mexicans prefer to return to Mexico.  This is not unusual. Forty percent of European immigrants who came to the United States between 1880 and 1920 also returned home.

Given these simple and easily accessible facts, what are we to make of Republican plans to build a wall between the United States and Mexico in order to deter illegal immigration? That wall is no longer a serious policy option because the migration from Mexico is over. The illegal population is also stable.  The wall proposal is obsolete on its face, but it never made fiscal sense. If the cost of a deterrent wall is one million dollars per mile, and there are 1500 miles of border between the United States and Mexico, then the dollar cost of a wall would be (1500 x 1,000,000) 1.5 trillion dollars which is half the cost of prosecuting all our wars in the Middle East since 2003. What is more, that wall would only obstruct illegal immigrants who enter without inspection from Mexico. The wall would not stop illegal immigrants who enter from other directions, and it would, furthermore, do nothing to obstruct the 40 percent of illegals who enter the United States legally then overstay their visas.

Repatriation of Illegals

There are currently about 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States. These people are about one-fifth of the total immigrant population and 2.4 percent of the total U.S. population. Two-thirds of the illegals (also called undocumented) are from Mexico and Central America but there are also illegal persons from other countries, notably China and Ireland. In order to “control our borders” Republican Presidential candidates have proposed to apprehend and repatriate all these illegal residents, but they have not specified the costs of doing so, social as well as financial. Donald Trump claims Mexico would pay the cost of repatriating its nationals abroad. But entering the United States illegally violates American law, not Mexican law. Why should Mexico pay for crimes committed in the United States that do not violate Mexican law? So Trump is wrong. The United States will have to pay.

If we estimate the dollar cost of locating, apprehending, lodging, and transporting one illegal person to the border at $1,000, a bargain,  then a policy of apprehending and transporting 11.5 million people would cost (1,000 x 11,500,000)  11.5 trillion dollars. We have also to consider the impact on the US economy from the abrupt removal of 3 percent of the labor force. There would be jobs unfilled by essential workers, especially in agriculture, retail firms lacking customers, and cities stripped of transit-riding tax-payers. The economic shocks would be massive and catastrophic. They might provoke a recession in the United States.

What about toleration as a policy?  Toleration is our current and de facto policy. No one talks about continuing the status quo, but the United States could tolerate today’s illegal immigrants without changing their legal status and in 60 years illegal immigrants would disappear from the population because of mortality. We would then no longer have a population of illegal immigrants. That is a long time to wait, but it is appropriate to note that the problem of today’s illegals is self-correcting in the long-run.  Politicians never mention toleration, but there is a splendid chance that doing nothing about immigration is the default option they will ultimately select for the future as they have selected it every year for the last thirty years. If nothing else is or can be done, toleration becomes our default policy next year too.   If the status quo is tolerable or preferable to the alternatives, border-controlling fulminations notwithstanding, and we will not grant amnesty to existing illegal residents, then continued toleration is a policy option that merits realistic consideration.  

However, if Americans cannot wait for the problem of illegal immigrants to self-correct in six decades, and we push the politicians to act, then steps could be taken now to legalize undocumented immigrants.  Currently, the United States has one sure path to amnesty: military service. Illegal immigrants obtain citizenship when they serve in the armed forces. This is a working path to citizenship that should not be foreclosed. Unfortunately, this path only serves able-bodied young people. Three quarters of illegal immigrants are ineligible to join the armed forces because they are too old, too young, or less than able-bodied. “Dreamers” are the adult children of immigrants who accompanied their parents into the United States and were subsequently raised in this country without acquiring American nationality. Dreamers are young, better educated than their parents, and mostly able-bodied. Dreamers could acquire citizenship right away by joining the armed forces, and, returning from military service, they would be eligible to attend colleges and universities with whatever supports are available to other American citizens. 

But military-age dreamers are at most a tenth of illegal immigrants. Therefore, new pathways to citizenship for the rest of the illegal population are unavoidable if the current policy of tacit toleration is unacceptable in the future.  The usual qualifications for legalization are employment, a clean police record, and proof of long-term residence.  Although legalization of illegals risks encouraging more illegal migration, which was admittedly a response to legalization in 1986, that outcome is unlikely today because net migration from Mexico is now zero.   Legalization of illegals is patently unfair to persons who have waited vainly in line for an opportunity to immigrate legally to the United States. That is regrettable.  But no alternative normalizes the status of illegal immigrants already here, working, and contributing to American society. Toleration of illegals already here would also be unfair to those who failed to obtain entry because they waited patiently in line. Either way, continuing to tolerate or offering amnesty, the United States disappoints those who followed our immigration procedures.

What about the future? How can the United States now prevent the next wave of illegal immigrants from obtaining access in the future? Crossing that bridge when we come to it makes policy sense because we may never cross it.  Why solve a problem you won’t have? Nonetheless, the question is admittedly a fair one to pose right now.  There are two simple and cost-effective solutions, neither of which makes everyone happy.  The federal government can open a register of legal workers, expanding the current E-verify system, and require employers to consult that register before they hire anyone on pain of a hefty fine or even imprisonment. As matters stand, illegal workers can buy bogus papers for $100 and show them to employers who then have no legal liability from employing them.  These bogus papers have created a thriving black-market economy in which substandard and illegal conditions exist. But an official register of legally authorized workers would shut down the marketplace for bogus papers and effectively deprive illegal workers of most of their chances at employment. They could still be employed, of course, but the serious risk to employers would reduce their chances of finding work in the civilian economy. Employers of illegal workers will oppose that policy option for obvious reasons.

A second course is for states and/or the federal government to raise the minimum wage. By raising the minimum wage to living-wage levels, say, $15/hour currently, governments shut down sweatshops that employ illegal workers at poverty-level wages. Sweatshops cannot pay a living wage and they close down when compelled to do so.  By denting the supply of poverty-level jobs, states and the federal government could reduce the economic attractiveness of the United States to the low-wage workers who constitute the bulk of illegal immigrants. The sweatshops would migrate to countries that tolerate them, taking with them the poverty-level immigrant workers who would otherwise have entered the United States illegally and worked illegally.  State inequalities in minimum wage levels are already shuffling illegal migrants toward states in the South and West that use the low federal standard and away from states that impose higher-than-federal minimum wages. Minimum wage deflection works and might provide a cost-effective national deterrent to illegal migration.  

The advantage of both of those administrative methods is low cost and flexibility. Employee registers and high minimum wages would cost very little to administer and they would have a major depressant effect upon any influx of illegal immigrants in the future. There would be complaints, of course, that government has become too intrusive and that high minimum wages diminish the employment opportunities for native-born youth. But if the policy goal is to cost-effectively reduce illegal immigration, to have that declared the supreme directive, then some collateral damage has to be accepted. People who cannot accept either exclusion policy (E-verify expansion or higher federal minimum wage) should rethink the wisdom of tolerating illegal immigrants in the population as a way of dealing with unauthorized immigrants.

The United States is not the only country that attracts unwanted and undocumented immigrants. European countries have as many illegals as does the United States. Every continent experiences this problem, but especially the rich countries of Europe and North America. In the present world, unwanted immigration is a nasty policy problem to which there are no easy or painless answers that will please everyone.