No issue generates more passion in voters today than illegal immigration. Because of the focus on the economic aspect of illegal immigration, the security aspect is often lost in the debate. It is axiomatic, however, that if 11 million illegal immigrants looking for work can cross America’s porous borders or overstay visas, then a handful of terrorists certainly can, too. This reality, therefore, requires us to determine who is here, who is coming, and who is going.
Until now, the federal government has acted without giving proper thought to the incentives or disincentives related to illegal immigration. This history makes it all the more important that Washington fixes the problem by enforcing existing laws, providing additional authorities for border and interior enforcement where needed, and reforming America’s counterproductive visa and naturalization system. Washington can create a permanent solution for the remaining illegal immigrants here that all Americans will support only once America’s borders are secure, foreign visitors cannot overstay their visas, and employers can fill their hiring needs with legal rather than illegal workers. Until then, any amnesty proposal is premature because of the uncertain number of remaining illegal immigrants.
The Three-Legged Stool of Immigration
To identify a way forward, it is useful to view immigration as a stool built on three legs and recognize that a weakness in one leg creates structural pressure on the other legs, thereby risking the collapse of the stool itself. Immigration is largely a classic supply-and-demand problem: there is a readily available supply of labor for employers and, given America’s traditionally low unemployment figures, a demand for that labor.
The first leg is ensuring border security. If America cannot secure its border and significantly slow or stop the flow of illegal immigrants, it will be a Sisyphean task to locate, detain, and remove illegal immigrants once they are inside the country. Increasing the transactional cost for illegal immigrants and human traffickers will reduce the supply of illegal immigrants. A more secure border will make it harder to get across, thereby driving up the coyotes’ transit costs, with many illegal immigrants unable to afford the increased fees.
The next leg is enhancing the efficacy of federal, state, and local interior enforcement actions. These require cracking down on businesses who hire illegal immigrants. By increasing the transactional costs for employers, the demand for illegal immigrants decreases, and the supply decreases because the increased difficulty in finding jobs imposes transaction costs on illegal immigrants themselves. America has never truly enforced the laws on employers hiring illegal immigrants but has adopted a minimal enforcement approach. Even using E-Verify is voluntary. By getting more aggressive with employers, the use of illegal labor will invariably decline.
Controlling the border remains a priority, especially because once inside the US, law enforcement’s chances of intercepting smugglers and drugs decreases dramatically.
The third leg is establishing an efficient and vibrant visa and naturalization system. This leg requires visa transformation policies that substantially increase the number of work visas so that employers can legally bring in labor when their needs remain unmet by the existing population. A concomitant action is to shorten the time it takes for foreigners to become American citizens. These elements focus on both supply and demand by reducing the incentives to illegally enter the United States. Similarly, increasing the number of highly skilled workers will ensure that the world’s best, brightest, and greatest risk takers compete for America, not against it.
Overall, a solution to the illegal immigration challenge that incorporates direct and indirect transactional costs within each of the three legs provides the right incentives and disincentives for American businesses, workers, and immigrants.
Matt A. Mayer
Article published on AEI official website