Our Immigration Mess

One of the biggest problems with our immigration system is that we do not have a coherent process for people to follow towards citizenship. Let’s examine this more closely. We treat immigration law as though it were the same as making a purchase. People go to a store, choose what they want, wait in a checkout line, and pay for their items. The whole system is orderly. Going through a crowded four-way stop is similar. There is an order to the process, a set of rules that (almost) everyone knows to follow. So people reasonably believe that the immigration process also involves following an orderly procedure that is the same for everyone. Even people who have immigrated here feel this way, particularly those whose process was straightforward. They take their sample of one and assume that everyone else simply has to follow the same procedure to immigrate to the United States. But nothing could be further from reality.

In both the written and practiced immigration laws, things are complicated. Some people are furious about illegal immigrants, a term that has no legal basis. The phrase “illegal immigrant” has been used to refer to people who have come here without inspection (that’s the actual phrasing used by ICE) as well as people who have overstayed their visa. The problem with such terminology is that it conveniently ignores many paths to lawful citizenship. People applying for a refugee visa generally have to come here first and THEN apply. So while they are waiting, what should we call them? People who came here to work and live without a visa, after they have been here long enough, can become lawful permanent residents but only if ICE catches them. Following graduation, students will often have one visa expire before they are able to acquire the requisite H1-B for employment, leaving them in a veritable no-man’s-land while they wait. Even marriage visas, which are truly the easiest path towards citizenship, have differing processes depending on the country the person is immigrating from.

A better analogy for immigration, then, would be a store that has many policies for making purchases. Customers are given store ID cards that have different stipulations attached. If you do not have an ID, you can come in the south door, and you have to wait in a line outside the store. The store management allows one or two people in at a time while the line continues to grow. If you are coming from the west, you can come in the store freely without an ID, but you can’t purchase anything without first filling out a stack of forms and waiting for approval. If you are coming from the north, you are allowed to enter freely and purchase as much as you like by showing your ID from another store. If you are coming from the east, you are allowed to enter freely, but your purchases are limited to a certain amount. What’s more, you can sneak into the store through the loading dock, though you then run the risk of being banned forever if you are caught. Once inside, you can only make purchases by pretending to have entered from the west and filling out the same paperwork. No one runs a store this way because that would be insane. So why do we run our immigration system this way?

A better approach would be to have one process for anyone entering the country. The first visa would be simple permission to enter and would be granted after criminal background checks and basic health screening. This visa would allow the holder to enter the country freely, travel, shop, live, and work. These people would be required to pay any applicable taxes and follow all local, state, and federal laws or risk deportation. They would qualify for protection under all workplace regulations, and would be able to file complaints against employers or sue for damages. The second visa would be for those wishing to pursue citizenship. This visa would require demonstrating community involvement through work, volunteer activities, and family presence. We could require some competence in English at this stage, and some civic education. The second visa would qualify the holder to purchase land and to participate in government programs (think school scholarships, tax credits, social security, that sort of thing). Once a person earns this visa, they can then apply for citizenship after a given amount of time, perhaps three years. Citizens have the right to vote, and the responsibility to serve in the armed forces and on juries.

The benefits of this sort of simplified system would be numerous. The labor market would be more competitive, and employers would not be able to take advantage of depressed immigrant wages. In the current system, both undocumented workers doing low-wage work and H1-B visa holders in highly specialized fields provide reduced-cost labor to employers. By removing the fear of deportation, undocumented workers would feel much more secure in demanding competitive wages and safe working environments. Similarly, companies would not be able to take advantage of the desire of most H1-B visa holders to stay in the country, since they would be able to remain under the proposed system, even if they lose a job. The government does not need to place artificial pressure on them to work; their own humanity and natural economic pressures will accomplish that aim.

If communism has taught us anything, it is that centrally planned economies do not function. Why do we accept this as true within our system, but do not see that it is also true in regards to immigrant labor? That is, the government is highly inefficient in determining which workers we need to maintain a healthy economy. The competitive market is much better at such determinations. Allowing people to come regardless of employment will lead to improved market outcomes, in large part because they will then have more flexibility within the labor market to respond to shifting demand.

The economic strength of the US is due in large part to the fluidity in markets across state borders; that is, people and goods can move freely from place to place. Free trade economics has a basis in the reality of our own open interstate commerce. But many free trade agreements ignore the fact that labor is an essential part of a competitive market, and that without freedom of movement, the economy will endure multiple inefficiencies. Let me make a concrete example using farming in the US and Mexico. Under NAFTA, the US could import cheap produce from Mexico, but cheap labor from Mexico could not enter the US, at least not easily. Farms in the states were therefore unable to cover their production costs with the lower produce sale prices, which had a negative impact on many small farming communities. Imagine if, instead, workers from Mexico had been able to enter easily to fill the jobs on the farms in the US. In addition to preventing US farms from going out of business, the competitive wage for farm labor would have likely stabilized at a rate higher than that in Mexico, while produce prices would have dropped, though not as much. But because the free trade was one-sided, we caused harm to both economies.

Our immigration system is a complicated bureaucracy that harms both immigrants and our economy. Reforming the system must include simplification. I propose a three-phase visa process. The first visa would prevent criminals and people with contagious deadly illness from entering the country while allowing workers to come and go easily. The second visa would provide a stepping-stone for people interested in becoming citizens, and provide some additional filters for ensuring that we cultivate an educated citizenry. Finally, after an appropriate period, these people would be able to apply for citizenship and participate fully in our government. This system would improve market outcomes while preventing harm to citizens. The current immigration system is in desperate need of an overhaul. I hope that when we do overhaul it, we replace it with this sort of simplified process.