21.3.05

A REPLACEMENT POST. This is a restored post from my saved files. If there's one much like it, stamped one minute earlier, the archives have been fixed.

CONTINUING THE RESEARCH PROJECT. Milt Rosenberg finds Mark Krikorian in The National Interest, advocating serious changes in immigration policy.

President Bush has pledged to expend political capital to pass an immigration plan that would legalize illegal aliens currently in the United States as "temporary workers" and import an unlimited number of new workers from abroad--something he reiterated in his State of the Union address. One of his principal arguments has been that such an initiative would enhance America's security by allowing enforcement authorities to focus their efforts more narrowly, by shrinking the haystack that the terrorist needles are hiding in. To use a different analogy, a guestworker or amnesty program would deny terrorists cover by draining the pool of ten million illegal aliens and ensure that an ongoing flow of foreign workers comes through legal channels.

On the surface, this appears reasonable. Terrorists have indeed benefited from our lawless immigration system. A 2002 study by the Center for Immigration Studies found that the 48 Al-Qaeda-affiliated operatives in the United States from 1993 to 2001 had compromised virtually every facet of the immigration system. Mass illegal immigration creates a large market for fraudulent documents, allowing the 9/11 hijackers, for instance, to amass more than sixty U.S. driver licenses. Mass illegal immigration also overwhelms the resources available to law enforcement...

Yup, resources have opportunity costs. That's this research project, which will be the objective of this progress report. Here's the conundrum according to Krikorian:

So shrinking the number of illegal aliens living in the United States, reducing the flow of new illegals and generally restoring order to our anarchic immigration system are clearly security imperatives. But can a guestworker program achieve these goals? It cannot. Support for such an approach is premised on two basic assumptions that turn out to be false.

The first assumption is that the Department of Homeland Security has the administrative capacity to properly screen and track millions of currently illegal aliens and millions more new foreign workers. Such an assertion is laughable to anyone with even a passing familiarity with our immigration bureaucracy. Even before 9/11, the old Immigration and Naturalization Service was choking on mass immigration.

More careful screening imposes a higher cost per applicant on the taxpayers. On the other hand, to shift the screening costs to the applicant raises the temptation for lawful immigrants to hire smugglers. Everywhere I look I see tradeoffs. That's probably Visual I for Wednesday's workshop. I also see opportunities for future research.

The second claim of those promoting a guestworker program as a security measure is that it will end--or at least radically curtail--illegal immigration. Tamar Jacoby, a high-profile spokesperson for the president's plan, recently instructed: "Think of it as a reservoir or a river we're trying to channel into a pipeline. The problem isn't the flow: We need the water. The problem is that the pipeline isn't big enough." In other words, there is a fixed amount of foreign labor that the American economy demands, and our immigration arrangements accommodate only a portion of that demand, forcing the rest to come in illegally. If only the illegal overflow were legalized, the problem would disappear.

Immigration, however, is very different from what this image suggests. The labor market is not designed for any specific level of immigration, or even a specific number of unskilled jobs. It is not a static system, but rather a dynamic one that responds to price signals and substitutes factors of production when appropriate. Labor is substituted for capital when the price of labor falls (say, through massive importation of foreign workers), and the opposite happens when the price of unskilled labor rises (say, through consistent immigration enforcement). Of course, this is cold comfort to those employers who have relied on the expectation of continued non-enforcement of the immigration law, and they can be expected to fight efforts to restrict the flow of foreign labor. But this is a political problem, not an economic one. The economy would adjust quite easily to a smaller supply of immigrant labor, and the accompanying disruptions would dissipate in short order.

In fact, not only would the guestworker approach not end illegal immigration, it would almost certainly increase it. The largest flow of illegal immigration in our history before the current wave came during the bracero program, which imported Mexican guestworkers during the 1950s and early 1960s. A similar thing happened after the IRCA amnesty of 1986. This shouldn't be a surprise. Immigration always creates more immigration, whether legal or illegal, because it is driven not simply (or even principally) by wage differences but rather by networks--the family and other connections that prospective migrants use to decide where to settle or whether to move at all. Once illegal aliens are anchored here by legal status, and once new workers arrive from abroad, millions of additional people worldwide suddenly will have a connection in the United States, making immigration here a realistic option, independent of their qualification under whatever new rules we impose.

Doggone it, let me finish one paper before I have to start another one. "Accompanying disruptions" to changes in relative prices don't necessarily dissipate quickly. On the other hand, if they do, the economic incentive for extended family members to come to the United States ought to be among the disruptions that dissipate. Which is it?

But if one is going to propose a policy change, one ought to go beyond the Utopian Wonkery(TM) of this concluding paragraph.
The most responsible approach the president could take toward immigration would be to state unequivocally that the immigration law, whatever it may be, will be enforced across the board, and that those involved in its implementation will no longer be expected to cut corners and look the other way. The result would not be a magical elimination of the illegal immigration problem, but rather a sustained reduction through attrition, as fewer prospective illegals make the trip and more of those already here give up and deport themselves. In this way terrorists would be kept off-balance, their conspiracies interrupted, their sources of cover reduced. A massive amnesty and guestworker program would do the opposite, serving only the interests of our enemies.
To an extent, this sounds like the government reducing the subjective probability of an amnesty, that's the topic of a currently circulating paper of mine. That does not by itself make the smugglers' networks go away, or the yuppies with lots of disposable income for the health club membership but no time to mow the yard stop looking for cheap gardeners.

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