The political season is upon us, with one spat being whether "comprehensive immigration reform" is a fancy way of saying "amnesty."  That's a topic that has been tackled by a number of researchers over the years (look who's still high in the hit parade!)  The most contested part appears to be the so-called "welfare immigration" (and "anchor babies" and all the rest.)  Donald Boudreaux suggests, pace Milton Friedman, that there's more to the topic than the welfare migration.
The fact that some, or even many, immigrants come to America to bilk U.S. taxpayers does not, standing alone, argue against more-open immigration. Working immigrants' extra private-sector output and contributions to tax revenues might well outweigh the burdens created by other immigrants' use of America's welfare state.

Closely related is the heavy emphasis in U.S. immigration law on preventing immigrants from working.
But that emphasis, and the underground economy that accompanies the policy constraints, can be a coherent policy for managing the welfare migration. "We suggest that border patrols, the apprehension of illegal aliens, and the offering of immigration amnesties may be viewed as different facets of the same policy. A rich country can use this policy mix to attract cheap foreign workers while avoiding low ability migrants, who, once amnestied, become a burden on the public purse."  In fact, a policy that appears internally inconsistent might in fact encourage the more ambitious migrants to self-identify. "Encouraging self-selection is optimal under some, but not all, circumstances, because there are mixes of potential immigrants for which the cost of welfare migration is more than offset by the gains from productive workers enticed by a more lenient immigration policy. Furthermore, under plausible assumptions, the rich country's optimum may require a probabilistic rather than a certain amnesty to fine-tune the mix of migrants. Numerical examples illustrate that probabilistic or certain amnesties, addressed to different partitions of the migrant population, are each optimal as the mix of potential migrants changes." But there are challenges to policy-makers, including what economists refer to as a time-consistency problem, in which amnesty today raises hopes of a future amnesty.  That's a sub-text in a recent Victor Hanson column criticizing sanctuary cities.
Many Americans support a pathway to legal residence for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States -- if the border is first closed to further illegal immigration, if legal immigration is made ethnically blind and predicated on merit such as education and skills, if undocumented immigrants pay a fine and meet residency requirements, if applicants for legal residence are neither on public assistance nor have committed crimes, and if those with criminal records and without work records are sent back to their countries of origin.
An amnesty concurrent with tighter border enforcement might be allocatively efficient, as well as a way of addressing the time-consistency problem.  There's some heavy mathematics to this point in Arye Hillman and Avi Weiss, "A Theory of Permissible Illegal Immigration."
Under initial conditions where no immigrants are present, the median voter opposes immigration. When, however, a population of illegal immigrants has accumulated, ongoing illegal immigration becomes an endogenous equilibrium policy, at the same time that a majority of voters opposes legal immigration and opposes amnesty that would legalize the immigrants' presence.
In "The Why, When, and How of Immigration Amnesties," Gil Epstein and Avi Weiss take up the resource allocation challenge.
We consider government behavior with respect to allocations on limiting infiltration (border control) and apprehending infiltrators (internal control) and with respect to the granting of amnesties, the timing of amnesties, and limitations on eligibility for those amnesties. We demonstrate the effects of government actions on allocations and the flow of immigrants, and how the interactions between these factors combine to yield an optimal amnesty policy.
Note in all of the research cited that immigration amnesty is not evidence of a failed immigration policy, it is a policy instrument that can be used improperly.  There are still research opportunities in modeling immigration policies where legal and illegal labor force flows coexist, as in the issuance of H-2B visas to circus roustabouts from many of the same countries whose residents board trains for the border.

No comments: