Our immigration system is badly broken. Although our borders have become far more secure in recent years, too many people seeking illegal entry get through. We have no way to track whether the millions who enter the United States on valid visas each year leave when they are supposed to. And employers are burdened by a complicated system for verifying workers' immigration status.I am weary of politicians who call for legislation by decrying some part of our economy as "badly broken" and comprehensive legislation to fix these problems. While the senators do not call their proposal a comprehensive plan, it certainly is. While the senators correctly observe that the government has difficulty keeping track of people entering the country illegally or overstaying their visas, they do not claim economic damage due to illegal entry. This damage is harder to find and quantify than many might believe and some researchers find net gains. For example, Ottaviano and Peri find that the wages of low skilled workers do fall, but that is based on the low wages earned by immigrants. Low skilled workers born in the experience a 3 to 4% increase in wages ("Rethinking the Gains from Immigration: Theory and Evidence from the U.S.," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 11672, September 2005.
If illegal immigration does not cause economic or other damage, then the governmental apparatus designed to stop it could be considered an unwarranted expense and intrusion on people's liberty. The people I refer to are legal citizens who trade with illegal immigrants. I suppose that I am part of a tiny minority that does not view immigration, particularly illegal immigration as a big problem and if immigration is to be limited rationally, the senators' outline could improve existing laws. They provide a very broad outline.
Our plan has four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.I have a couple of comments on their pillars. If you wish to limit illegal immigration, some sort of high tech identification will be necessary. Carrying yet another card is a legal citizen's burden of controlling the border.
Their plan for stopping illegal immigration does not deal with the problem of anchor babies: foreign parents securing U.S. citizenship for their children by birthing them in the U.S. and then using U.S. law that attempts to keep families intact to secure their own citizenship. If the senator's plan works at curbing illegal employment, we may find that successfully stopping the parents from gaining employment may be more expensive to taxpayers than allowing them to work illegally. For example, perhaps the parents will return to Mexico until the child turns eighteen and then return to the U.S. Their child will have a substandard education, will not speak English, and may not have their parents' drive to succeed. They will qualify for welfare benefits.
The four pillars do not separate high skilled workers who wish to work legally in the U.S. from low skilled workers who come illegally, but the rest of their article does make this distinction. The high skilled workers could certainly be dealt with in an independent, less controversial bill that if more likely to pass. The economist in me finds it difficult to oppose intelligent, high skilled workers from working in the U.S. The Grinch in me must point out that if immigration of low skilled workers hurts the wages of American born low skilled workers than the immigration of high skilled workers must have the same impact on the wages high skilled workers.
Finally, a plan to deal with illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship. I am not big on punishment for arriving illegally because I do not believe that the crime is big. I rate it about like driving ten miles an hour over the limit on the highway and most of us do that or worse on a daily basis. By coming illegally to the U.S., many guarantee their children better nutrition, health, education and higher standard of living. While it is illegal behavior, it is also moral behavior.