Immigration Reality Check

Immigration seems to be the topic of the moment. Jon Henke continues his usual habit of bursting bubbles on the right and left by pointing out the incentive problems of the US-Mexico immigration situation that are simply not going to go away:

Sure, we could begin a supply-side "war on illegals" — round em up, ship em back and secure the borders. But that's a fantasy. We'll never "secure" the borders. We can police it and we might reduce the flow to some extent, but humans ingenuity is a remarkable thing. So long as the incentives are there, people will find a way around any policing effort we might mount. (How's that War on Drugs working out so far?)

And unlike interdiction efforts in the War on Drugs, we just catch and release illegal immigrants to try again the next day. So, no, a supply-side program won't help much at all — and, on net, it will hurt. ...

The only possible domestic solution to illegal immigration is to deal with the demand side — i.e., to impose very significant fines and jail terms on people who employ illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, the War on Drugs again gives us some insight into the problems with demand-side enforcement. We'll end up with onerous and liberty-destroying government surveillance of employers, federally mandated IDs and background checks for US citizens, and people going to jail for hiring insufficiently-investigated immigrants. And god forbid you pay an undocumented worker to mow the yard or clean the house.

Jon also points out what I hinted at in the last sentence of my earlier post: there is a direct conflict of incentives between labour policies generally favoured by lefties and efforts to discourage off-the-books hiring of illegal immigrants. Hiring illegals carries risk for businesses, but the risks are outweighed by what they save on the costs of employing them without the regulatory burden. Liberals who want to discourage the exploitation of illegals and conservatives who want immigrants to play by the same rules as everyone else ought to be campaigning for less onerous labour market regulation. This would be much more likely to achieve the desired effect with much less cost than attacking the symptom rather than the fundamental incentive structure.

Not that I expect to see such a change of focus anytime soon, but I guess political infeasibility is the price you pay for getting to the heart of the matter.

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"I guess political

"I guess political infeasibility is the price you pay for getting to the heart of the matter."

Ha! Great line.

As I just commented at

As I just commented at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

"Seems to me the war on illegal immigration is as likely to succeed as the war on drugs. In both cases you're trying to fight voluntary transactions between parties who find them mutually beneficial, and most of the harmful effects are consequences of the transactions being illegal rather than the transactions themselves."

Kevin, I think I actually

Kevin, I think I actually picked that up from someone else, but it does seem to be a sad truism.

Jim, I notice over at Dispatches you mentioned studies showing that illegals are net revenue contributors. Do you have any links for that claim that I could look at? I was recently conjecturing just that in an argument with McQ at QandO, but I didn't have the data to prove it. Any leads would be greatly appreciated.

This San Jose Mercury News

This San Jose Mercury News article reports on some studies that say break-even, and a Rand economist is quoted saying there's consensus non net gain:

(There's a Rand report on immigration here: I don't know its conclusions.)

There's a Nov. 1996 article in _The Atlantic_ by Borjas (only available to subscribers, and I'm not one) that says it's a $7 billion net gain.


The study I had seen reported most recently was from an individual U.S. state, but I haven't been able to find it again (I can't remember which state it was).

Here's a good one:

Jim, there's nothing in

Jim, there's nothing in those links that says illegal immigrants are net contributors. I'm looking through Borjas' papers now, though, so thanks for namedropping him.

You're right... now I can't

You're right... now I can't remember if the one state study (that I still can't find, though I saw it within the last few months) focused on illegal immigration or just immigration.

Here's a study that claims that illegal immigrants create a net deficit, and that amnesty will increase that deficit because they will use more services:

What parts of labor

What parts of labor regulation qualify as "onerous?"

You know your proposed

You know your proposed solutions wouldn't work for curtailing any sort of illegal behavior. Suppose the only penalty for rapist, murderers, and thieves was that we transported them to the other side of some porous border and released them. You certainly wouldn’t expect that to curtail their behavior, would you?

The only thing you have shown is that half measures don’t work here. If we are going to consider illegal immigration criminal then we have to treat them like criminals. In order for it to work we need to have real penalties that include restitution. There are costs involved in catching and incarcerating these lawbreakers that need to be recouped from them and the employers who employ them in a effort to avoid taxes.

Of course this is a big problem since in effect you would be converting these people from non-taxpaying parasites into slave labor. Not something that appeals to me, and I don’t see a way around it that fits libertarian doctrine. After all libertarians are against forced schooling.

Seems to me that the liberal west is doomed if these are the choices. We are essentially having a war waged against us via what are now non-classical liberal institutions.

Replicators that breed fast, often, and without much investment in their young will eventually collapse the system. It used to at least be the situation that the cultural replicators that sustained the system would infest the new biological replicators during the immigration process. That is no longer happening.

I don’t see this happening under an anarchist or libertarian system. Instead I see a different situation. Under such systems the only people who would be “true citizens” would be people who had ownership over land and their families. Everyone else would be in a limbo state where they could be evicted from their place of birth based on issues beyond their control. Sure American landowner farmers could bring in Mexican workers to pick their crops but should the croplands shrink because of mechanization then they could also evict those people.

A landowner might convert to Christianity and decide that only Christians should be allowed to work on his property and fire all non-Christians. It would be easy for him to suck up the raised costs involved in this since his land would not be taxed in the magical land of anarchism and libertarianism. . Property rights are secure without costs in such a fantasyland. He could swallow those costs in the same way that people who pick enjoyable careers absorb the lower wages as a cost of the increased pleasure obtained during working hours. After all it is much more pleasant for him to be surrounded by only Christians in his business. Of course the reality is that there are costs involved in defending property against usurpers and his reduced income would result in an increased likelihood that his neighbors would invade him when they see his weakened state.

I could see anarchism and libertarianism breaking down into a competitive clan based society. I don’t know if that is what would happen for sure but it has a high probability.

So no matter what system you have in place you are going to have to deal with issues of genetic and social replicators competing for survival and dominance. I say dominance because there is a natural tendency for a prevailing social mimetic cluster to reduce replication costs for it’s own members. If you don’t believe me then just try getting a date or a job as an atheist in a religious dominated world. Go examine the economics of being a minority in a Muslim dominated society. It isn’t easy defending your property against Muslims in such a society. Costs associated with every aspect of replication go up for the non-believer. Everything from defense to finding a mate has higher associated costs. This is no accident either. Islam evolved to be this way, as have many other cultures.

In this game of immigration it is the cultures that are most tyrannical that are going to win out. No one wants to move to these countries and they end up overflowing with surplus population precisely because they tyrannical. One needs children to support oneself in your old age when property rights are not secure and there is no social retirement scheme in place. Thus there is a greater incentive to have children in such societies.

Without a filter on the incoming immigrants they are bound to have different social attitudes that will overwhelm the native society. We had the filters in the past and they worked. They involved schooling, racism, and borders that were closed for ethnic groups that did not share a western cultural heritage.

I am pessimistic that the schooling filter will work any longer. This because the current situation is that the schools have been overrun with socialists and Marxists. That was mainly due to the lack of filtering also, plus foreign covert funding. In the past it was funding from the USSR. We are seeing the same thing with Islam now. Money is pouring in to the US from places like Saudi Arabia to build Mosques and spread hatred of our beliefs, history and institutions.

It would be great if the entire world shared our cultural heritage. We could then have open borders without any problems. This isn’t about race or religion per se. West Indian blacks are more culturally compatible with this country than many whites currently inhabiting professorships at our universities, like Ward Churchill. Most religions as currently practiced are compatible, however some are not. These are mainly ones spawned from roots in Islamic Arabia. Although there are some home grown US Christian ones like the Westboro Baptist Church that are also problematic. Again, I don’t see how libertarianism can deal with kin based cultural groups like this. Not the kind of libertarianism that doesn’t have the concept of libel and slander.

Suing for slander is how I would deal with these kinds of cults [Islam and WBC]. I see their hateful beliefs as libelous when expressed and therefore see their actual teachings as legally enjoinable [prohibitable]. That is I think we can prohibit speech that is false that is also threatening or endangering to others. Much of the Koran is that way, and certainly the sections of the Bible that the WBC utilizes are.

One need not ban these books to accomplish this. Selling the Bible or Koran as fiction would not run you afoul of any slander issues. What would cause trouble is teaching that the Bible or Koran was the inerrant word of God. One should expect other people to act on verses like the ones the Westboro Baptist Church promotes if they are convinced that they are the inerrant word of God. Thus when you see something like this: where it states “SODOMY IS AN ABOMINABLE SIN, WORTHY OF DEATH” then if one is a “fag” then it is reasonable to believe that this is advocating your murder and therefore endangering you. If an act is perpetrated on this advice then the entire WBC congregation should be considered criminally involved and held severally and collectively liable. Being a part of an organization that advocates murder and then implements it is a criminal activity.

Furthermore, the mere advocating murder itself is a trespass and should be enjoined. This could be done through civil law. One can sue organizations that teach these hateful lessons when their members act out upon them. One can also sue them directly for saying them in the first place. The Qur’an contains the false claim that all Jews are greedy. Thus someone claiming that the Qu’ran is the inerrant word of Allah should be able to be sued by any Jew who is not greedy and cares to pursuit the matter. Monetary damages plus and enjoinment against future claims of this sort would be in order.

I think if that were the law of the land it would certainly put a dent in Islamic immigration to this country, thus providing some protection from it’s aggressive and violent nature.

Surely the issue of immigration cannot be dealt with in isolation. Many things need to change. We cannot just open the borders.

Steve, Well for just two big


Well for just two big examples, price floors on wages and employer-paid health care. These could be solved by eliminating the minimum wage and replacing it with negative income tax if necessary, and divorcing health care from employment and putting it on a portable individual basis.


Oh give me a break. Are you seriously comparing illegal immigrants who come to the U.S. TO WORK with theives and rapists? I shouldn't think I need to educate you on the difference between peaceful exchange and violent crime. In any case economic reasoning would suggest that combined with a more streamlined immigration process, such measures as I suggest would indeed tend to lower the frequency of illegal hiring (and hence illegal immigration once the incentive is nolonger there), since the costs the employer would save by hiring illegals would in most cases then be outweighed by the risk of being caught.

Matt, All policies I agree


All policies I agree with sans immigration issues as it is. :)

However, I'm curious as to whether illegal immigrants routinely make significantly less than minimum wage in the first place. The healthcare requirements are probably more significant and likely the easier of the two politically.

Also, in the immigration debate there is usually a missing side: Mexico. The incentives to immigrate to the US exist only relative to the conditions in Mexico (and Guatemala, El Salvador, etc.). Trade protectionism is only partially to blame, the US needs to open up more of its markets to foreign competition. But the US also needs to actively help fight corruption in Mexico and Mexico needs to put more reforms in place.

Agreed, which is another

Agreed, which is another reason why immigration benefits the US in the long run -- remittances from workers in the US are Mexico's biggest single source of revenue, IIRC, and the more the US can do to speed along Mexico's economic development the faster the immigration flow will trail off and dwindle.

The analogy to the war on

The analogy to the war on drugs is quite weak. People are not like drugs, in several ways. People are much harder to hide, because we are bigger than drugs, and also because we have needs. People can be tracked because we act in predictable ways to fulfill those needs. Drugs don't act. And drugs can be concentrated to make smuggling them easier. Although Mexicans may be smaller on average than us, it's not a side effect of their illegality in this country.

None of which is to dispute the point in its broadest application. Yes, no matter what we do, there will always be at least some intentional illegal immigration. And the same is true of drugs. The analogy does hold if you merely want "greater than zero" as the analogous result. But of course that is not what is at issue in either case. Rather, what's at issue is: would be policy in question be effective? The difference is, with drugs we have clear evidence that the levels cannot be held down low enough to solve the social problems around them. For illegal immigrants the case has not be made, but unfortunately I think that we'd only need to give up a little more liberty and money to reduce the "problem" down to a level where we know the influx is assimilable.

Are you seriously comparing

Are you seriously comparing illegal immigrants who come to the U.S. TO WORK with theives and rapists?

That wasn't the point and you know it. The point was that deporting them is not a punishment, and wouldn't work against rapists and murderers either, especially with porous borders. The issue was enforcement.

If I were comparing illegal immigrants for the actual crimes they commit like thieft of service, then they are more like serial trespassers, insurance frauds, con artists, and forgers. Which don't classify as rapists but do as theives.

So, oh give me a break yourself.

"For illegal immigrants the

"For illegal immigrants the case has not be made, but unfortunately I think that we’d only need to give up a little more liberty and money to reduce the “problem” down to a level where we know the influx is assimilable."
Or, of course, we could just declare publicly "99% of you illegal immigrants are hereby legal! Step forward to get your US passports."

This step would completely eliminate the social problems associated with illegal immigration.

Sorry snark, but the social

Sorry snark, but the social problems due to illegal immigration are only slightly due to its illegality. Mainly it is the immigration itself, or to put it more accurately, the immigration given our socialist institutions. So, just giving a blanket amnesty wouldn't solve most of the problems, though it would of course solve the "illegal" status. We'd have to combine an amnesty with an elimination of the State, which does not seem too politically feasible just now.

What would happen with truly free immigration without state abolition? Well, given that 40+% of Mexicans would like to immigrate, (see ), we'd see a truly vast influx of Mexicans. But Mexicans make up the vast majority of illegals for a simple enough reason: they're physically close, and that helps for border-jumping. It's cheap to get here. If we really did open the borders, then perhaps 10 or 20% of the world's population might want to move here. How would we deal with a rapid increase to a population of a billion? Almost all of them would be coming from dirt-poor countries vastly more socialistic than the USA. (Mexico is rich compared to a lot of the third world.) Is there any reason to think that the immigrant influx would vote for liberty rather than regulation, tax and spend, etc.? I don't think so. Rather the reverse.

"We’d have to combine an

"We’d have to combine an amnesty with an elimination of the State, which does not seem too politically feasible just now."
Ok, well, here is what I wrote in another forum:
"People that knowingly employ illegal immigrants should face financial penalties ($5,000 per illegal employee) [don't know the current or proposed law].

People that are illegal immigrants can join the list just like people living overseas, but must first provide proof of employment for 11 years, proof of existing employment in the U.S., pay all back taxes, pay a $5,000 fine, and have committed no felonies or more than 6 misdemeaners [closely matches one of the bills being proposed].

Illegal immigrants in America that have fullfilled all the above but have not yet become citizens (the number of which is capped to, say, 1 million a year) will automatically receive Guest Worker VISAs. These will allow them to freely travel (even to Mexico) and no longer fear deportation, as long as they retain employment and avoid criminal convictions.

Hell, now that I think about it, people in Mexico should be able to apply for this program, too. It is basically a Guest Worker program, with a very high number of slots."

Henke writes: The only

Henke writes:

The only possible domestic solution to illegal immigration is to deal with the demand side...

It seems to me that simply removing the laws against free immigration would solve the problem of illegal immigration.

Am I missing something?

Matt, These could be solved


These could be solved by eliminating the minimum wage and replacing it with negative income tax if necessary,..

How would a negative income tax be necessary?

...and divorcing health care from employment and putting it on a portable individual basis.

Are you saying employers should not be allowed to offer non-portable health care as an employment benefit?

You know there are aspects

You know there are aspects of corporations such as limited liability that are not compatible with a just system. That however does not lead me to believe that therefore non-employees should be able to enter the premises and start using the xerox machines at will, and if they were that we should offer them amnesty.

Like it or not this country does have social capital which can either be utilized for the betterment of those who contributed to it or to social parasites who don't pay taxes and yet expect to be let in the local emergency room, get food stamps, and the rest of it. The fact that there are internal social parasites does not in any way argue for adding to the load via illegal immigration.

... and no the problem does not go away by just making them legal.

John, "Necessary" in both


"Necessary" in both the pragmatic political sense and from the POV of a bleeding-heart liberal who doesn't want anyone falling below a certain basic poverty threshhold. I'm aiming for outreach here.


Fair enough points, but keep in mind that "our" liberty is not the only cost that needs to go on the balance sheet. The liberty of Mexicans and such should matter just as much.


You punish rapists, murderers and thieves precisely because what they do merits punishment. You still haven't established why it should be desirable to keep people from coming into the country to work. And don't give me that "theft of service" stuff -- by that metric a hefty portion of the bottom income quintile of the US are theives. I understand that it's not desirable to add to that number, which is why I'm more than happy to sign on to any plan that barrs immigrants from drawing out entitlement payments from the government, but illegal immigrants are not particularly special in that regard.

Matt, I get your point, but

Matt, I get your point, but it's not clear to me what would happen vis-a-vis overall liberty from free immigration. You take a perfectly good country, ours, and mire it in socialism. So we lose bigtime. On the other hand, all those third worlders currently in hellholes like Haiti that might become immigrants (and probably most of Haiti would come because it sucks so hard there), would gain a tremendous amount of liberty by coming here.

I tend to think the gain and loss are more or less balanced in the short run, to the extent that we could measure them at all (which is minimal). In the long run, though, I find the outcome much more troubling. I think humanity needs examples.

There's also an argument to be made that by not draining all the most dynamic people out of the third world, we'd actually be doing them collectively a favor. Of course it sucks for the dynamic people, who'd otherwise move here and be better off. But for the bovine masses surrounding them, it's a better deal to have them close by.

Also, as a separate point, while I agree that from a utilitarian POV one does need to account for the happiness of everyone, I'm not a utilitarian. I do think happiness is important, but I don't see it as rising to a moral issue. Given that, I don't feel bound to try to increase anyone's happiness outside a very small circle that I'm personally invested in. The argument for free borders comes from the human right to move freely (so long as you're not aggressing in said movement). It does not come from making people happy.

Put another way, I'm not for freedom because it makes people happy (though I think it does). I'm for freedom because I am against its opposite, namely, coercion and aggression.

Leonard, I never said I was

Leonard, I never said I was a hedonic utilitarian myself. I just think any respectable ethical philosophy has to treat everyone as having basically the same a priori moral standing.

Matt- What about an ethical


What about an ethical philosophy that has an objective standard and then measures people against it? That meets your criteria of a priori equal moral standing, since prior to the application of the measure everyone is the same status. That is to say, "everyone is equal until we figure out which one is White and which one is Black, with the White being better than the Black" formally meets your criteria of a priori equal moral standing yet is odious and not worthy of respect.

I think you're hinting at a natural rights-ish "all people are created equal" - i.e. the objective standard IS that everyone has equal moral standing (and, most importantly) PERIOD. That is to say, there is no philosophical rule or rather no respectable philosophical rule that will say *at root* some people have higher moral standing than others. I.E. no master race theories, no superior class theories, etc etc. All moral status changes are posterior to the initial equal position, and I'd think would have to be either reversible OR non-inheritable; i.e. the ethic rules out inherited moral inequality. I'm not sure thats the same thing as simply having a priori equal moral standing.

JTK- The tax subsidy given


The tax subsidy given by the Federal Govt to employers for offering health insurance should be eliminated. If, after facing the true cost of health insurance, companies wish to offer it anyway, then fine. Absent tax subsidies for corporate health care, one would expect to see less of it, especially in stressed sectors who could cut out insurance, pay more on the wage side and still come out ahead.

Steven- It is no small point


It is no small point that FICA taxes and compliance costs associated with those taxes are huge and drive a great deal of economic activity into the grey/black market. The market for *illegal* immigrant nannies and housekeepers will not go away even with a liberalized immigration program simply because both sides are willing to 'break the law' and split the positive difference. Ditto for agricultural workers; so long as there is a wage floor there will be 'illegal' immigration (or at least black market labor from recent legal migrants).

Brian, The tax subsidy given


The tax subsidy given by the Federal Govt to employers for offering health insurance should be eliminated.

That's fine but it certainly doesn't amount to "divorcing health care from employment and putting it on a portable individual basis".

JTK- It is the functional


It is the functional equivalent of such. The reason middling corporate entities and smaller offer health care is because of the massive tax write off. Absent that, they'd drop the hyperexpensive plans and pass some of it down as increased wages. As goes the middle, so will go the big boys in a few years (witness dinosaur GM for those companies who refuse to change and ditch 19th century compensation schemes).

THerefore, i.e., ergo, removing the tax write off would divorce healthcare insurance from employment and, by default, lead to intermediary solutions that are be definition portable.

That's like saying removing

That's like saying removing marriage tax breaks would generally divorce husbands from wives.

There are perfectly sound reasons for employers to offer non-portable benefits such as health care in the absence of tax breaks.

Brian is correct about what

Brian is correct about what I was getting at with both the health care comment and ethics.