A Survey of the United States Humanitarian Migrant Statuses

The United States has a variety of different humanitarian statuses it offers to hopeful migrants. Below is a general survey of these various statuses and some thoughts on how they could be reformed in the near future by the executive and legislative branches respectively in order to move the US migration system towards a more sensible approach.


Temporary Protected Status

The purpose of temporary protected status (TPS) is to grant a legal status for those who find themselves unable to immediately return to their home countries due to a major natural disaster or ongoing armed conflict there. TPS is extended to all migrants from the designated country residing in the United States during the initial filing period regardless of prior migration status. It grants the ability to work in the United States and is renewable indefinitely so long the migrant’s home country is listed as eligible. Many ‘illegal migrants’ from the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua actually hold TPS status and thus better referred to as irregular migrants.

There are three chief problems with TPS. The first problem with TPS is that it has no method for its status holders to eventually claim permanent residence if the ‘temporary’ disaster or armed conflict becomes prolonged. The second problem with TPS is that it does not cleanse the migrants in question of any unlawful presence they might have accrued previously. If a migrant is unlawfully present for more than six months but less than a year they are barred from admission into the United States for three years. Unlawful presence longer than a year warrants a ten year bar from admission. As Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute points out, a significant portion of the United States illegal-irregular migrant population could become legalized under existing pathways to citizenship but would have to leave the country to do so and therefore are barred from admission into the country. The three and ten year admission bars are particularly absurd when it comes to TPS as the migrants were granted TPS precisely because it is unsafe for them to return home yet they are asked to do just that if they wish to gain a green card.

One change to the program that the legislature could make is allow TPS holders to apply for a green card if they have held the status for five years regardless of any prior accrued unlawful presence. This change would serve as a safety should the ‘temporary’ natural disaster or armed conflict that afflicted the designated countries end up having longer term consequences than first imagined. The five year wait period for a green card, which is longer than any existing humanitarian status, would serve to discourage abuse of the TPS program.

Whilst the first two problems with TPS must be addressed by the legislature, the third problem can be fixed overnight by the executive branch. As it currently stands the executive branch has wide discretion on which countries to extend TPS to but has traditionally been reluctant to expand it. Listed below are those countries whose nationals are currently designated for TPS eligibility.


Mexico and Columbia, with their ongoing wars against drug cartels and guerillas, should easily qualify but TPS status hasn’t been extended to their nationals. Likewise neither Ukraine nor Venezuela have been included into the list of TPS eligible countries despite the armed conflicts in both countries. It is noteworthy that the US has not designated any American country for TPS eligibility due to armed conflict. Could it be that executive administrations are reluctant to admit the existence of armed conflicts occurring so close by? Regardless, the current and future executive administrations would do well to be more liberal in the designation of TPS eligibility.

Deferred Action

A related status to TPS is deferred action. Deferred action grants its holders legal presence but not status which is legally distinct. Those with deferred action may attain work authorization in the United States. Deferred action is renewable in theory but it must be emphasized that it is not a stable status and can be revoked at any time. Deferred action is granted to low priority deportation cases and usually granted on a case by case basis. The largest extension of deferred action was two years ago when the Obama administration announced ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ (DACA) for those illegal immigrants who were brought into the United States as children.
Many of the problems associated with TPS also apply to deferred action. Deferred action offers no pathway to regular migration status and it does not forgive any previous unlawful presence. The executive branch can do little to fix either of these problems and here too we must hope that the legislature rectifies the situation.

What the executive branch can do is change the manner in which deferred action is handled. Take for example the DACA program; to be eligible for the program one must have been thirty or younger on June 15th 2012 when it was first announced. There is no legislative reason for this age cap and little practical reason for the existence of the age cap. The executive branch should remove this age cap.

Some believe that the Obama administration may expand deferred action to cover a larger portion of the illegal alien population in the United States if the legislature fails to take any significant immigration reform before its summer recess. I for one would advise against such action and instead recommend being more liberal in the designation of TPS eligible countries as deferred action makes one a low priority for deportation but a priority nonetheless.

Refugee status may be granted to those outside the United States who can demonstrate on a case-by-case basis that they are in danger in their home countries. The United States refugee program is actually well constructed as it allows refugees the ability to apply for a green card within one year of being admitted and grants them the ability to work immediately upon arrival. Refugees may bring along with them spouses and minor children, and so the program avoids splitting families apart. Refugees have limited access to welfare benefits and therefore have little fiscal impact.

The chief problem with the refugee program lays in the fact that is capped. As shown below, this problem is more a matter of principle than practicality as actual arrivals are usually below the proposed ceiling. This begs the question, why do we need any caps at all if they are rarely met? Let us imagine that an individual is in danger in their home country but the refugee ceiling cap have been met, are we to ask that individual to wait till next year? It is absurd to think that someone in danger can simply wait a year.


Refugees must be admissible to the United States to quality for the status. This means that they may not qualify for the status if they are subject to the three or ten year admission bars.


Asylum is the sister of refugee status and granted under similar guidelines. Asylum may be granted to migrants already in the United States on a case by case basis who fear return to their home countries due to discrimination due to political belief, race, religion, etc. One may apply for a green card a year after being granted asylum.

There are two significant differences for those seeking asylum within the United States as opposed to refugees abroad. Asylees have no quotas, although until 2005 there was previously a cap on the number of asylees who could apply for a green card. The second difference is that asylees do not get work authorization until their application status has been approved or at least for 180 days after they submitted their application. The reasoning behind this latter difference is to avoid abuse of the asylum system from those seeking employment in the immediate future, but one can’t help wonder if making legitimate asylees wait so long for work authorization is a high cost for discouraging such abuse. When reviewing immigration law the legislature should consider making it easier for asylum applicants to pursue work while waiting for their applications to be reviewed.

One additional aspect in which the asylum process differs from other humanitarian aspects of the US immigration system is that it is unclear if those subject to the three and ten year admission bars may apply for asylum. Those who have credible applications for asylum do not accrue unlawful presence in the United States even if their application is ultimately denied. However it is unclear if asylum can be granted for if one has accrued unlawful presence in the past. We know from past actions that one can certainly apply for asylum with prior unlawful presence. In 2013 several individuals who had previously accrued unlawful presence, the “Dream 9” & “Dream 30” respectively, applied for asylum. The applications of several of these individuals were accepted, but none have actually received asylum status so for now it is unclear if the admission bars apply to asylum seekers.

U Visa

Capped at 10,000 per annum the U visa may be granted to those migrants who are victims of crimes such as abduction, assault, torture, unlawful criminal restraint, and many more that are willing to help law enforcement. The purpose of visa is to encourage cooperation from the migrant community with law enforcement as many migrants are reluctant to interact with government officials. The U visa allows its holders to apply for a green card after three years and the U visa itself is valid for four years and renewable. Throughout its validity U visa holders have work authorization.

On paper the U visa needs little reform. Its cap should be removed, but here too like the refugee program it is more a matter of principle than practicality. If a potential U visa applicant cannot acquire the U visa due to the yearly cap having been met already then they are placed into a waitlist for the following year and giving temporary relief in the form of deferred action. The U Visa could be improved if its cap was removed and if its holders could apply for a green card after a year instead of three, but there is no pressing need for reform of the visa from a legislative perspective. One area in which the legislature could substantially improve on the U visa is by making those with accrued unlawful presence eligible for it; as with most other forms of humanitarian migrant statuses the U visa cannot be attained by those who face the three and ten year admission bars.

The above should not be confused to mean that the U visa cannot or should not be reformed. Rather it is the administration of the U visa that needs reform. In theory the U visa covers a great deal of crimes, but in practice its applicants are those who suffer from the worst of crimes. Other flaws of the U visa is that many migrants are not informed that they are eligible for it, and they are given little aid in applying for it from law enforcement. The current Obama administration could improve on the U visa greatly by leading an informational campaign aimed at migrants and law enforcement alike about the U visa.

T Visa

The T visa functions essentially the same as the U visa in that it exists to promote cooperation between law enforcement and the migrant community. The difference lays in the fact that the T visa exists exclusively for victims of human trafficking and has a separate cap of 5,000 per year.

T visa holders receive work authorization and are eligible to apply for a green card after three years. The legislature should ideally remove the cap, but once more this is more an issue of principle than practicality as potential T visa applicants are also eligible for the U visa and may acquire deferred action should both visas be capped for the year. What is a more serious issue is that T visa applicants, like many others applicants to humanitarian migrant statuses, are subject to the three and ten year admission bars.

Similarly to the U visa, the current administration must more actively inform both law enforcement and migrant communities about the existence of the T visa. The T visa could use some minor tweaking but is already a great status from a legislative stand point. Its flaw is that several migrants who are eligible for it are not informed about how to attain it or do not receive the aid from law enforcement in filing out the needed paperwork. The U and T visas alike both require extensive support from law enforcement as a perquisite for both is proving that the applicant is willing to, or has, aid the capture of the criminals who wronged them.

Weekly OBAG roundup 12 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Thought-provoking general questions or general observations

Discussions of specific historical and current situations


Make More Singapores!

I have advocated the DRITI policy– instead of coercively restricting migration, tax it and use the proceeds to compensate natives– for years, and Principles of a Free Society was written, if you like to think of it that way, as a political philosophy suited to undergird DRITI policies. By now, this has become a standard part of the case for open borders. Thus, in “Meant for Each Other: Open Borders and Western Civilization,” Bryan Caplan writes:

Still worried [about open borders undermining natives’ wages]?  There’s a cheaper and more humane remedy than keeping foreigners out: Charge them an admission fee or surtax, then use the proceeds to help displaced native workers.

Which is the same idea as DRITI. Not that I’m blaming Caplan for borrowing the idea from me without acknowledgment. Caplan knows I advocate migration taxes. He even wrote one of the blurbs for Principles of a Free Society. But Gary Becker proposed a migration tax to the IEA back in 2010. Actually, that was four years after I published the idea, but Becker had written about it before, in an op-ed in the 1980s. Recently, at the APEE conference in Las Vegas last April, Richard Vedder also proposed a migration tax. The idea is really too obvious to quibble over its paternity. It’s a simple cross-application of the standard free-trade advocacy truism– “yes, free trade has winners and losers, but tax the winners to compensate the losers”– to migration policy. I’m not sure whether Caplan got the idea from me. I’m pretty sure that if he hadn’t got it from someone, he’d easily have thought it up on his own. It’s a no-brainer for economists, but somehow policymakers are blind to it. Or so I thought.

What I didn’t realize is that Singapore already has something close to a DRITI policy in place, as Carl Shulman reports. From 1970 to 2010, the number of foreign workers in Singapore rose from just over 20,000 to more than a million, a third of the labor force, and still rising. Most of these are not the high-skilled workers that OECD democracies tend to privilege. Nearly a million are here on low-skilled “work permits,” including foreign domestic workers (214,500) or construction workers (319,100). How is the number of immigrants regulated? First, by Foreign Worker Levies, i.e., migration taxes, a policy variable. There are also Dependency Ceilings, maximum foreign shares of an employer’s workforce. Shulman doesn’t say how often these are binding, but they seem liberal, e.g., 87.5% of construction crews can be foreign. And how much do migration taxes raise?

Levies for unskilled workers range from $3,600-$9,000 per annum. With around a million workers subject to levies, the proceeds to Singapore should be in the billions of dollars (all figures are Singaporean dollars, about 0.8 $USD each).

Total levies collected amounted to $1.9 billion in 2010 and $2.5 billion in 2011. Total government operating revenues in 2010 were $45.5 billion and $50.5 billion for 2011, so worker levies alone accounted for 4-5% of operating government revenue. Since then the migrant population has grown substantially and levies have been hiked, by a third or more in many cases, with further increases scheduled, so the current percentage is likely significantly higher. Even so, the figure will be small compared to the economy, because low-skill workers contribute disproportionately little to economic output, but is high as a proportion of compensation costs. While Singaporean natives with such low incomes would pay no income tax, the top levy rates for unskilled workers (charged to employers) can be half or more of wages.

In short, while we can quibble about details, Singapore more or less understands and is applying and applies the citizenist case for open borders. Singaporeans benefit from cheap cleaners, bus drivers, and domestic workers. And they don’t just benefit themselves; foreign workers also gain opportunities. As Vipul Naik pointed out in conversation, if all developed countries adopted policies like this, migrant wages and wages in migrant source countries would be competed up. I might argue for slightly different moral side-constraints (e.g., I wouldn’t endorse deportation of pregnant women), but it would be a great thing for both economic development and freedom if other developed countries followed Singapore’s lead.

Lastly, a more general point. Singapore is amazing. Every time I read about policy in Singapore, I find myself involuntarily thinking Wow! This is the most enlightened regime on earth. Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but few would deny that Singapore is a spectacular success. So why don’t we make more of them? Much of the key to Singapore’s success seems to be simply that it’s a sovereign city-state. In general, sovereign city-states make wildly disproportionate contributions to civilization. Think of the city-states of ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta and Corinth, birthplaces of philosophy, history, science, and democracy. Or the city-states of Renaissance Italy– Venice, Florence, Genoa– which were also gloriously accomplished in arts and letters and sciences. Today, Hong Kong has a kind of partial sovereignty. It, too, is a dazzling success, whose success has spilled over in a massive way. Hong Kong has been a major catalyst for China’s economic take-off. Yet, perversely, we have established a system of international sovereignty which makes it impossible to found new sovereign city-states. We need charter cities.

Piketty, inequality, and open borders

A society in which the rich have a very high degree of economic, political, and sociocultural influence is an unpleasant society in many ways.
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/j–bradford-delong-is-surprised-by-the-poverty-of-conservative-criticism-of-capital-in-the-twenty-first-century#OS2DZ3JavDCdtOT1.99

Thomas Piketty’s just-released Capital in the 21st Century has been much talked about, e.g. by Greg Mankiw, Brad DeLong , Reihan Salam, Megan McArdle and Tyler Cowen, for starters. Reviews aside, Bryan Caplan’s post about (the myth of) the “hollowing out” of the economy, or Scott Sumner’s (tentative) advocacy of 80% marginal tax rates on consumption (more here) seem to show how Piketty’s influence has steered the conversation towards more talk about inequality.

I’ve read only a little, but already Piketty has opened my eyes to a possibility I had never before seen. Let r be the return on capital, e.g., the 7% long-run average return on US stocks. Let g be the (per capita) growth rate of the economy as a whole, e.g., 2%. An abstract “capitalist” will see his wealth, and therefore income, grow at rate r, minus his consumption, which is perhaps small compared to his income. An abstract “worker” will see his income rise at (roughly) rate g. So what happens to inequality? As long as r>g, it keeps increasing. Without limit. While r>g seems to be true, there are a lot of reasons why r>g as a story of ever-increasing inequality probably isn’t a good description of the real world. But I’m indebted to Piketty for elucidating the conceptual possibility.

Is ever-increasing inequality driven by r>g disturbing? Maybe not. As long as g is positive, the workers are still getting better off. Moreover, for r>g to drive ever-increasing inequality, the capitalists have to be rather abstemious, which takes some of the sting out of increasing wealth inequality. Capitalists have more, but don’t live that differently. If, on the other hand, capitalists dissipate their wealth on luxury consumption, that seems more offensive, then r>g increasing inequality.

Much depends on one’s “social welfare function” (SWF), that is, on how much you value the welfare of different people, and how much you think the millionaire’s marginal dollar is worth, compared to the pauper’s. Suppose desirable outcomes for society are defined by V=a1*f(W1)+a2*f(W2)+…+an*f(Wn), where individuals 1… n are all the members of society, a1… aN are parameters that govern the importance we replace on the welfare of difference individuals (in a “democratic” SWF a1=a2=…=aN), W1… Wn represent (in a concession to Piketty’s preoccupations) the wealth of the individuals (though Scott Sumner would rightly stress that consumption inequality is what we should really care about), and f is some function, the shape of which is the crucial, defining feature of the entire SWF (assuming that we’re all “democrats” and value everyone’s welfare equally). Presumably the first derivative of f is positive (each marginal dollar is worth something) and the second derivative of f is negative (each marginal dollar is worth less than the last), but– this is the key– by how much does the marginal value of a dollar decrease as one gets richer? A SWF in which the second derivative of f is only slightly negative might be called “right-wing” or “conservative,” in the sense of being relatively indifferent to inequality, while a SWF in which the second derivative of f is more negative is “left-wing,” more sensitive to inequality.

Here John Rawls offered an implausibly extreme answer: that society should only maximize the welfare of the worst-off, and in effect, should be completely indifferent to whether the not-worst-off are only slightly above the minimum, or enjoy vast prosperity and affluence. This is very odd. The wealth of millionaires is doubtless less good than the same wealth would be spread out among the poor; but surely it is worth something. I would have called Rawls the “far left” of the plausible set of SWFs. Yet as far as I can tell, Piketty’s social welfare function is to the left of Rawls’! The (unsympathetic) Wall Street Journal writes that…

Mr. Piketty urges an 80% tax rate on incomes starting at “$500,000 or $1 million.” This is not to raise money for education or to increase unemployment benefits. Quite the contrary, he does not expect such a tax to bring in much revenue, because its purpose is simply “to put an end to such incomes.”

while the (sympathetic) Brad DeLong, summarizing Piketty’s argument, does not say that capitalists are in any way impoverishing the workers by their epic feats of accumulation, but rather, that “A society in which the rich have a very high degree of economic, political, and sociocultural influence is an unpleasant society in many ways.” If DeLong and the WSJ (as I read them) are correctly characterizing Piketty’s position, then in his SWF, the first derivative of f is negative at some point. We should not just want to burden the rich a bit in order to bring ourselves up a bit. We should actually want to pull the rich down, even if we hurt ourselves in the process. I’ll be on the lookout, when I get a chance to read the book through, for whether Piketty really believes this. It would be an intriguing oddity.

My response to what I’ve gleaned about Piketty’s argument so far is twofold:

1. Western society already has a sufficient response to excessive wealth accumulation in monogamy. I like Scott Sumner’s 80% MTR on consumption, in principle, though I think it would be hard to implement. But I think monogamy basically is an 80% MTR on consumption, or more. If an amoral rich man could buy a harem, he could really hit the poor where it hurts. But if he can’t, the joke is on him. It would take some ingenuity for a monogamous man to come up with a way to spend tens of millions of dollars without generating major positive spillovers. If he sends his mediocre kids to Yale, they might not learn that much, but he’ll be subsidizing scholarship and science, as well as cross-subsidizing the educations of other, brighter students on financial aid. Or, if he hires a scholar (e.g., Adam Smith) to accompany his kid on a Grand Tour of Europe, the scholar will probably use the time to write a magnum opus on the side (the Wealth of Nations). If he goes to the opera, the music his money buys will soon get recorded and show up on everybody’s iPod. If he buys great paintings, which he probably doesn’t have the capacity to appreciate that much, cheap prints of those paintings, almost as good as the originals, will get made and sold by the thousands to middle-income art lovers to decorate their walls with. And the paintings will end up in museums sooner or later, to edify the common man. If he buys a huge mansion or yacht, his small body can’t occupy most of its rooms. To get any use of it at all, he needs lots of guests. Spillovers again. And of course, he’d have to be an idiot not to see that he’ll get far more satisfaction from giving his money away to a chorus of praise and gratitude, than from attempting to “consume” far more he can use to satisfy his needs. And so the rich become the great philanthropists, and I think a marginal dollar in the hands of the Gates Foundation is worth about a hundred times as much as a marginal dollar in the hands of any democratic government on earth. The Rockefeller Foundation financed the Green Revolution while the US government pours most of its money into pampering the elderly. Again: inequality without monogamy– harems and eunuchs and child brides, etc.– really is horrible. But the West has achieved the inestimable triumph of caging the selfish genes even of the very rich.

2. To the extent that inequality is an evil worth worrying about, there is no justification for diverting our attention from any policy response other than that of opening borders to migration. Fortunately, Piketty is not one of those contemptible humbugs who profess to care about inequality, yet oppose or ignore immigration. He has a few pages on immigration reform late in the book, and is unabashed in his support for more freedom of migration, with essentially no qualifications. But the passage doesn’t suggest that he has anything like an adequate appreciation of its importance. A vast amount of inequality depends merely on the luck of what country one is born into. While global wealth taxes would presumably weaken incentives and reduce global GDP, even if they made it more equally distributed– and it would require a terrifyingly invasive state to enforce them– open borders would double world GDP and make it more equitably distributed. So, let’s open the borders first. We’ve got plenty of work to do to get there. Then, if inequality still seems like too much of a problem, we can talk about whether a more invasive state, and weaker incentives to work, save, innovate, trade, economize, etc., are a price worth paying for still more equality.

P.S. It’s a little off-topic, but if we’re worried about r>g, the real fix is Social Security privatization. Forcing up the savings rate would mean more capital, lowering its marginal product– lower r— and raising the growth of the economy– higher g.

UPDATE: Minor corrections were made after this was first posted.

A society in which the rich have a very high degree of economic, political, and sociocultural influence is an unpleasant society in many ways.
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/j–bradford-delong-is-surprised-by-the-poverty-of-conservative-criticism-of-capital-in-the-twenty-first-century#OS2DZ3JavDCdtOT1.99
A society in which the rich have a very high degree of economic, political, and sociocultural influence is an unpleasant society in many ways.
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/j–bradford-delong-is-surprised-by-the-poverty-of-conservative-criticism-of-capital-in-the-twenty-first-century#OS2DZ3JavDCdtOT1.99
A society in which the rich have a very high degree of economic, political, and sociocultural influence is an unpleasant society in many ways.
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/j–bradford-delong-is-surprised-by-the-poverty-of-conservative-criticism-of-capital-in-the-twenty-first-century#OS2DZ3JavDCdtOT1.99
A society in which the rich have a very high degree of economic, political, and sociocultural influence is an unpleasant society in many ways.
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/j–bradford-delong-is-surprised-by-the-poverty-of-conservative-criticism-of-capital-in-the-twenty-first-century#OS2DZ3JavDCdtOT1.99

Weekly OBAG roundup 11 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Thought-provoking general questions or general observations

Discussions of specific historical and current situations