The Gang of 8 immigration deal

I’m not a political junkie (anymore) and I try not to follow all the feints and counter-offers and posturing and whatnot that comprises so much of political discourse, but at this point the momentum for immigration reform in Washington seems really to be bearing fruit. A deal has been made. The New York Times celebrates:

Huge news from the scorched desert of immigration reform: germination!

At last there is a bill, the product of a bipartisan group of senators who have been working on it for months, that promises at least the hope of citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. It is complicated, full of mechanisms and formulas meant to tackle border security, the allocation of visas, methods of employment verification and the much-debated citizenship path…

There will be much to chew on in coming weeks, but it is worth a moment to marvel at the bill’s mere existence, and at the delicate balancing of competing interests that coaxed this broad set of compromises into being…

The bill gets around the “amnesty” stalemate by turning the undocumented into Registered Provisional Immigrants — not citizens or green-card holders, but not illegal, either. They will wait in that anteroom for a decade at least before they can get green cards. But they will also work, and travel freely. The importance of legalizing them, erasing the crippling fear of deportation, cannot be overstated.

Yes! Deportation is a particular disgraceful feature of the American polity, and it will be a tremendous moral relief to have it, if not permanently and generally abolished, at least abolished for most of the millions who live under the threat of it now. The Times deplores the length and difficulty of the path to citizenship:

That said, a decade-plus path is too long and expensive. The fees and penalties stack up: $500 to apply for the first six years of legal status, $500 to renew, then a $1,000 fine. If the goal is to get people on the books and the economy moving, then shackling them for years to fees and debt makes no sense.

The means of ejection from the legalization path, too, cannot be arbitrary and unjust — people should not be disqualified for minor crimes or failure to meet unfair work requirements. It should not take superhuman strength and rectitude, plus luck and lots of money, for an immigrant to march the 10 years to a green card.

Here I’m ambivalent, except about the “means of ejection” sentence. You can’t justly deport someone just because they don’t want a job, and to deport someone for, say, a speeding ticket, is a violation of just proportionality. My sympathies lie with a relatively short and easy path to citizenship. But reason tells me that if your goal is an immigration regime that is simultaneously incentive-compatible and humane, you can’t make the path to citizenship easy. And $500 here and $1,000 there are nothing compared to the income gains that immigrants to the US typically enjoy, though I’d prefer to see money extracted from immigrants in the form of taxes attached to earnings rather than as lump-sum fines and fees, so we can raise more revenue from those doing relatively well while mitigating the hardship we cause for the poorest immigrants.

Naturally, I agree with the Times in deploring this:

The first part of the bill is a dreary reassertion of the doctrine that an insufficiently militarized border is the source of all our immigration problems — as if inefficiencies in the labor market and the ill effects of unjust laws can be fixed with more drones and fences. It throws $6.5 billion over 10 years at the southern border, and envisions the creation of a commission of border governors telling the Homeland Security Department how to spend more billions on “manpower, technology and infrastructure.”

In Matt Yglesias’s summary, titled “Gang of Eight Proposes a Quick Hop to Amnesty Plus a Long Road to Citizenship,” he touches on this:

Something to be said here is that if everything in this bill in terms of border security and W-visas works as planned we’re going to end up with fewer immigrants coming into the country than we did during the pre-crash years.

What are W visas? Yglesias explained in a previous post:

  • Recipients would be allowed to petition for permanent status after completing their term.
  • Recipients are allowed to switch jobs while in the United States.
  • There will be at most 20,000 W visas in the first year, 35,000 in the second year, 55,000 in the third, and 75,000 in the fourth.
  • Starting in the fifth year, the number of W visas will be capped at 200,000, but the actual number will be determined by a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Conditions based on labor market conditions.
  • In terms of allocating the visas, priority will be given to occupations experiencing certified shortages as per the BILMC.
  • If labor market conditions are weak, there could be as few as 20,000 W visas in any given year.
  • Importantly permissible wages for W visa holders will be set to try to ensure no negative impact on U.S.-born workers in the same occupational category, which is a fairly tight constraint. Wages will be the greater of the actual wage level paid by the employer to individuals with similar levels of experience or the “prevailing wage” for the occupational category in question.

If W visas are a substitute for illegal immigration, the cap of 200,000 would be considerably lower than the 700,000+ per year that were coming in between 1995 and 2005. That’s bad, but hopefully irrelevant, if, as I suspect and hope will be the case, border enforcement can’t stop inflows of highly motivated immigrants, and they’ll soon find ways to get in in numbers comparable to the past, given that (a) the economy is likely to revive soon, and (b) amnesty will create the expectation of future amnesties. Maybe also (c) legalization will allow current undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and move into more formal jobs/economic niches, and the ones they leave behind will attract new undocumented immigrants.

Here’s Yglesias’s characterization of the deal as a whole

For a long time the key hot button dispute in immigration reform has been between what its critics call “amnesty” and what its proponents term a “path to citizenship” and looking at what the Gang of 8 has come up with they split the baby in a pretty interesting way. Basically the path to amnesty is a pretty short hop. The Department of Homeland Security has three months in which to outline a plan for stepped-up border security, and then people who arrived in 2011 or earlier can apply for legal resident status and work permits. But the path from legal status to actual citizenship becomes a very long and tortured one. It’ll take over ten years for any individual to become a citizen. And in large-scale terms there’s going to be a whole series of border benchmarks that need to be met, benchmarks that can’t just be checked off by a sympathetic administration in the White House since there’ll also be a Southern Border Security Commission composed of experts and southwestern governors and such.

Politically speaking, I think the reason this works is that citizenship is of relatively little practical value to any individual. By contrast, legal permission to live and work in the United States is enormously valuable. But there’s an enormous political value to citizenship in that you’d be conjuring up a few million largely Democratic voters if you turned all the undocumented migrants to the country into citizens. The long delay process means the current crop of GOP elected officials doesn’t need to worry about this in the short-term, and also that they’ll have several cycles worth of post-reform elections in which to make their pitch to Latino voters. Meanwhile, undocumented migrants will greatly benefit from work permits so whether or not they and their families would in some sense prefer a more generous deal there’s no great reason to hold out and demand more.

My question is: do deals like this pave the way for something like DRITI in the future? If 11 million “Registered Provisional Immigrants,” why not 40 million? If they can’t vote, why not tax them a little more? If they don’t have full access to welfare benefits etc., will that mitigate fiscal concerns about immigration?

At some point, I wonder if it would be possible to destroy border enforcement by moral suasion. What if people were ashamed to admit that their job was harassing and chasing and deporting peaceful immigrants? Recruiting could get harder…

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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