Sunday, August 21, 2005

Yglesias on Immigration

Matt thinks about immigration:
I think it's pretty clear that the aims of our policy should be this: Figure out roughly how many immigrants we want, let that number of people in legally, and make it exceedingly hard for additional people to come here.
Flows of people are just like flows of capital. People will want to come to the United States until it isn't worth it to do so anymore. That's because labor is more productive in the US (because there's more capital) and consequently real wages are higher. Clearly we aren't in equilibrium right now since many more people want to immigrate than are being allowed in. Capital controls are usually undesirable (though their absence can allow havoc to be wreaked in smaller economies like Southeast Asia in 1998) and people controls aren't much different. Are there good arguments against letting the economy equilibrate?
There's a basic rule of law issue here, a serious crime control problem in the border states, a certain level of terrorism risk, etc. What's more, the presence of a large illicit workforce in the country makes it impossible to properly enforce labor laws and so forth.
Excluding some risk of terrorism, what exactly is the crime control problem? It seems to me that the only crime being committed is that immigrants are entering the country illegally. Make immigration legal, and presto!, no more crime problem.

I'd like to know more about how hard it is to immigrate legally and why. Television commentators always say that we should favor those who "earned" their way into the country over those who come here illegally. But what does it mean to have "earned your way in?" Does it mean that you had connections and got a special entry visa? Does it mean that you married an America? Does it mean that you could pay the immigration fees? Why can't the average Mexican cross over the border just like the average Californian can go to Tijuana? Do they check some sort of ID coming the other way? Do they just turn back any poor-looking Mexicans? A rudimentary Google search doesn't turn up any answers.

Matt concludes:
So that's where I stand. A combinaton of more legal immigration, more border control, and more social insurance should meet almost all of the legitimate concerns about the current situation.
As I wrote about earlier, more social insurance and more legal immigration is not necessarily a good thing. If we have substantial income redistribution programs there's going to be inefficient immigration. There will be a lot of people who are not going to be productive coming just to take advantage of social programs. Yet my proposal that we just allow illegal immigration to continue doesn't quite seem right either.

In any case, I subscribe to the "American myth" illustrated by the life of my grandfather. He came to New York City from Greece when he was 9. Knowing no English, he was thrown into a 4th grade class in Brooklyn and stayed in school through 8th grade. Those five years of American education were enough that he became a successful restauranteur on Long Island. If the incentives are right, immigration can be an incredibly productive force. But I think that means returning to a "give us your tied, your poor / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" immigration policy. But then there are hard problems after we say do we keep social programs from creating the wrong incentives while not creating some sort of second-class citizenship?


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