Market-based visas (MBVs) would bring many benefits to the United States, but involve important trade-offs.
A market-based system operates from the premise that black markets are all but impossible to eradicate, and even if possible, would be undesirable because unskilled migrants fill an important niche in the US economy. The focus, from the conservative perspective, therefore, should be to provide an improved institutional context for such immigration, rather than trying to forbid it. As a consequence, under a market-based plan, the number of migrant workers is unlikely to decline (although the number of full time residents and dependents will likely decline over time).
Under an MBV system, entering, exiting and re-entering the US is easy. Identifying, applying for and contracting for work even from Mexico, is similarly convenient. However, staying in the US without work is expensive, due in part to the visa cost. Therefore, if a migrant is working, then staying in the US makes sense. If they are not working, the system encourages them to leave, on the one hand to reduce costs, and on the other, because they know they can source work easily even while in Mexico and respond on short notice. This will tend to reduce the full time population of migrants, many of whom would frankly rather spend the off-season in Mexico anyway.
On the other hand, to prevent the black market from re-asserting itself, the equilibrium number of visas has to essentially match (within, say, +/- 7% or so) the demand for such labor. Therefore, seasonal peaks could be higher than totals today. Indeed, the nature of such of system is that it would provide flex in times of high demand. Thus, after an event like Hurricane Harvey, which requires ten of thousands of unskilled workers to clean up and rebuild, the price of visas would tend to rise, and the system would tend to issue more of them. On the other hand, during a downturn, the price of visas would fall, and the issuing body would tend to reduce them. Thus, in a market-based system, migrants become a kind of overflow resource, to be tapped when demand is robust, and to be trimmed when demand is light. Importantly, however, a market-based system should not be assumed to reduce total migrant headcount. Rather, the system is intended to bring safety, order and prosperity.
If one accepts the notion that migrant numbers are unlikely to decline materially, then a market-based system brings many benefits to the US, which we assess applying the basic conservatives concepts of safety, order, conformity, propriety and prosperity.
Safety and Order
Safety and order are largely related. A properly functioning market often creates safety and conformity as a by-product, especially in the case of a black market like illegal immigration. We list the benefits below, with the proviso that they assume full coverage of all migrants who would ordinarily come over the southwest border, that is, from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Less than full coverage would not provide all the benefits below.
- Sovereignty, control and transparency
The US enhances its sovereignty by channeling, rather than attempting to dam, the flow of migrants. Under an MBV system, all non-criminal migrants would be documented and placed in a highly transparent system which would allow better oversight and control over their activities, while at the same time providing them much greater freedom of movement and an unfettered opportunity to sell their labor.
- Gain control over the southwest border
A system which allows approved migrants to enter the US on demand would have the effect of re-directing almost all the flows crossing the border illegally to offical entry points. Illegal crossings in the desert -- to the extent the MPV system is properly designed -- should become restricted to criminal migrants who pose a direct threat to the physical safety of Americans. This would create order at the southwest border, of particular importance to residents of states like Arizona and Texas.
- Reduce Crime
A market-based system would reduce crime in four respects.
First, it would deter predation in the border zone, and indeed, in the interior of the country. An MBV system would allow migrants full protection of the law and the ability to avoid situations which expose them to victimization.
Second, by segregating criminals from migrants in desert crossings, Border Patrol and local police could focus their efforts entirely on the criminal element. Thus would reduce drug smuggling, on the one hand, and re-entry by convicted criminals, on the other.
Third, such a system would deprive criminals of the opportunity to work in the US. If a visa is easy to obtain for a non-criminal migrant and employers can obtain needed labor using the system, then the inability of a prospective migrant employee to obtain a visa conveys both information and risk to a potential employer, much as the inability of an applicant to obtain a driver's license would to a shipping and logistics company like FedEx, for example. FedEx insists on drivers with approved licenses and clean records not because it fears enforcement, but because those qualifications actually reflect the quality of the applicant, and because FedEx is concerned about its liability should it hire such an applicant. A market-based system would have a similar effect on US employers of migrant labor.
Fourth, a black market will tend to attract participants who are willing to break the law. A market-based system, by contrast, favors those who work the hardest, the smartest, the longest, or want to be in the US the most. Over time, an MBV system will tend to draw migrants with a greater work and personal comportment ethic, and fewer with anti-social tendencies.
- Allow the government to spend less but gain more effective enforcement
An MBV system provides a legal channel for economic migrants to work in the US, subject to visa cost provisions. This will eliminate the need for perhaps two-thirds of immigration enforcement efforts at the border and allow law enforcement to focus on a much smaller criminal segment.
- Eliminate sanctuary cities
The US today faces severe internal stresses over the undocumented immigrant issue. On the one hand, conservatives want existing laws enforced and illegal migrants deported. On the other hand, undocumented Hispanics are considered integral parts of the community in many parts of the country, providing trusted, good quality and affordable services to many, many people. Many Americans do not feel that immigrants -- even if they are undocumented -- should be deported if they are working and have a clean criminal record. The desire for a better life is no crime, in this view.
These two views clash at the sanctuary city level, with Federal government enforcement conflicting with local tendencies to protect undocumented migrants who are considered part of the community.
An MBV system ends this conflict. A migrant with a clean record can buy a visa anytime. Therefore, remaining in the US becomes a matter of a fee. There is no one to protect as such. And even if a migrant has to leave, they can come back anytime if they pay the fee. However, in a system in which visas cover the entire demand, obtaining work without a visa will be difficult. Thus, an issue which is today one of us-versus-them is reduced to a simple commercial matter. As there is no one to protect, sanctuary cities will go away, ending the chief source of societal conflict in the US today.
- Reduce the permanent resident population
One of the perverse aspects of current policy is that undocumented immigrants become trapped in the US. Crossing the border is fraught with risk; therefore, once an illegal is in the US, there is a strong incentive to stay, regardless of work opportunities. Current barriers to entry create commensurate barriers to exit, thereby insuring that unemployed migrants stay in the US, rather than relocating back to their home countries, where the cost of living is lower, family is present, and alternative work may be available. An MBV system allows immigrants to leave and re-enter easily, to source US jobs from their homes countries, and to sell unused visa days—all to encourage unemployed immigrants to leave the country.
Similarly, an MBV system will tend to reduce the number of migrant dependents in the US over time. While migrant families already in the US will require some kind of special consideration, new entrants will have to purchase visas for their dependents if they want to bring them along. Given the ease of entering and leaving the US, many migrants will find that it is more cost effective to leave the family in Mexico and return to visit as desired.
Prosperity, Conformity, and Propriety
In addition to safety and order, an MBV would contribute to conservative goals of prosperity, conformity and propriety.
- Generate $30 bn in net revenues to the government
Were visas extended to all undocumented immigrants (including dependents), net Treasury collections could increase by up to $60 bn per year. More realistically, a 75% coverage rate for currently undocumented immigrants in the workforce would raise net $30 bn, theoretically enough to build a Wall every year. (Of course, a visa program should make a wall redundant.)
- Insure healthcare coverage for all migrants
As envisioned in the program, all migrants would have to purchase health insurance and obtain a bank account as part of their visa. Migrants would be required to purchase a bare-bones health insurance (allow $1500 / year) to cover acute care like accident, injury or illness, but not more chronic diseases like cancer or diabetes. Fortunately, most migrants entering the country are in the 18-30 age group, and very few are over the age of 50. Thus, a bare bones approach should bring migrant healthcare to near breakeven, and represent additional funding for border state hospitals and healthcare providers. Arizona, for example, might see an additional $400 million annual healthcare revenues under such a program.
- Reduction of the Predation and Victimization in Mexico
Conservatism in many ways has become associated with a casual cruelty and indifference. Nevertheless, most Americans of all political stripes would like to see the vast predation of migrants in Mexico ended. This relates to conservative values of propriety and respect -- as well as conscience -- and is another benefit of an MBV system.
- Improvement in the Status of Migrants
The very state of being undocumented lowers the social status of migrants and relegates them at best to second class citizens and at worst to criminal aliens. By gaining legal status -- and paying market rates to do so -- migrants will be elevated into higher esteem and through this alone be far more acceptable to the community.
- No Amnesty
Most Americans are aware that DACA participants and Dreamers will most likely have to be given status at some point. The greater concern is that such amnesty will bring a flood of new migrants, just as it did after the Reagan amnesty of 1986.
By its very nature, an MBV system resists being used as a ramp to citizenship, as the value of such potential citizenship would be immediately reflected in visa price. The installation of such a program would allay conservative fears about precedents set by DACA and the Dreamers and allow their situation to be resolved.
- Deter Birth Tourism
Birthright citizenship, also known as jus soli, allows a child born on US territory to gain US citizenship. It is one of the most contentious aspects of illegal immigration, as birthright citizenship appears to incentivize border jumping and circumvents the entire intent of US immigration law. As part of the terms of a visa, the visa may become invalidated if the immigrant has a child in the US. The child as such would continue to enjoy jus soli, but the parent would lose the work permit—a considerable incentive to have the child in the parents’ home country. Whether such conditionality would survive the US courts is an open question, but an MBV at least promises some measure of control over the issue.
Benefits for Employers
- Get rid of visa red tape, and make it easier for US companies to access immigrant labor when necessary
By using price rather than volumes to ration migrant labor, and by administratively separating background checks from work visas, the red tape for employers can be vastly reduced and sourcing migrant labor can be achieved quickly and efficiently using internet-based tools. This is essential to gain employer compliance.
- Access foreign employees in necessary volumes quickly
An MBV system would allow employers to access as many employees as necessary from participating countries on immediate notice, subject only to the a priori applicant eligibility and the cost of visas. With this information, the employer can make a quick cost/benefit calculation on the number of immigrants to bring in for any given purpose.
In addition, the cost of visas would give employers a clear view of supply-demand conditions and an objective metric—the price of a visa—by which to request additional visa volumes from the government, if necessary.