A market-based solution to the DACA problem

Originally published in The Hill on Feb. 5, 2018


The Republican’s ever-changing plans to deal with illegal immigration are a study in dysfunction. Conservatives, already annoyed at being strong-armed into a DACA deal for 700,000 undocumented immigrants, now have to contemplate President Trump’s plan to extend amnesty to a full 1.8 million Dreamers.

But do not fret, conservatives are told, because amnesty will be traded for the Wall, a wall which will secure our southern border and end illegal immigration forever. This will be the last amnesty.

Just as it was in 1986. At the time, President Reagan offered amnesty to three million undocumented aliens in return for — you guessed it — heightened border security. The result: Those granted amnesty were entirely replaced by new illegals within five years, and the illegal population had doubled its post-amnesty lows within eight years. So much for border control.

A wall will not secure our border. As I pointed out in an earlier article, the incumbent illegal population could theoretically be rebuilt from visa overstays in less than a year. Further, the construction of the Wall would have the effect of sending migrants into the water to cross by boat, just as it has done in Europe. Moreover, migrants can always fly to Canada and simply walk across our currently undefended northern border. And keep in mind that a quarter of illegals come from outside the Americas from places like China, India and the Philippines. If work is on offer, bodies can be recruited from regions for which the Wall is irrelevant.

But perhaps the Republicans can defeat the black market in unskilled labor by creating “a workable agricultural guest worker program to grow our economy,” as proposed in the Securing America’s Future Act. Consider the numbers. In 2017, USDA issued about two hundred thousand H-2A agricultural worker guest visas. To cover the entire market served by H-2A and H-2B (non-agricultural guest worker) visas — essentially the undocumented labor force — the number of such visas would have to be increased by thirty fold, and that is excluding three million non-working dependents. There is no way in hell that conservatives would simply sign off on a freebie of an additional eight million work visas.

Market-based immigration can make all this go away quickly. As I have noted elsewhere, such an approach would allow on-demand access to the U.S. labor market for background-checked migrants from Mexico and Central America in return for a market-based fee. Of course, illegals would like amnesty, a green card, and eventual citizenship. But that’s not what they need. They need status, the right to work unmolested, if unsupported, in the U.S.

To end the black market and all its pathology, we still need enough visas to cover the market. If we expect conservatives to approve, we had better make it worth their while. That means charging a market rate for access to the U.S. Much of the difference between the Mexican and U.S. wages, adjusted for higher costs here, rightly belongs to the U.S. government. If we are to ask conservatives to help create order in the market, we must deliver to them commensurate value.

We need our undocumented workers. They are not just a bit of our service economy. They are about one-third of it at the low end, and almost the entire workforce tackling our "dirty jobs." In 1986, 8.8 percent of U.S. hourly workers earned the Federal minimum wage, in real terms the same as today. By contrast, only 2.7 percent of U.S. workers were at or below Federal minimum wage level in 2016. Despite all the stories of economic gloom, our society has progressed in important ways, notably, that our dirty jobs are struggling to find domestic takers.  Undocumented workers have stepped up to fill the gap. They are here because we need them.

Let’s acknowledge that. But let’s also acknowledge that we need a means to select those migrants to work here. It cannot be done administratively by volume, because the politics are not viable. It can, however, be accomplished by the market using a visa price, which would let in those who work the smartest, the longest, the hardest or are willing to sacrifice the most to be in the U.S. Those people are, after all, the ones we want in our country.

The Republicans need to climb down off the window sill before jumping to their political deaths trying to defend a stillborn approach to illegal immigration. Let’s instead use the market to allocate resources, which it does fairly and efficiently, by and large.

That’s a Republican notion, too, after all.