Immigration Enforcement Trade-Offs

by Reihan Salam

Matt Yglesias argues that increased spending on border enforcement will do very little to reduce unauthorized immigration, as the crux of the problem will be temporary immigrants who enter the country legally, yet who choose to overstay their visas. The guest worker provisions of the Senate immigration bill will allow large numbers of less-skilled workers to temporarily settle in the U.S., with spouses and children in tow. But the number of W visas won’t necessarily be in line with demand for less-skilled immigrant labor, and not all W visa workers will be keen to return home once their visas expire:

Visa overstayers are already a large share of the unauthorized population, and creating a guest-worker program is going to increase the possibility of visa overstaying. You could build the Berlin Wall all across the U.S.–Mexico border and you’re not going to solve anything. What you need to do is either increase the number of W Visas (my preference) or increase behind-the-border security or some combination of the two. Personally, I don’t really care that a border surge is going to be ineffective. But it can get corrosive in the long term if you promise the voters something your legislation can’t deliver. If this bill passes, the immigration-enforcement problem won’t be at the border. [Emphasis added]

Not surprisingly, my preference would be for much more stringent behind-the-border security and for the elimination of the guest-worker program, but my preferred policy option has many serious downsides, e.g., the enforcement measurements it would likely require would be expensive, draconian, and potentially intrusive. Canada, for example, imposes a one-year mandatory prison sentence on unauthorized immigrants, which seems impracticable in the U.S. context. Ron Unz of The American Conservative has proposed increasing the minimum wage as a strategy to reduce less-skilled immigration:

One of the few sectors likely to be devastated by a much higher minimum wage would be the sweatshops and other very low wage or marginal businesses which tend to disproportionably employ new immigrants, especially illegal ones. Sweatshops and similar industries have no legitimate place in a developed economy, and their elimination would reduce the sort of lowest-rung job openings continually drawing impoverished new immigrants. Meanwhile, those immigrants who have already been here some time, learned English, and established a solid employment record would be kept on at higher wages, reaping the same major benefits as non-immigrant Americans within the ranks of the working-poor.

Though I don’t support Unz’s proposal, it does represent a “behind-the-border” measure that would have a number of enforcement advantages over E-verify. Employers who hire unauthorized employees might be easier to stigmatize if they are also violating minimum wage laws, which enjoy broad public support. Of course, a sharp increase in the minimum wage would also impact a non-trivial number less-skilled native-born workers and lawful permanent residents. 

I’ve often argued that advocates of an increase in less-skilled immigration need to be more forthright about acknowledging the trade-offs their favored policies entail. Those of us who opposed increasing less-skilled immigration ought to do the same, including the fact the the persistence of demand for less-skilled labor at very low wages is a powerful force.