The Corner

How Arizona Saved Itself from Illegal Immigration

Back in 2010, at the height of the rancorous debate over Arizona’s illegal-immigrant law, SB 1070, I wrote over on the homepage that the simple solution to the whole problem of illegal immigration is E-Verify. I argued that proponents of SB 1070, or for that matter, a border fence,  were barking up the wrong tree. Illegal immigration does not happen because of insufficient police power or a poorly defended border. Just think about it: Those factors lower the barriers to entry but they are not the reason that illegal immigrants come here.

The reason illegal immigrants come here is that they know they can get jobs here. The rational solution is to make sure that they can’t get jobs here. Arizona adopted exactly the right policy – three years before SB 1070 – when it adopted mandatory E-Verify for all employers. Kill the incentive to illegal immigration, and you end the crisis. Then it becomes possible to secure the border without any need to replicate the Great Wall of China (which, by the way, didn’t work because the Ming forgot to eliminate the incentive to invade). 

Well, today’s WSJ reports that since Arizona started  E-Verify in 2008, the population of illegal immigrants has dropped an amazing 40 percent. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants simply left.

Proponents of doing more to curb illegal immigration say the mass departures helped the state economically in several ways. Government spending on health care and education for illegal immigrants and their U.S.-born children dropped. Wages for plasterers, landscapers, farmworkers and other low-skilled laborers jumped because of scarcity, according to employers and federal data.

“Even if the size of the state’s GDP decreased, the decrease in immigration redistributed income from employers to employees, particularly at the bottom end of the labor market,” says Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, in Washington, which favors reduced illegal immigration. “That’s a good deal.”

The article goes on to note:

Arizona’s immigration flow started to reverse in 2008 after the state be­came the first to require all employers to use the federal government’s E-Verify system, which searches Social Security records to check whether hires are authorized to work in the U.S. That law coincided with the collapse of the construction industry and the recession. The combination persuaded many illegal immigrants to leave for neighboring states or Mexico.

As one illegal immigrant put it, “E-Verify is a problem for us,” Mr. Castillo said. “We can work for a week. It takes that long for the paperwork. Then we’re out.”

Another would-be worker, Manuel Bernal, noted that because the Mexican economy has improved, laborers with families in that country are more inclined to stay there. Pew Research says that, nationally, more Mexicans now are heading home than coming into the U.S. The Center for Migration Studies estimated the number of undocumented immigrants fell to 10.9 million in 2014, from 12 million in 2008.

The latter point is crucial to keep in mind. The best way to kill the problem of illegal immigration is, first, make sure they can’t jobs here, and, second, make sure they can get jobs in their own countries. Advanced, effective employment verification (whether through E-Verify, or free market solutions) imposes virtually no cost on employers, and has huge immediate benefits in terms of reducing the illegal immigrant population and bringing opportunity back to the American workers who need it most. If you are really interested in actually solving the problem, here is the solution.

Mario Loyola is a former White House speechwriter and environmental adviser. He is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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