How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (11): Why Immigration Grand Bargains Fail — The Incentive Dimension of Amnesties

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on August 16, 2012

In a recent analysis of immigration, Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary S. Becker had this to say about the motivation for immigration:

The majority of immigrants from all over the world, both legal and illegal, move for economic reasons. Few people want to leave the communities they are born into. What lures immigrants is often the chance to find jobs that pay significantly more than they can earn in their home countries. ... The lure of economic betterment is why virtually all the illegal (and legal) immigration is from poorer to richer countries. (p.241)

These facts virtually ensure that the United States will remain a destination of choice for many millions of the world's potential immigrants — those who would benefit economically from being able to live and work here. It also means that the United States will remain an attractive destination for those who don't have the means or the patience to go though the legal immigration process; in short, illegal aliens.

It is this very attractiveness that is at the bottom of the current debate about what to do with the estimated 11-12 million illegal aliens currently living and working in the United States.

This debate has devolved into five possible solutions: (1) provide a "pathway to legalization" for all or most of these illegal aliens; (2) enforce current laws prohibiting illegal aliens from working, which would, eventually, lead to a situation in which the incentives that Becker described are no longer as attractive for coming and certainly not for staying without legal standing; (3) carving out smaller pieces of immigration policy around which a consensus has emerged and the political circumstances favor a more limited resolution of some outstanding issues, e.g. resolving the status of those who were brought to the United States as children illegally by their parents, or attempting to resolve the status of those children growing up in mixed immigration status marriages in which an illegal alien has married a legal immigrant; (4) take executive administrative steps to change the status of illegal aliens; or (5) do nothing.

All of these options rest on a mix of compassion and the legitimate worry about the consequences of providing incentives. Americans feel some sympathy for the desire of illegal aliens to have a better life even while not supporting their transgressions of American immigration law. For many Americans, regularizing the status of illegal aliens, regardless of their understandable motives for a better life, feels slightly suspect because it appears to reward their transgressions.

The question is: Does it? Isn't making illegal aliens pay a fine, learn English and American civics, and submit to a background check a form of accepting personal responsibility and restitution?

Not really. Most fines proposed are nowhere near the amount of money that illegal immigrants make working in the United States. From that standpoint, any fine is a good, sound investment. Nor is learning the language of the country in which you now live and work much of a "punishment"; indeed it is the key to better jobs and living standards. And accepting a background check is nothing more or less onerous than any immigrant who is legally applying for residency must do. And, besides, if proposals for legalizing the status of those brought here as children are any indication, disabling crimes must be multiple, severe, and result in convictions, not just charges or plea-bargains to lesser offenses.

Becker's argument is that the basic incentives for illegal immigration are economic — which he defines as "the chance to find jobs that pay significantly more than they can earn in their home countries." He is doubtlessly right about this, which is why some effective method of ensuring that only those who are legally able to work here are doing so is absolutely essential to discouraging future waves of illegal aliens.

But beyond finding more lucrative work, there are other incentives operating in the calculus of illegal aliens. The United States is a politically free society. It is a technologically advanced one. Its water is drinkable and its electricity dependable. Its schools are free. Its hospitals are also free in the sense that those who can't pay still have access to modern health care. Cars are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, even if it is hard as an illegal alien to get a license and insurance.

Moreover, there are many of your fellow country-men and -women here, both legally and not. There are churches and many civic organizations anxious to be of help and many politicians taking up your cause.

Becker is right that it is hard to leave your country of origin, but if you have all these elements, they help make your life more tolerable. This would not be true if you were from, say, Honduras and decided to illegally enter and work in, say, Germany.

The point is that the United States is both a tremendous economic magnet for legal immigrants and illegal aliens and, comparatively in many respects, a very tolerable place to live even if you are not legally entitled to be here.

And if you are not legally entitled to live and work in the United States there is always the hope that you will eventually be allowed to do so.

That hope is not a dream.

Next: How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (12): Immigration Grand Bargains Fail, Amnesties Multiply