A National Immigration Auction, Part II: Illegal Immigration

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on September 17, 2010

The authors of a new proposal laid out in the New York Times for a national immigration auction tout its many virtues. They herald, "The good news is that there is a way to replace [the current system] that will promote economic growth while reducing the flow of illegal workers." It sounds almost too good to be true… and it is.

Consider its supposed palliative effects on illegal immigration. The authors write that, "Bringing low-skilled workers into the [auction] program is vital to stemming illegal immigration, as the current system's lack of sufficient visas for the low-skilled is a main reason that people cross the border illegally." The problem with this assertion is that the estimated 11-12 million illegal immigrants now in the country entered within a relatively brief period. And those numbers suggest that curbing illegal immigration by increasing the number of work visa will increase overall levels of immigration dramatically.

Jeffrey Passel, chief demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, wrote in an earlier report that, "The unauthorized population has been steadily increasing in size (and possibly by large increments since the last half of the 1990s)." Published in 1995 and covering the years 1995-1999, that Pew report estimated that the flow of illegal immigrants, mostly from South and Central America and Mexico, averaged 750,000 per year. (p. 5) Moreover, "About 30% of the unauthorized population in 2004 or 3.1 million persons arrived in the 4+ years since 2000. In the 5 years before that, 3.6 million arrived. Thus, about two-thirds of unauthorized migrants have been in the country less than 10 years." (p. 5)

Most of the illegal populations covered by these figures are not PhD candidates in engineering and computer science that want to be employed in Silicon Valley. They are persons with low educational levels who nonetheless are able to make a much better living in the United States than they can at home by doing "unskilled" manual labor at low prices.

Recall that there would, under the proposal, be national auctions for both high- and low-skilled workers. So that the number of persons who might want to take part in the national auction, just for "low-level" entry slots, will require the number of auction slots for this group alone almost equal the total number of legal green cards now authorized on a yearly basis for all immigrants, at least to the extent that the Pew estimates are accurate.

What then will happen to the auction for high-skilled immigrants? Obviously, additional slots will have to be made available. How many will that be, and how will those slots be apportioned? Will it be 50-50, high- and low-skill slots? Will it be 60-40 in either direction? If 750,000 illegal immigrants a year came to work in this country, mostly less-skilled workers from South and Central America and Mexico, how many will want to come from China, India, and elsewhere in Asia? The authors of the Times piece note that, "The most recent data suggest that 1.1 million approved applicants are waiting for employment-based green cards. Immigrants from China and India are among the most adversely affected because, in general, no more than 7 percent of green cards can be allotted each year to applicants from any one country."

The article also notes that these auction visas "should not be subject to country quotas and should be open-ended." The authors note that, "most green card categories have strict numerical limits that fall far short of the number of immigrants on temporary visas who wish to stay." That is doubtless true, but it is also a fact that the number of green cards available will never equal the "number who wish to stay," and it is unclear why the wish to stay should be a major element of American immigration policy.

Moreover, once we begin making the "wish to stay" an important consideration, it is only a matter of time before someone will suggest that we should also consider those who are not already living here but want to. If we begin to do that, we had better be prepared for what follows. In a large survey covering 135 countries, Gallup found, "The United States is the top desired destination country for the 700 million adults who would like to relocate permanently to another country. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of these respondents, which translates to more than 165 million adults worldwide, name the United States as their desired future residence."

The auction proposal, if enacted, would have the effect of dramatically increasing the absolute numbers of immigrants allowed entry every year. Not only will these high- and low-skill workers come, but they will want to bring their families – their husbands, wives, and children. Whatever the number of worker slots allocated, that number will have to be multiplied by family members, or family members will have to be subtracted from that number. It's not hard to predict that visas for the workers themselves would be the numerical floor and that additional visas for family members would be suggested for the purposes of equity and social harmony and to avoid splitting up families.

This proposal "solves" the problem of illegal immigration by a plan expanding immigration slots in the service "promoting economic growth." It is premised on the odd assumption that the over one million new legal immigrants who entered the United States each year in period of 2005-2009, many of whom found productive work during this period of economic downturn and most of whom do so in periods of economic expansion, are insufficient.

The proposal argues, in essence, that we need many more than the 1 million new legal immigrants who are already entering our country each year. But it never really explains why.

Next: A National Immigration Auction, Part III: Predictably Bad Consequences.