My Immigration Reform Plan

More than any subject on Coyote Blog, my immigration posts have engendered more disapproving comments than anything else I have written.  I won't repeat my position except to say that I don't care if immigration is currently illegal, because my point is that it should be legal.  In short, my stance has been that our rights do not flow from the government but from our basic humanity, and therefore activities like association, employment decision-making, and property purchase should not be contingent on citizenship.  Its one of those arguments where I wish many on my side of the argument would shut up -- If the best argument you can muster for immigration is 'who will pick the lettuce', you are not helping very much. 

For the first 150 years of this country's history, our country was basically wide-open to immigration.  Sure, there were those opposed (the riots in NYC in the 19th century come to mind) but the opposition was confined mainly to xenophobes and those whose job skills were so minimal that unskilled immigrants who could not speak English were perceived as a threat.   It was only the redistributionist socialism-lite of the New Deal and later the Great Society that began to make unfettered immigration unpopular with a majority of Americans, who rightly did not wish to see the world's poor migrate to the US seeking an indolent life of living off of government handouts.

But, as Congress debates a series of immigration plans that make not sense and don't seem internally consistent, I will propose my own.  I hope that this plan will appeal to those who to date have opposed immigration because of the government handout problem.  I am sure it will continue to be unappealing to those who fear competition in the job market or who don't like to be near people who don't speak English very well.  This is an elaboration of the plan from this post:

  1. Anyone may enter or reside in the US. The government may prevent entry of a very short list of terrorists and criminals at the border, but everyone else is welcome to come and stay as long as they want for whatever reason.  Anyone may buy property in the US, regardless or citizenship or residency.  Anyone in the US may trade with anyone in the world on the same terms they trade with their next door neighbor.
  2. The US government is obligated to protect the individual rights, particularly those in the Bill of Rights, of all people physically present in our borders, citizen or not.  Anyone, regardless of citizenship status, may buy property, own a business, or seek employment in the United States without any legal distinction vs. US "citizens"
  3. Certain government functions, including voting and holding office, may require formal "citizenship".  Citizenship should be easier to achieve, based mainly on some minimum residency period, and can be denied after this residency only for a few limited reasons (e.g. convicted of a felony).  The government may set no quotas or numerical limits on new citizenships.
  4. All people present in the US pay the same taxes in the same way.  A non-citizen or even a short term visitor pays sales taxes on purchases and income taxes on income earned while present in the US just like anyone else.  Immigrants will pay property taxes just like long-term residents, either directly or via their rent payments.
  5. Pure government handouts, like Welfare, food stamps, the EITC, farm subsidies, and public housing, will only be available to those with full US citizenship.  Vagrancy and squatting on public or private lands without permission will not be tolerated.
  6. Most government services and fee-based activities, including emergency services, public education, transportation, access to public recreation, etc. will be open to all people within the US borders, regardless of citizenship status, assuming relevant fees are paid.
  7. Social Security is a tough beast to classify - I would put it in the "Citizen" category as currently structured (but would gladly put it in the "available to everyone" category if SS could be restructured to better match contributions with benefits, as in a private account system).  But, as currently configured, I would propose that only citizens can accrue and receive SS benefits.  To equalize the system, the nearly 8% employee and 8% employer social security contributions will still be paid by non-citizens working in the US, but these funds can be distributed differently.  I would suggest the funds be split 50/50 between state and local governments to offset any disproportionate use of services by new immigrants.  The federal portion could go towards social security solvency, while the state and local portion to things like schools and medical programs.

With this plan, we return to the America of our founding fathers, welcoming all immigrants who are willing to take the risk of coming here.  We would end the failed experiment of turning citizenship from a voting right into a comprehensive license that is required to work, own property, or even associate and be present within the US border.  Since immigrants today who are "illegal" pay no income or social security taxes into the system today (they do pay sales and, via rent, property tax), this plan would increase tax revenues while reducing some welfare state burdens.

I think if you asked many prospective immigrants, they would agree to this deal - no handouts, just a fair chance to make a living and a life.  However, immigrant advocacy organizations are hugely unlikely to accept this plan, as most seem today to have been co-opted by various Marxist organizations who are opposed to anyone opting out of the welfare state (it is no coincidence that the recent immigration policy protests all occurred on May Day, the traditional Soviet-Marxist holiday).

Finally, I would like to offer one thought to all those who worry about "absorbing" ten or fifteen million new immigrants.  First, I would argue that we have adopted many more immigrants than this successfully in this country's history, including my grandparents and probably yours.  Second, I would observe that as recently as the last several decades, we managed to absorb 40 million new workers quite successfully, as I wrote here:

Check this data out, from the BLS:

  • In 1968, the unemployment rate was 3.8%.  22.9 million women were employed in non-farm jobs, accounting for 34% of the work force.
  • In 2000, the unemployment rate was 4.0%.  62.7 million women were employed in the work force, accounting for 48% of the total
  • In these years, the number of women employed increased every single year.  Even in the recession years of 1981-1983 when employment of men dropped by 2.5 million, women gained 400,000 jobs

This is phenomenal.  After years of being stay-at-home moms or whatever, women in America decided it was time to go to work.  This was roughly the equivalent of having 40,000,000 immigrants show up on our shores one day looking for work.  And you know what? The American economy found jobs for all of them, despite oil embargos and stagflation and wars and "outsourcing".

  • BobH

    Coyote:

    I read no further than this:

    "I am sure it will continue to be unappealing to those who fear competition in the job market or who don't like to be near people who don't speak English very well."

    Your arguments are generally intelligent and often persuasive, but you devalue them and demonstrate their weakness when you feel you must resort to name-calling.

  • JoshK

    I agree with you except for #7. We should just eliminate these altogether. Is it really better to give someone in CO welfare than to help someone in Chad who will die of malnutrition? I don't think the gvt should be taking the role of philanthroper; each citizen needs to choose what they want to pay for.

  • Frank Ch. Eigler

    Some imperfections of the plan:

    - If the illegal alien population is to acquire paperwork, and start paying income taxes, would they not lose their economic attractiveness to their black-market employers? In other words, what is the *incentive* for such people to go legal?

    - How would you justify having the illegal alien population pay normal taxes, and yet not be entitled to "citizen"-level tax-funded benefits?

  • Max Lybbert

    We're actually closer than people think on many of these:

    /* 1. Anyone may enter or reside in the US.
    */

    OK, not close on this one. However, I would modify it to also prohibit health risks from entering (eg., Hepatitis or Tuberculosis carriers). I don't like the quotas either, because they don't make any sense compared to reality. Officially we only accept X Mexicans per year because we can't integrate more than that. But we obviously *do* integrate more than that just fine.

    /* 2. The US government is obligated to protect the individual rights, particularly those in the Bill of Rights, of all people physically present in our borders, citizen or not.
    */

    That is basically true today, although many people would quibble over what falls under rights and what falls under priveleges. But the recent immigration demonstrations did not involve INS checking the green cards of all the participants. Hmm, those demonstrations involved the exercise of free speech and free association, and they went through just fine.

    /* Anyone, regardless of citizenship status, may buy property, own a business,
    */

    As I understand it, this part is already the case today; although owning property doesn't give you permission to visit it, and there are silly limitationson foreigners owning certain kinds of businesses.

    /* 3. Certain government functions, including voting and holding office, may require formal "citizenship". ...

    4. All people present in the US pay the same taxes in the same way. A non-citizen or even a short term visitor pays sales taxes on purchases and income taxes on income earned while present in the US just like anyone else. Immigrants will pay property taxes just like long-term residents ...
    */

    This is the case today (at least it's how the law expects things to run). Also, if I visit Brazil and pay Brazilian income tax, if I send that money (after taxes) to the US, I can tell the IRS about what I paid in Brazilian income tax. Additionally, Brazil works the same way for their expatriots, although I don't know about other countries.

    /* 5. Pure government handouts, like Welfare, food stamps, the EITC, farm subsidies, and public housing, will only be available to those with full US citizenship. Vagrancy and squatting on public or private lands without permission will not be tolerated.

    6. Most government services and fee-based activities, including emergency services, public education, transportation, access to public recreation, etc. will be open to all people within the US borders, regardless of citizenship status, assuming relevant fees are paid.
    */

    Legally, that's the case today (unless state law says otherwise, see California and Prop 87). Even emergency services, which the courts have decided *must* be provided. The hospital can later send you a bill, but if you can't pay, you're still taken care of because it's a constitutional right.

  • http://honestpartisan.blogspot.com honestpartisan

    I agree with most of what you've written. Just a couple of nits to pick:

    I disagree that the country only became hostile to immigration with the rise of the New Deal. Throughout the 19th century, one can read racist descriptions of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants of the time that are a lot worse than anything anyone's saying about Mexicans now. Immigration was restricted in a big way in 1924, before the New Deal, prompted by isolationism, nativism, and the rise of radicalization among Jewish immigrants, like Emma Goldman, who had partcipated in a bombing in 1919 of J.P. Morgan's headquarters. Indeed, immigration was liberalized in 1965 in the Great Society War on Poverty explosion of government entitlements.

    Also, contrary to popular conception, immigrants generally aren't entitled to government benefits, so your proposal is not a big departure from the status quo. The biggest change you would make is that asylees and legal permanent residents (green-card holders) who have had that status for five years are eligible for government benefits (SSI, food stamps, TANF, Section 8), as do citizen children of non-citizens who, as I read your proposal, would continue to be eligible for benefits.

  • Kevin

    If we in the US are really afraid of countries like China, it seems the best policy is to actively encourage their brightest and most hard-working to come here. So, if you can pass an ability/skill test, you get an automatic green card. Make it no-hassle, and easy to try. The exact nature and definition of the test would be subject to debate, but could have several different categories, such as verbal, math, artististic, etc. The main point is to just identify outstanding individuals.

    Carried even further, we could actually fund exceptional immigrants. If you do exceptionally well on the test, you get a free airplane ticket and some initial support to start a new life. It would essentially be an effort to steal the best from everywhere else in the world. We would set the bar high enough so that the short-term costs would be manageable, and that the long-term benefits would outweigh them.

    I can't decide if this would be an evil program or an enlightened, meritocratic one, but I suspect it would be very strongly opposed by those on the left and the right.

  • Matthew

    Pretty much agree with everything you said here, except i'm a bit iffy of whether property rights is a basic human right. But your plan is pretty much what i've always thought as well. I think a lot of the opposition to immigration is culturally based, not just people who think immigrants use up a lot of government freebies.

  • http://dfriedman.typepad.com Dave

    I don't disagree with the substance of your argument but the way you present it is utterly unconvincing.

    "I don't care if polygamy is illegal because I think it should be legal."

    "I don't care if spousal rape is illegal because I think it should be legal."

    "I don't think tax evasion is illegal because I think it should be legal."

    Etc., etc. ad infinitum.

  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany

    ( CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP )

    Well said, and that's actually a full, comprehensive, implementable proposal. You show (yet again) why I keep coming back to read here :-)

    For a classical liberal's thoughts on this, check out my post over at The Liberty Papers:

    http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2006/05/01/immigration-the-american-dream/

  • http://www.zianet.com/ehusman/weblog/blogger.html Eric H

    This seems like a reasonable policy, but I see you hung on the SS problem, too.

    "I would suggest the funds be split 50/50 between state and local governments
    to offset any disproportionate use of services by new immigrants."

    Have you got any statistics for that? Why do we assume or accept the argument that immigrants use more local services than natives? I'm not saying they don't, I just want to resist rushing to judgement without real data. Most come here to work, not to raise a family, so I'd suggest that they use schools at lower rates than natives. They commit fewer crimes, so less police required than natives. They probably carpool or walk, so they don't add much to congestion or road wear.

    The only thing I can think of is that they probably use the emergency room as their primary care facility more often than average natives (but this is no different than poor natives). If that's so, why not let them keep part of their payroll deduction, but mandate that they carry catastrophic health insurance (you know, true insurance, not the premium healthcare that covers everything that people like to think of as insurance) as part of the immigration deal? This could be a stalking horse to get Ronald Bailey's idea* adopted for the rest of us in lieu of national healthcare (an idea that just won't die).

    Requiring them to sign up with the provider of their choice and pay the first 6 months' premium is a reasonable price to entry in lieu of what they are currently paying to coyotes (no offense), smugglers, forgers, etc. After all, Gary Becker thinks that they should be able to bid for the right to immigrate, and that $50,000 may be a low bid!**

    * Bailey's article in Reason: http://www.reason.com/0411/fe.rb.mandatory.shtml
    ** Becker's article at http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/archives/2005/02/sell_the_right.html

  • http://yargb.blogspot.com/ Charlie (Colorado)

    Yes. I'm going to link this to our blog as well; you've very neatly summarized what I think too.

  • Hugh

    Firstly you are either ignorant or you have fallen victim to "political correctness" because you use the term "illegal immigrant" when you should use "illegal alien", I suspect that because you have not had to immigrate yourself, you are unaware of the distinction?

    Now why not setup a Google alert for "Nuevo Laredo" and then begin to read about the future of your own country? because this is an example of what is attempting to gain access to the US and their task is made far easier by lax border security.

    People in Mexico should have no more rights to enter, live and work in the US than people from any other country, to suggest that they should is racism. There are numerous ways that an individual from another country may gain the right to live and work in the US, sure these processes could be improved and simplified and I am all for that.

    However anyone entering US territory without passing through and being approved by an immigration officer becomes an "illegal alien" and this is a simple fact of law and history. The US has (by some estimates) 20 million such individuals within its borders.

    Because they have entered illegally nobody knows anything about their criminal history (if any) whether they are convicted child abusers, pimps, gangsters, drugs and arms smugglers, do they? Furthermore the lax border is being used right now, by a great number of non-Mexicans from Colombia, El Salvador and many of these are ruthless gangsters who have no fear of what we call "law and order" and indeed regularly place a "bounty" on the heads US border patrol officers.

    As someone why entered the US legally and lives here legally I take great issue with this, because the southern states are unprotected from this and far too many (including you Sir) prefer to view this as some philosophical discussion, greatly distorting the harsh reality.

    Hugh

  • R. Sullivan

    In general, I agree with the plan outlined.

    What I have voiced as my solution to the "immigrant problem" also seems to be unpopular with the anti-immigrantion crowd. This is a policy that would seem to fit alongside the plan you outlined:
    If we do not want to be flooded with folks from other countries (e.g., Mexico), the best way to prevent it is for the U.S. to do everything we can to raise the living standard in the other countries. I don't belive that people leave their homes and families simply because they have wanderlust. They come to the U.S. because they are leaving a place of no opportunity for what they see as a land of opportunity. Or perhaps because they are literally starving. My ancestors were certainly not welcomed when they arrived here, but they left Ireland anyway because conditions there at that time were so terrible. Even if the standard of living were raised only slightly & remained far below that in the U.S., just a slight increase in the quality of life in their home country should substantially reduce the numbers deciding to leave home. That reduces the number coming to the U.S. for no reason other than an attempt to escape dire poverty & perhaps the ones that still come to the U.S. would truly see this as a better place.

  • JoshK

    Personally, I'm for almost unlimited immigration, but why not, if we have to limit it, both screen for skills and sell spaces? Sell green cards to qualified people for 5K.

  • stew

    My friend,

    Why not put your plan up as a ballot initiative and see how that turkey doesn't fly. Why? Because there are many of us who believe in the concept of a nation-state and have little patient for the line-jumpers. Why not interview some legal immigrants who waited up to 5 years to enter the US? You can start with my wife and her family.

  • Don

    Lovely sentiment here.....too bad you are so delusional. Our Society cannot survive an influx of immigration as it has in the past. The key reason is that today's immigrant has no interest in becoming part of our great community, they have no interest in living our culture. They only come here to reiieve their poverty. Maybe someday when our government is bankrupt from providing services for these poor, unwashed masses will you see your error

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