Free Markets, Free People

guest workers

Immigration and the welfare state

Immigration seems to be the topic du jour at QandO today, and I take a slightly different tack than Dale and Bruce.

Let’s run through the main problems associated with illegal immigrants: state welfare costs, crime (or is it?), lack of assimilation (particularly if they’re allowed to vote), and suppressing wages for poor natives.

I think we can mitigate a lot of these problems with solutions far more realistic (in the short-to-medium term) than mass deportation, amnesty or ridding ourselves of the welfare state.

First, let’s recognize that the security threat becomes more complicated when you place wishful restrictions on immigration.  When there’s a flood of mostly non-threatening people crossing the border outside of any official process, it’s a lot harder to pick out the few really malicious ones.  And it’s really hard/expensive to stop that flood along such a long border.

We should be striving to funnel as many of them through official processes as possible, so we know who’s here, we know their backgrounds and we can separate the villains from those who just want to observe a basic civic peace and take advantage of opportunities in a freer country.  That means offering carrots and sticks to both prospective immigrants as well as those who are already here, and I’ll get to those incentives below.

Second, minimize how much the welfare state serves and controls non-citizens.

  • Uncompensated care makes up only 2.2% of medical costs in this country, and a good chunk of that doesn’t come from illegals, so the fact that many illegals wait until they need to use the emergency room, while irritating to some, isn’t a political hill to die on.  As long as it’s mostly limited to taking care of communicable diseases and real emergencies, which can be enacted into law, it’s tolerable.
  • Education is a much bigger problem.  I recall reading that there are 1.6 million illegal immigrants under age 18 in the States, and being from Southern California, where the largest budget item by far is education, I know that they (and natural born citizens born to noncitizens) represent a big cost.  Here we can do a bit of political jiu-jitsu: target guest worker families with a school voucher program.
    • They’re already in public schools, so it’s a win if they instead form the basis for a larger private school market.  The larger the market, the more the market can work its magic.
    • It can come with strings attached, like a requirement that any school accepting vouchers be able to show an improvement in English language skills at least as good as nearby public schools.
    • It’s not like Democrats have a good argument against it: it’s nearly the opposite of cream-skimming.  And when guests get this, naturally other groups are going to want it too.
  • Transfer payments (Social Security, unemployment, welfare, etc.), obviously, should be off the table for non-citizens.  I have no problem with people who want to take risks in a freer market; a host country owes them nothing more than securing their rights.

The idea here is to weed out those who aren’t seeking opportunity so much as handouts.  Those seeking opportunity are naturally more eager to assimilate.

Third, take the prospect of adding tons of dependent immigrants to the voter rolls off the table.  Instead, we can get most of what we want by creating a liberal guest worker program that virtually all prospective immigrants and current illegal residents can join simply by identifying themselves to authorities, as long as it’s clear that they’re going to generally be paying their own way, so that people with a dependent mindset are weeded out by attrition.

So what are the carrots and sticks here?  Without doing anything that would turn stomachs (and thus make reform politically impossible), we can get rid of the bad apples while not incurring the large costs associated with trying to throw 12 million people out of the country.

  1. A program allowing people to easily enter the country without being harassed should increase suspicion of anyone who’s still trying to immigrate the hard way — and that would increase public support for border security.
  2. Deport illegals who fail to register under the guest program and then commit serious crimes — violent crimes or big property crimes like auto theft.  Those who commit petty crimes and can’t prove their status can either apply for guest status and take their punishment here or accept deportation.
    • No sweeps or “asking for papers” for those who are just here peacefully.  Only those charged with another crime can be asked to prove their status within a reasonable time frame.
    • Come to an agreement to build cheaper-run prisons in Mexico to hold illegals during their sentences — no sense in keeping them in expensive American prisons if we’re planning on deporting them anyway.
  3. Illegals can’t access the school voucher program, but guest worker families can.
    • Perhaps also allow vouchers for English-language and Civics education for adults.

I’m open to any other ideas, but that seems like a good foundation, accepting (in the neolibertarian fashion) that the welfare state won’t disappear tomorrow, but offering a positive agenda that tends to increase liberty.