TCS Daily

A Solution to the President's Immigration Plan

By James D. Miller - January 22, 2004 12:00 AM

President Bush should make his immigration plan community controlled. Bush has proposed issuing visas allowing some currently illegal immigrants to reside lawfully in the U.S. as guest workers, but his plan will face substantial opposition from communities that oppose increased immigration. Rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all immigration plan on the entire U.S., Bush should amend his plan and empower individual communities to decide how many guest workers to admit.

The guest worker program should allocate visas to communities and then permit each community to decide how many of their visas to issue. For example, if Northampton, MA received fifty visas but wanted only twenty guest workers, the town would not be compelled to allot the extra thirty. Communities fearful of immigrants, therefore, wouldn't need to admit any new ones, whereas immigrant-needy towns could use the guest worker program to expand their labor supply.

Certain communities desperately need new immigrant workers to fill jobs Americans won't take, whereas other areas already face overcrowded roads and over-congested public services and so don't need new residents. Communities have a better sense of the benefits and burdens that new immigrants would bring to their areas than the distant federal government does. By giving communities choices over how many guest worker visas to issue, U.S. immigration policy would become better shaped to the country's needs.

Immigration policy could be improved even further by allowing communities to sell their unwanted guest worker visas to other towns. Tradable visas would even allow communities that wanted no new immigrants to benefit from the guest worker program because they could sell their visas for cash. Furthermore, the market price paid for these visas would show the value of immigrants to the purchasing communities and provide a strong signal to Congress concerning the benefit of increasing the guest worker program. Also, with tradable visas, if multiple communities wanted additional visas, those willing to pay the most, and therefore those who receive the greatest value from the immigrants, would probably get the new workers.

A community-based guest worker program would be much easier to sell politically than Bush's original proposal. The majorities in many American cities oppose new immigration and so would likely oppose Bush's guest worker proposal, fearing it would increase immigration into their cities. Community choice, however, would insure that immigrants ended up moving only to welcoming towns. Furthermore, since illegal immigrants would benefit greatly from receiving guest visas, they would move out of communities that refused to offer them, which should make the guest worker program even more attractive to immigrant-unfriendly areas.

Experimenting with Immigration

Tradable visas would allow communities to experiment with differing immigration policies. Does immigration increase crime and steal jobs, or can new immigrants revitalize a local economy? Which types of towns most need new workers? After a few years of having a community-based immigration program we could all observe which policy produces the greatest benefit for different types of cities. These observations would, I hope, drive future immigration policy.

Bush has proposed making his plan available for only low-skilled workers seeking jobs Americans won't take, but he should extend his plan to cover diverse jobs. Indeed, the plan should offer communities a few visas covering low-skilled occupations but also visas allowing their bearers to work high-skilled, high-tech jobs. Communities should then be allowed to trade the different types of visa, and the relative demand for each type of visa would show Congress which kinds of workers American cities need most.

Of course, for a community-based immigration system to work, the federal government would still need to exercise a certain amount of control. After an immigrant receives a guest worker visa from a community, the federal government would probably have to insure that the guest worker doesn't have any ties to terrorists or narcotraffickers. Besides determining and evaluating immigrant eligibility, however, the tradable visa program would give maximum power to local communities.

Bush's guest worker program may bring many benefits to America. Since it would allow foreigners to work but not retire in the U.S. it would raise the ratio of working to non-working American residents, strengthening our Social Security system. As aging demographics dictate that Western Europe and Japan have a shrinking percentage of their populations employed in the workforce, an American guest worker program could insure the U.S.'s continuing economic supremacy. Most importantly, however, the guest worker program will legalize many undocumented workers. At a time when law enforcement is needed to fight terrorism, we don't want police agencies chasing undocumented but otherwise honest workers. The unpopularity of increasing immigration might, however, make it difficult for Bush to sell his proposal, so to make the program more politically palatable, Bush should let each community decide how many guest workers to welcome.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.


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