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February 28, 2005

Immigration Reform: Sell Green Cards

With almost ten million undocumented immigrants in the US, working without most legal rights and exploited by the day, even as hundreds of thousands more stream across our borders because of desperation back home, there is a human rights crisis serving food at your local restaurant, taking care of children on our playgrounds, and cleaning our offices.

I am a radical on immigration and advocate open borders, but that's not going to happen any time soon. So the question is what reforms could potentially gain political support AND improve the lives of these immigrants. Counterintuitive as it might seem (and I can already hear some liberal friends screaming), I think Gary Becker's proposal to sell additional immigration slots for $50,000 a green card meets these criteria. Fees would not be collected up front, but could be paid back through loans over a number of years. Present undocumented immigrants could buy their way out of the shadows, while new immigrants could skip border dogs and starvation and instead drive freely to their new homes in the US. [Note: To avoid confusion, I am supporting Becker's general proposal with the details I'm presenting, not all his proposed details, many of which I find noxious.]

Why It Would Improve Lives: $50,000 might seem a daunting price, but most immigrants would be financially better off compared to living illegally.

Many undocumented workers are paid less than minimum wage and gaining legal status would allow them to earn far more per hour and demand the legal rights to make sure they were paid fairly.

As an example, loans paid back over twenty years at 7% interest would require payments of $388 per month, but just $3 more earned per hour due to a legal status would translate into an additional $480 per month in full-time wages, more than those loan payments. And legal status would translate into an even larger number of non-financial advantages, including the right to vote.

And for new immigrants, the gains could be even larger, since many are often so desperate that they already pay tens of thousands of dollars to smugglers and are often sold into virtual slavery in the US. So paying a fee for safe passage and a green card would look damn attractive as an alternative.

Why This Would Sell Politically: The loudest argument against immigration is that new immigrants use more public benefits than they pay in taxes. Most evidence disputes this view, but politically it's one of the arguments made most often and a lot of polls show people buy it. And it it often true that the specific communities where immigrants settle face immediate costs, such as building new schools or public health facilities, that the taxes immigrants pay don't cover. (Undocumented immigrants often pay payroll and income taxes under false papers, but that money doesn't necessarily flow back locally).

So letting the undocumented buy their way out from the underground would assure voters that new citizenship was not a free ride. If just half of the ten million undocumented took up the offer, this would bring in an immediate $250 billion and new immigrants each year could bring in an additional $10-20 billion annually. In a time of deficits, that price tag would look awfully tempting to most voters and elected leaders. And this money could be earmarked specifically to help out communities with disproportionate immigration, thereby making encouraging immigration a potentially popular political choice for those local voters as well.

As for the other fear of immigrants, that they drive down wages for local workers, the immigrant fees spent on jobs programs might ease that fear a bit, but the real change will be that undocumented immigrants won't be so easily exploited and bid down wages. The worst thing for native workers is to have ten million people in the economy who lack the legal right to fight on their own behalf for decent conditions. Changing that is one of the best programs to raise wages for all workers.

What About the Alternatives?: I am a strong supporter of the "earned legalization" proposals that would grant citizenship to undocumented workers who have worked for many years in the United States, but political opposition makes passage of those laws unlikely. And in any case, they do little to change the status quo of new immigrants continually replenishing the ranks of exploited work in our economy.

Most of the "guest worker" proposals out there, including Bush's still somewhat undefined one, either are too limited in who is covered to deal with the larger problem or would make things worse by tying workers to employment with specific employers, essentially a system of indentured servitude with no real prospect of eventual citizenship. Letting people buy their way to citenship is less distasteful than creating a system where they only enter the country as de facto rented property of the corporations who sponsor them.

A Hard-Headed Solution: I'm not necessarily happy with the solution of selling green cards, but it in many ways appeals as the least bad of any program likely to have a chance of enactment. There is something distasteful about auctioning off American citizenship, but there is something far more noxious about out half-ass de facto policy of instead auctioning off slots in our sweatshops to those who survive the brutal and sometimes deadly border crossings.

The compromise I would propose would preserve the present system of allocating free slots for immigration based on family unification and a lottery system, so there would be no elimination of a chance for immigration without financial burden. This proposed policy is only an alternative to our present non-policy in regard to the roughly 400,000 undocumented immigrants who arrive each year outside the official system. The goal is to to give those immigrants an opportunity to escape those shadows and use the fees generated to ease the political tensions that threaten to become a flash point for xenophobia and political reaction.

As I said, not a perfect solution, but the status quo is far worse. If we could politically achieve earned legalization, I'd push for it as a fairer, more equitable solution but it seems an unlikely sell right now. Maybe if the initial program of selling green cards on loan repayment plans was adopted, the next step would be for progressives to lobby for loan payment relief for lower-income immigrants. Once those immigrants were citizens, proposing easing that economic burden on our "fellow Americans" would be an easier sell than overcoming the present prejudice against helping "illegals."

This proposal is not the ideal, but it promises to be better than what we have now, which is a festering human rights violation every day. And no proposal is good unless it has a chance of being enacted and this one potentially does. So progressives should take a hard look at it as a possibility as we debate immigration reforms in coming years.

Posted by Nathan at February 28, 2005 08:50 AM