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Far too often discussions on immigration reform become very politically charged and ideological. Unfortunately this obfuscates the real issues and real solutions. I can’t help but take a purely pragmatic approach to immigration.

What are the problems with illegal immigration?

There are several problems; illegal immigration hides whole populations in the shadows, they drive down wages and undocumented immigrants don’t pay income tax.

Undocumented immigrants are ripe for exploitation and abuse due to their immigration status. The fear of deportation dissuades many from reporting abuse and exploitation. If a crime is committed against an undocumented immigrant it is far less likely to be report than if it was a crime against a citizen. Undocumented immigrants are concerned that reporting a crime even if they are the victim could lead law enforcement to question their immigration status and possibly deport them. This is especially true since states like Arizona passed anti-illegal immigration laws. In those areas the government has made it clear that they intend to enforce immigration law to the greatest extent possible.

The problem here is that anytime a population exists in the shadows of society problems will arise from that. The population makes an easy target for those that wish to exploit or abuse others. Undocumented immigrants often feel they have no recourse when they are exploited or abused. If the undocumented immigrant reports exploitation or abuse they may face deportation themselves. That would only worsen their situation. Without legal recourse victims are left with two choices, either endure exploitation and abuse or retaliate against it. Enduring victimization only perpetuates the victimization of undocumented immigrants because it demonstrates to the perpetrators that they need not fear legal recourse. While retaliation against victimization leads to more violence and crime as undocumented immigrants take the law into their own hands. Neither is a good choice. In order for a country to maintain law and order ALL people living there must feel free to report criminal activities and seek legal recourse for injustice.

The next problem is that illegal immigration drives down wages. Employers can wield a great deal of power over undocumented immigrants because they are not legal to work. Employers don’t have to pay them minimum wage instead employers are free to pay whatever they wish. Undocumented workers have no recourse for being paid bellow minimum wage since bringing attention to their problem may result in deportation. Also some employers have been known to refuse to pay undocumented immigrants for the same reason. Furthermore employers threaten to call immigration if an illegal immigrant has a problem with pay or work conditions. This puts a great deal of power in the hands of employers because they control both the immigrants money and potentially their ability to stay in the country.

But even if an employer is not exploiting or abusing illegal immigrants they can still drive down wages. That is because undocumented immigrants are more willing to take less pay for a job than legal residences. Some industries like construction have a high proportion of their work force come from undocumented immigrants. The lower cost of labor for companies that use a lot of undocumented immigrant labor makes those companies more competitive. The problem is that other companies are required to cut labor costs in order to stay competitive which means they will either hire illegal immigrants or pay less for legal residences. Either way they drive down their labor costs in order to compete with companies that hire cheap illegal immigrant labor.

The last problem of illegal immigration is that they do not pay income taxes. Since undocumented immigrants are not legal residences they do not file income taxes. They may pay sales tax and property tax (in the form of rent) but they don’t pay income tax. In fact many are employed as ‘independent contractors’ which means they don’t pay Social Security, Medicare or payroll taxes. This is a point of contention for many because it is a lost revenue stream for the government and it is unfair to those that have to pay taxes. Most people pay income tax, Social Security tax, Medicare tax and payroll tax so when they see illegal immigrants not paying taxes they are upset.

What is the root cause of illegal immigration?

Illegal immigration is driven by market pressures. There is demand in the US for immigrant labor yet the immigration system is unable to meet that demand.  So people illegally immigrate to the US because there is demand for their labor and they believe that they will be better off in the US. If there were no demand for immigrant labor then there would be no reason for them to come to the US. In fact during the recession the US saw negative immigration from Mexico. That is when the economy tanked more illegal immigrants moved back to Mexico than came to the US. This demonstrates clearly the connection between demand for labor and illegal immigration.

Simply put the root cause of illegal immigration is that the demand for labor exceeds the supply allowed by the US immigration system.

What are the solutions for illegal immigration?

There are four primary solutions that are being discussed; increased border security, increase enforcement against businesses that hire undocumented immigrants, legalizing undocumented immigrants and reforming the immigration system.

Border security as a means of dealing with illegal immigration has been pushed by the GOP extensively in the past. In fact during the GOP presidential primary that was virtually the only solution brought forth by the candidates. The problem is that border security does not address the demand for labor at all. It completely ignores the root cause of illegal immigration and attempts to stop it through enforcement. Unfortunately enforcement will not stop a demand based problem. The demand will lead people to devise means to avoid the enforcement. The prime example of this is the War on Drugs, the US has been engaged in a four decade long war on illegal drugs. Despite all of the enforcement and incarceration involved in the War on Drugs no progress has been made. Even after the largest ever seizures of drugs the impact on supply and price is only transient. If the US could fully secure the border then it would have happened in the past 42 years. The simple fact is that it is not possible to secure the entire border at all times. We must admit to ourselves that border security alone can’t stop illegal immigration. Border security could be included as one means of limiting illegal immigration but border security can’t solve the whole problem.

The next focus for solutions is frequently increasing enforcement against businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. This proposal at least engages the root cause which is the demand for labor by businesses. It is aimed at reducing demand for illegal immigrant labor. The current system in place to verify an employee’s eligibility to work in the US is E-Verify. Overall E-Verify does it’s job but it suffer from some problems. E-Verify can incorrectly identify as many as 180,000 people as being ineligible to work each year. This would not be a huge problem if it were easy to clear up any mistakes. But the E-Verify system does not tell the potential employee where the source of the mistake is. So the potential employee must seek out all of their own information from various places in order to determine on their own where the problem lies and how to correct it. For most people that can be extremely difficult due to the complexity of government bureaucracy. Also E-Verify is only as good as the information given by the employer. If a potential employee submits false documents the employer may never notice because employers are not focused on identifying forgeries and identity theft. Furthermore if E-Verify were implemented nationwide it could create enforcement problems. With so many employers feeding information into the system it could be difficult to follow up on all possible violations. It would take an enormous number of enforcement officers in order to adjudicate all potential cases of illegal employment. Thus E-Verify may help in addressing illegal immigration but it does not seem to be capable of solving the problem on it’s own.

On top of the logistical difficulties of E-Verify there are issues with the supply of labor. Many illegal immigrants work in areas like agriculture where the labor is absolutely necessary for the functioning of the industry. Removing all illegal immigrants from the workforce could cripple the industry and seriously harm the economy as a whole. In some areas we simply need the labor in order to operate and any solution needs to take that into consideration.

Another common solution that is proposed is legalization of undocumented immigrants. There are several means of implementing legalization of undocumented immigrant. They could be given citizenship or just legal residency. They could be allowed to apply from within the US or required to apply from their country of origin. Penalties could be levied against undocumented immigrants for breaking immigration law. But the basic idea behind all of those ideas is legalizing the status of illegal immigrants. This directly addressing the issue of illegal immigrants hiding in the shadows of society. That would provide the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country with free access to the legal system and legal protections. No longer would they fear deportation should they report exploitation or abuse. Unfortunately legalization does not fix the root cause of illegal immigration. It is a one time fix. Without dealing with demand for immigrant labor the problem of illegal immigration would continue.

The final solution that is commonly discussed is reforming the immigration system to allow for more legal immigration. Now this directly addresses the root cause of immigration; the demand for labor is greater than legally allowed immigration. The immigration system needs to allow enough people into the country in order to fill the demand for those people. If it does not illegal immigration will occur no matter how much enforcement is emphasized. Part of this problem is there is a finite limit on the number of legal immigrants allowed into the US. That might be ok if the number of legal immigrants was revised every year to reflect the conditions in the US and the world as a whole. But the government rarely reviews quotas like that, instead they let them stand for years on end without evaluation. That leads to quotas being outdated and insufficient for the current conditions which then leads to illegal immigration.

Which solution best addresses the immigration problem in the US?

All four solutions address immigration and all four should be part of immigration reform.

Border security dissuades illegal immigration by making it more difficult to enter the country. That helps prevent some illegal immigration, though it has no effect on individuals overstaying their visa nor does it address the root cause of illegal immigration. Immigration reform should take into account border security but should not over-emphasize border security to the exclusion of the other solutions like Rand Paul does. Rand Paul advocates reform that requires the border to be secure prior to implementing ANY other immigration reform. That is a non-answer since it does not engage the root cause of illegal immigration until after the border is secure which simply won’t happen. After 42 years of the War on Drugs we still are unable to secure the border. How many more years do we need to spend on the endless task of border security? Functionally Rand Paul would put off any solution for years or decades in pursuit of security. We can’t wait for border security before addressing illegal immigration. The problem goes each and every day. Delays simply make the problem worse.

But border security is an important component of immigration reform. In general when people decide on something major like immigrating they consider the costs and benefits of the choice then decide based on what is expected to provide the greatest benefits. Border security increases the costs of illegal immigration thereby making it less appealing. If border security is combined with a legal route for immigration then the illegal route would become far less appeal and illegal immigration would decrease.

Enforcement against businesses that hire illegal immigrants can help decrease the demand for illegal immigrant labor by making it less cost effective for employers. It also can make it more difficult for those that overstay their visa to get work which may force them to either return to their home country or renew their visa. Though enforcement against businesses is lacking in the US. The number of employers that use E-Verify is relatively small compared to the economy as a whole. Also it requires enough enforcement officers to investigate all of the potential cases of illegal immigration. If E-Verify were required nationally it could help prevent illegal immigration but the problems with E-Verify would need resolved before a national roll-out. If the system continues to inappropriately identify some as not legal to work then it could create big problems for some people because they would be inappropriately denied work. The process of resolving problems with E-Verify can take months and requires the individual to identify the exact problem and correct it on their own. That is not a feasable system. At the minimum E-Verify would need some method by which people can dispute the results given by E-Verify. The system would need people to investigate those disputes and determine if the individual is correct or not instead of requiring the individual to figure it all out on their own.

Though enforcement of the laws regarding employment is a critical piece to immigration reform. Verification of eligibility to work in the US helps to decrease the demand for illegal immigrant labor which will decrease illegal immigration. But E-Verify can’t address the whole problem of illegal immigration considering that hundreds of thousands of people change jobs every month. That is simply too much enforcement in order to ensure every single employee of every single business is legally in the country and allowed to work.

Next legalization of existing undocumented immigrants is absolutely necessary for any immigration reform. Without legalization we will have failed to address the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country currently. Legal residency should be given to all undocumented immigrants in the US currently. Then they would be able to legally obtain employment. Also they would have access to our legal system.By granting undocumented immigrants access to our legal system without fear of deportation we will be able to combat some of the problems of illegal immigration. They will be able to report crimes and victimization against themselves. Also they will have recourse against employers if the employer attempts to exploit them. Employers that refuse to pay what they agreed to pay can be challenged. Also unsafe work conditions can be reported without fear of retaliation in the form of deportation. This can help to address the problem of undocumented immigrants driving down wages since they will have the same protections as everybody else. Additionally it will help to address the exploitation of undocumented immigrants.

Though legal residency should be given initially citizenship should come later. Legal residences should be required to demonstrate that they have a legal source of income, that they pay income taxes and that they have no criminal record for period of time before becoming eligible for citizenship. The length of that period is up for debate, I think a minimum of 5 years should be required but longer is possible. Furthermore many believe that illegal immigrants should be punished for having broken the law. That is reasonable to a degree. Requiring illegal immigrants to pay additional fees or fines when applying for legal residency and later for citizenship is just, though the fines cannot be so large as to make it impossible for illegal immigrant to pay. If the fines are too great then many will not seek legal status and the problem will not be solved. Also requiring longer period of legal residency prior to citizenship would be fine since many undocumented immigrants desire some form of legal status and that would be granted initially. It is even possible that undocumented would only be allowed legal residency but never offered citizenship. That could work because legal status is important to many illegal immigrants and thus they would seek that even if citizenship is not the final result.

Finally the immigration system itself needs overhauled. Currently there are limits on the number and types of people allowed to immigrate. This creates a problem since the limits on immigration do not line up with the demand for immigrant labor. That creates the root cause of illegal immigration which is greater demand for immigration than the legally allowed supply. If this is not addressed illegal immigration will continue despite border enforcement or employment enforcement or legalization of undocumented immigrants. The system needs to quickly and continuously adapt to the conditions of the US and the World in order to stay relevant.

In order to immigrate to the US individuals should have no criminal record and a verifiable legal income in their home country. Simply put we should allow productive non-criminal individuals to immigrate to the US. Once in the US they would be required to file all taxes and demonstrate legal income while maintaining a clean criminal record. Anybody who commits a crime in the US would have their legal residency revoke, then they would be deported and disqualified for life from US citizenship. After a period of legal residency (5 or 10 years) in the US they would become eligible to apply for citizenship.The idea being that if somebody can show that they are productive members of society then they should be allowed to become citizens. But if they are not productive or they engage in criminal behavior then they should be deported.

Even after acquiring citizenship, immigrants would not be legally allowed access to social services like Medicaid, TANF, food stamps or other similar services for a minimum of 5 years. That is because many people are concerned with immigrants and recently naturalized citizens utilizing ‘welfare’. It is understandable because many of us have paid into the system for years and feel that others should have to pay into the system too before being allowed to take from the system. Requiring a minimum number of years as a citizen prior to any social services can alleviate the concerns of many since the immigrants will be required to demonstrate they are productive for a number of years prior to even being able to use services. Most reasonable people could agree that somebody who has demonstrated a consistent work history for 10 or more years is unlikely to seek social services unless they really do need them.

In conclusion immigration reform should balance all of the existing solutions without overemphasizing any one. Border security can prevent illegal immigration by stopping people from illegally entering the country and dissuading others from trying to enter. Enforcing immigration requirements for employment can eliminate some of the demand for undocumented immigrant labor thereby reducing the draw of illegal immigration. Legalizing the status of current undocumented immigrants will pull people out of the shadows of society. It will allow them to freely report exploitation and abuse thereby allowing law enforcement to deal with those that prey on illegal immigrants. Also legalizing undocumented immigrants can help to combat the decrease in wages due to illegal immigration. Finally reforming the immigration system will eliminate the problem for the future. Attacking the problem of illegal immigration from all sides equally is the most practical solution.