Diary

A Simple Solution to the Illegal Immigrant Problem


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(Original version is a few years old. I posted it on Newt’s American Solutions last year I think)

Suggestions for improvement are welcome.

Throughout American history, the question of whom to reward with the prize of legal immigrant status, and what to require of them to attain citizenship has been as controversial as any issue facing the nation. At various times, the debate has turned ugly and stirred deeply felt passions. The current debate is no different, though to hear both sides tell it, we are at an unprecedented crossroads, one which will define us as a nation. The truth is probably less exciting, but it remains an important decision transcending the immediate political battles.

There are more than 12 million illegal aliens in the country, and for a variety of reasons this is a bad thing. Broadly speaking there are two camps. One, the amnesty camp, says it is cruel to keep these people in limbo. In return for doing jobs which American citizens allegedly shun, the “guest workers” deserve to be legalized and be given citizenship. The anti-amnesty camp says it would be wrong to reward illegal border crossers for their bad behavior, notwithstanding any contribution they may be making to the American economy. The anti-amnesty folks are typically fuzzy on the question of whether it would be good to deport any large number of them, but, apart from the merits of deportation, they are frustrated by the difficulty of doing so in a humane manner. They are partly mistaken about this; a fleet of modern air-conditioned buses could easily handle a million or more a year at a cost of a few billion dollars. But finding the deportees and getting them to leave peacefully presents humanitarian issues which would overwhelm law enforcement agencies. So the point is conceded. Mass deportations are not feasible. Nevertheless, there is general agreement among politicians and most citizens that felony convictions or multiple DUI convictions should lead to deportation or prison.

Hardly anyone opposes secure borders with humane enforcement, if only to block terrorists from entering. The proposed and partially built security fence seems like a cost effective way to block most illegal entry from Mexico. One can only conclude that opponents of the fence are not serious about controlling that border.

It is an open question whether illegals contribute more to the economy than they use in services provided to them as if they were citizens. Since most of them have children in school, and pay little or no more taxes beyond the payroll taxes withheld by employers, it is safe to say that claims of a net positive contribution are at least highly suspect. These very payroll taxes are often cited as evidence that they are helping to pay for retirement benefits of Americans and how unfair it is that they are not then going to be eligible for benefits. But tax money is fungible, so this is a specious consideration if they are not paying enough taxes to cover current benefits.

For some twenty years, since the last general amnesty, it has been illegal to employ illegal immigrants. That law is virtually never enforced except to deny presidential appointments to high profile women with illegal nannies. It is hard to jail someone just for hiring poor people.

We are at an impasse. We want to control the borders. We wish most of the illegal immigrants would go home and wait in line for a chance to immigrate legally, but we can’t bring ourselves to round them up and deport them. We won’t jail the employers who hire them. What can we do to encourage voluntary repatriation? The answer lies in the fact cited above that employers seem perfectly happy to withhold payroll and other taxes prescribed by law. Why obey the tax laws yet ignore the illegality of the employment? Could it be that the tax laws are actually enforced? Tax evasion may be rampant among individuals, but not among businesses. It is reckless to risk a profitable business by failing to withhold taxes. The Government will catch you and put you in jail for that.

Maybe we can harness the resources of the IRS to help solve the illegal immigration problem. Suppose that employers were free to hire all the illegals they want. Give the illegals legitimate social security numbers. End the traffic in fake ones by designing forgery-resistant cards. Then simply have employers pay a payroll tax surcharge for each illegal hired. For the sake of argument, set it at a minimum of $5.00 per hour. Let it increase in proportion to the wages paid to the employee. Suddenly there will appear Americans willing to do the jobs that, well, Americans just won’t do. True you may have to pay them more than you pay an illegal, but maybe not $10,000 a year more. If that isn’t enough, set it at $10 an hour or more. Let the states put on a surcharge to help defray their own expenses. A flexible mechanism for setting the surcharge will allow it to fluctuate according to current conditions of domestic employment or whatever other criteria the President or his designee deem appropriate, but always above a statutory floor. Without jobs, the illegal population will gradually shrink on its own.

Now let any illegal immigrant who is gainfully employed for, say, five or more years be allowed to get legal status. The fifty thousand dollars or more paid by the employer proves the value of this individual to the economy. Indeed, if a recent electrical engineering PhD from an American University wants to remain here, the tax surcharge isn’t much disincentive for an employer. Automatically, the best educated potential immigrants will be favored. This more educated group is likely to be fluent in English, anxious to assimilate themselves and their children, and motivated to become loyal citizens.

All proposals to control our borders require tamper-proof identification, and some level of physical border control. Once the economic incentive to cross the border illegally is removed, agents will be able to concentrate on stopping potential terrorists or other enemies.

It sure sounds like a win/win plan except for the individuals and businesses who are now pocketing the benefits of cheap illegal labor. So it may be naïve to think that Congress and the President will embrace this plan. But let them stop saying that there is no simple alternative to mass deportation or amnesty.