Legal versus Illegal Immigration

Some of you have wondered why I haven’t yet made much of an effort to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. It’s a fair question. Let me share my thoughts with you about the two, and explain why my sentiments about immigration in general mean that I don’t worry much about the distinction between the two.

Personally, I tend to see immigration as a positive thing. It helps the people immigrating, and it makes the US population as a whole stronger, richer, more creative, and more connected to the rest of the world. This analysis applies to both kinds of immigrants, legal and illegal.

But could there be reasons why one might want to reduce illegal immigration while leaving legal immigration rules alone? Let me try to compile a preliminary (and surely incomplete) list of reasons why one might want to reduce the number of illegal immigrants without allowing them legal entry as an alternative.

  1. Lots of illegal immigrants come to the US every year. Therefore, if you simply want to cut down on the number of total immigrants to the US, one way would be to make stronger efforts to reduce illegal immigration while denying the deterred illegal immigrants the option to legally enter the US. (Alternatively, you could reduce the number of legal immigrants allowed.)
  2. By far the largest source country of illegal immigrants is Mexico. So if you want to change the mix of the country-of-origin of immigrants coming in to the US (i.e. have a smaller proportion of immigrants come from Mexico), then again a good tactic would be to specifically try to reduce illegal immigration.
  3. Illegal immigrants, being in a precarious legal situation, are more easily taken advantage of by employers. If your concern is the well-being of the illegal immigrants, a sensible tactic would be to try to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. However, a corollary to that is that you should also want them to be legally allowed to remain in the US (since they obviously want to be here, given that they are willing to do it illegaly), in which case efforts to reduce illegal immigration should be coupled with an increase in legally allowed immigrants. On the other hand, if your concern is the effect of this phenomenon on the US labor market, then we can combine this item with #4 below…
  4. Illegal immigrants may be poorer and less well-educated (on average) than legal immigrants. This (possibly combined with #3 above) could have effects on the domestic market for unskilled labor in the US. If you want to try to address such concerns by changing the mix of the income/educational level of immigrants coming to the US, then one way might be to reduce illegal immigration while maintaining legal immigration at current levels.

There are probably other reasons to consider, but let me work with this as a start, and try to explain why my predisposition in favor of immigration covers both the legal and illegal kind.

Personally, I don’t think that there are too many immigrants in the US. If anything, I think the US should accept more immigrants than it currently does. This is the whole point behind my occasional arguments in favor of immigration in general. I am therefore not in favor of clamping down on illegal immigration for reason #1.

I also have no problem with the country mix of immigrants; I don’t think that immigrants from Mexico are inherently better or worse to have in the US than immigrants from any other country. So reason #2 doesn’t persuade me to want to reduce illegal immigration flows.

I am concerned about issue #3. I think that the plight of illegal immigrants in the US is often horrible, and a disgrace to a country like the US. This pushes me in favor of reducing illegal immigration, but only if it’s replaced with more legal immigration. If we imposed harsher penalties on illegal immigrants while simultaneously allowing an extra few hundred thousand legal immigrants (not the horrible “guest worker” idea, but fully legal immigrants) to enter the US every year, I might be okay with that.

Issue #4 may be the most difficult one to resolve. It really is a part of the deeper question of how much should the US try to shape the type of immigrants that we allow. Perhaps the US should more actively try to change the mix of immigrants toward more high-skill individuals. That would raise the average skill-level of the US population, and reduce the downward wage pressures on unskilled workers in the US. From a cost-benefit point of view, changing the mix of immigrants in such a manner would certainly be better for the US than the current system.

However, from a moral point of view that seems potentially problematic. Is it better to allow a doctor from Nigeria to come to the US and increase his standard of living from being relatively well-off in Nigeria to being relatively well-off in the US, instead of allowing a farm worker from Mexico come to the US and transform the situation of his children from being hungry, sick, and illiterate to getting basic nutrition, health care, and education? And is it okay to deliberately try to deprive the poorest parts of the world of their best-educated people?

This in turn relates to the still deeper question of why we allow immigration in the first place: is the goal to improve the US, or is it to improve the lives of the individuals who want to immigrate?

For me, both goals matter, at least to some degree. I’m more sympathetic toward that poor Mexican farm worker than I am toward the Nigerian doctor, but the Nigerian doctor will probably make me (and the rest of the US) a tiny bit richer than the Mexican would. To me, those two effects roughly balance out. As a result, I’m not particularly in favor of changing the rules to only allow high-skilled immigrants in to the US. I can see the logic of it (it’s really an economist’s logic, after all), but it doesn’t satisfy my sense of morality.

That said, I do worry about the income inequality in the US that unskilled illegal immigrants might cause (due to both items #3 and #4). But I worry about income inequality in the US much more generally than that. Income inequality is a huge problem in the US, and the problem is much bigger than immigration can account for. My preferred policy response to income inequality would therefore be to try to address income inequality much more directly, for example by improving basic education for lower-income people or by changing the tax code, not through the back-handed method (one with many negative side-effects) of reducing unskilled immigration.

Putting this all together, I find that I don’t worry about illegal immigration any more than I worry about legal immigration. I’d like there to be fewer illegal immigrants, but only because I’d like more of them to be able to enter the country legally. Put another way, I could possibly favor harsher treatment for illegal immigrants, and I’d even be willing to pay for stricter border enforcement… but only if those policy changes were accompanied by a much more liberal legal immigration policy, and a policy to bring current illegal immigrants into fully legal status.

Note that I am not advocating completely open borders – I think that some sort of limit on legal immigration is reasonable, simply because overly rapid population growth in the US would cause its own set of problems. However, current population growth in the US is only about 1% per year, including immigration. That is near the lowest levels of population growth ever experienced in the US – only in the 1930s was it lower. I think the US can handle a bit more than that.

I realize that I am probably in the minority on this one (no pun intended)… but you asked for my opinion, and now you have it. Have fun in the comments.