The March Toward Freedom: Musings on U.S. Immigration Policy

Lately, I have been, at least peripherally, tracking the migrant caravan which slowly trudges its way through Mexico and toward the U.S. border. So far as I know this is an annual event going back several years, but has only in this last year garnered national media attention. The link I provided, from FoxNews, contains an article entitled “Migrant Caravan Gets Within Reach of Border: What Happens Now?” This article evidently was reported out of Mexico City, which if my geography is even vaguely right, is far away from the border. Well let’s just take a gander:


That is still clearly hundreds of miles from the border, but the article title does highlight an important tactic often used to impress a sense of urgency upon those concerned with American continent immigration. Caricaturing the imagery of a caravan, or a dense mob of unwashed, poor central Americans coupled with a repeated reinforcement of immediacy has proved effective these last couple decades in solidifying conservative opposition.  I should qualify this by segmenting immigration conservatives into two camps: those who own businesses and hire them, and those who compete or believe they compete with them for jobs. Unsurprisingly, Fox’s coverage of the caravan increased up until the November election, then completely dropped off.

I think there still exists a cohort, if somewhat small, conservative leaning people who value immigration as a concept, but who would apply restrictions on undesired out-groups. The partisan divide has more or less cornered even the concept of working class immigration however, and there even seems to be a re-writing of history with respect to the historical purpose and context of immigration.

The left’s position on illegal immigration seems less clear to me. It may be my own perception, as we tend to homogenize groups we don’t associate with, but the right appears to be more unified in their immigration preferences; there should be less and particularly so in undesired out-groups. In my solidly blue state, far from the southern border, our concerns are less with southern immigration and more with asylum policy. There is of course the border to our north, which porously inundates our nice Minnesotan communities with bearded and beflanneled Canadians. These types, who drink the maple syrup rivers dry, and drive up land prices by installing myriad Tim Horton’s, have for some reason not warranted any press attention.

For the rest of the left leaning county, there seems to be a mix of attitudes as it pertains to illegal/legal immigration. In more liberal enclaves there exist “sanctuary cities” which limit their cooperation with immigration law enforcement. This is done under the pretense that those cities should protect illegal immigrants from detention and deportation, particularly those who have been there for a long time and have deep roots in the community.  In more moderate democratic areas, there is more emphasis on border protection, but with a neo-liberal streak of “let them pay a lump sum to get a workers permit and we’ll call it even”. There is a smattering of other left policy postures from accelerated pathways to citizenship, to outright and immediate amnesty for all illegal immigrants.

Let’s take a look at some stats:

Year Total Immigrants Admitted Legally That Year Greatest Emigrant Region to U.S. Greatest Emigrant Country
1997 798,378 North America – 288,214 Mexico – 146,865
2007 1,052,415 Asia – 383,508 Mexico – 148,640
2017 1,127,167 North America – 489,676 Mexico – 168,980

I put this table together based on the Department of Homeland Security’s yearbook of legal immigration data. The first two columns are self explanatory; the third and fourth columns show the region and country which sends the largest amounts of immigrants to the U.S. by year. Legal immigration admission has mostly leveled off in the last couple of decades to between 1.0-1.2 million per year on average. Overwhelmingly, Mexico has taken first place going back to 1997. This isn’t really news to anyone, as we can see their population growing as well as the absorption of Mexican culture into the U.S. melting pot.

Mexican immigrants are also economic migrants – Mexico exports their labor, after which those laborers send their wages back home. In fact, if you were to treat labor as an export, immigrant labor would have been Mexico’s third largest export in 2017. This is calculated by taking remittances sent from the U.S. to mexico ($69bn) out of the total export pool ($409bn) in 2017.

What is more interesting is to compare the legal immigration of Mexican citizens to the estimates of illegal immigrants entering and staying in the U.S. The chart below, from this article, estimates that there are over 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. The article also mentions that the illegal population increased by 500,000 between 2010-2014, making the yearly entrance rate nearly the same as the legal admission rate for Citizens of Mexico. This means that the demand for entry into the U.S. is roughly twice the supply.

This number is larger than I thought, but it smacks of one obvious point: demand. 11 million people is a huge amount to be supporting if there is not enough economic activity to warrant their labor. A question to why this may be bad:

Do these immigrants take jobs from natives?

The research I’ve come across on this issue tells me that no, these immigrants are not competing with natives for low paying and seasonal labor. Secondly:

Do these immigrants cost the U.S. more than they produce?

This is a difficult question to answer, particularly because they aren’t documented, and aren’t connected to state apparatuses which normally measure these things. They certainly pay payroll taxes, but also may be eligible for certain benefits. Recent evidence suggests that illegal immigration may burden state and local governments for the short to medium term,  but economically benefit communities in the long run as second generation immigrants become more educated and productive. To what extent these services place burdens on local governments in the near and mid-term is unclear to me, but that it remains a question I think is important.

There is some evidence that illegal immigrant workers drive wages down. I think this intuitively makes sense only in some sectors, in that their bargaining power for wages and benefits is greatly diminished by their residency status. The danger to the community at large becomes a race to the bottom where wages below a certain threshold are concerned; one industry lowers wages to meet a larger labor supply, and soon others may too, again due to the lack of union representation and bargaining power of undocumented workers.

So, we have a not insignificant portion of the population who are here undocumented and illegally(~3.4%). That itself is a problem due to a host of public policy reasons I won’t get into here, but namely that they don’t have democratic representation and legal representation under the law. Further, we have a process to accept immigrants which is more or less democratically mandated by the U.S., and these migrants have circumvented that process. This harms both the citizens whom support a legal framework for immigrant admission, as well as immigrants whom came to the U.S. legally, and did not circumvent the process. Finally, there is a clear failure of government, in that it has not addressed this issue and allowed it to balloon into the leviathan it is today.

In order to advance a solution, here are my starting premises:

  1. It is a problem that there are so many people here undocumented/illegally.
  2. Immigrants take on large amounts of risk to come to and stay within the U.S which entails that the reward of opportunity outweighs the risk of detention and deportation.
  3. Illegal immigrants come to the U.S. to earn higher wages by working.
  4. The number of Mexican immigrants who have come to the U.S. legally is nearly the same as who have come illegally in recent years, meaning the demand for visas is twice as high as the supply.
  5. Immigrants from central america are fleeing unstable governments, the cause of which the U.S. shares in part.
  6. The U.S. has a sovereign right to dictate policy of who can, and cannot come within its borders, the criteria for which must be developed democratically.
  7. The government must respond to democratic pressure to develop and implement immigration policy.


I don’t agree with the notion of unrestricted access to the U.S., particularly so for citizens who just happen to live in a country that borders the U.S. There are plenty of deserving people worldwide who deserve the opportunity to make a better life for themselves by moving to the U.S., but who live across an ocean or thousands of miles away. When we talk of “deserving” immigrants, we should also be careful to delineate potential immigrants between refugees and economic migrants. An economic migrant who cannot feed themselves or their family is de facto a refugee of an economic crisis, which should be recognized similarly to a political or military crises.

Asylum immigration should be given priority over economic immigration, and the process expedited for those fleeing countries which the U.S. has either directly or indirectly destabilized through direct action or policy. Tax credits should be provided to states which agree to host and process asylum cases above and beyond a federal minimum limit.

For economic migrants, a new set of visa classes should be instituted:

  • A proximal immigrant visa –  for citizens of countries within 2 land borders of the U.S. This would be intended for economic migrants. Eligible to work in targeted sectors for first 10 years, after which they are eligible to work in any sector. The quantity issued each year would depend on an algorithm generated by labor shortfalls reported by states in targeted sectors. Visa cost based on declining rate – $5,000 first year, 4,000 second year, etc. Federal taxes halved, state taxes doubled
  • An international unskilled worker visa – eligible to work in a certain number of positions until 5 years have elapsed, after which they can work in any type of job. Quantity issued would be the remainder of the unskilled labor visa target for that year (e.g. 500,000; 350,000 promixal visas and 150,000 intl. visas). Visa cost based on declining rate – $2,500 first year, $2,000 second year, etc. Federal taxes halved, state taxes doubled.
  • “Yellow Card” Visa  – for existing undocumented workers. Can perform any type of legal work. Declining visa cost schedule in force for 10 years. Years 1-4= $5000 per year; years 5-7=$3,000; years 8-10=$2,000. Normal taxes. If after 10 years the person has no criminal record, has paid taxes, as well as all visa costs they are guaranteed permanent residency status. Individuals must self identify and claim “yellow card” visas within a window of time after the policy begins.

Border Security

A border security workforce could be bolstered by workers with the “international unskilled worker visa”. These positions would be competative by offering a wage premium compared to the other sectors these workers are allowed to work in. By having international workers (non-bordering countries) maintain the border, the government can provide security in a more cost effective way while also removing the conflict of interest posed by having Central American immigrants maintain the border.


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