Immigration has emerged somewhat abruptly and I gather somewhat unexpectedly as a major political issue in 2018 due to the president’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offered work permits and reprieve from deportation to immigrants who entered the United States without authorization as children (this group of immigrants is sometimes called “kids” but the population is in fact mostly adults, given the effect of time on the human body).
Immigration is an issue that famously divided both political parties for decades, so while these days it’s always tempting to retreat into partisan corners, I want to ask five questions relevant both to the current political squabble and to figuring out what kind of immigration policy you actually favor. (Note: these questions deliberately exclude all racist arguments for and against immigration from particular countries. I’m not interested).
What is E-Verify, and should it be mandatory?
E-Verify is a system developed by US Citizenship and Immigration Services to instantly verify employees’ authorization to work in the United States. While CIS brags that it is “used nationwide by more than 700,000 employers of all sizes,” according to the best data I could scrounge there are about 17 million employers in the United States. So currently, about 4% of employers are enrolled in E-Verify (note that some employers are enrolled but don’t use it).
“Mandatory E-Verify” is the term of art used by people who think the use of E-Verify should be mandatory for all employers. This has become a key demand of some Republicans in the current immigration debate.
Should use of E-Verify be mandatory? Here are some things to consider:
- The overwhelming majority of new hires in the United States are authorized to work here. Remember that E-Verify is designed to detect people who are present in the United States, are not authorized to work here, and are applying for new jobs. This will only ever be a tiny fraction of the total number of new hires. To pick a recent non-seasonally-adjusted peak, in June, 2017, there were 6.2 million new hires; the 2017 low was in February, at 4.4 million. Averaging and annualizing those gives 63.6 million annual new hires. The total unauthorized population in the United States in 2015 was 11.3 million. Assume 50% of those are workers (and not infants, students, the self-employed, and retirees), and 50% of those get a new job each year, and you’re forcing 64 million authorized workers to go through E-Verify in order to potentially catch 2.8 million unauthorized workers.
- E-Verify isn’t free. In order to accommodate 25 times as many employers, E-Verify would need to radically expand its capacity. This would be very expensive for both the federal government and for employers who aren’t able to proceed with hiring due to the overwhelmed system.
- E-Verify isn’t easy. I would encourage you, right now, to head on over to E-Verify and set up an account. This time I actually got all the way to the end before I got the error message: “Please verify your input parameters and try again. If the problem persists, contact the help desk. Object reference not set to an instance of an object.” Maybe next time.
This is the question I feel most strongly about as an advocate for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Is starting a business too easy? Is hiring your first employee too easy? Is managing payroll too easy? In order to make the process of hiring employees manifestly more difficult for every employer in the country, the benefits would have to be overwhelming. Are they? Or is this just a massive subsidy for payroll firms to add an additional “service” they’re happy to provide — as long as companies are able to afford it?
Is it preferable for immigrants to be older or younger?
This is an interesting question that people have extremely strong opinions about, but about which I have no opinion:
- Very young immigrants are entitled to free public education, which makes them more expensive to support initially but also has the potential to better integrate them into American society and culture, possibly giving them higher lifetime incomes.
- Very old immigrants (often parsed as “the parents of US citizens” because they are often able to immigrate relatively late in life through family reunification provisions) have fewer productive working years remaining, but are also able to provide valuable home work like childcare and cost relatively little (assuming they arrive too late to earn enough Social Security and Medicare work credits). They are also, perhaps needless to say, unlikely to commit many crimes.
- Are there “just right” immigrants? If so, what is the right age to permanently relocate to a foreign land? Should we try to guess? Should we try to use our limited and fractured dataset of past immigration patterns to decide which age on immigration is most predictive of lifetime success?
As I say, this is a legitimately interesting question, but one about which I have no opinion whatsoever.
How much education should immigrants have relative to the native population?
If you know anything about immigration, you know that immigrants to the United States are more educated, overall, than the native-born population. So one way to phrase this question is, should we admit additional immigrants until the immigrant population has the same educational attainment as the native population, or should we reduce immigration until the immigrant population has an even higher educational attainment than the native population? How much more educated should an immigrant be than a native-born citizen to be considered worth admitting?
Are we willing to pay more for, or give up completely, the childcare, valet parking, landscaping services, construction, and other jobs relatively unskilled immigrants perform?
Is it preferable to have immigrants with or without connections to the United States?
This is a question that I had literally never considered until I recently listened to episode 73 of “The Editors” podcast from National Review and heard Reihan Salam explain why he thought family reunification (or “chain”) immigration to the United States was a problem. In every other area of American life, liberals and conservatives are united in believing that family and community are essential to human thriving.
But Reihan Salam passionately expressed the view that immigrants should have no ties to the United States because if they do, they’ll form communities that keep them from integrating into American culture. This argument is, I believe, totally novel in the history of American immigration policy. Every period of American immigration has been characterized by the formation of communities based on national or religious identity that have provided mutual support as they integrate into mainstream society. I don’t know what Salam’s vision of scattering isolated immigrants across the country surrounded by strangers would even look like.
Are periodic immigration amnesties a problem?
Until the immigration amnesty of 1986, the word “amnesty” had, as far as I can tell, an exclusively positive connotation. An amnesty was a period of mercy, of slate-cleansing, of rebirth, like the ancient Jewish concept of jubilee.
Since then, the word “amnesty” has become a kind of weapon against any attempt to normalize the status of unauthorized immigrants. Even those in favor of such normalization insist that it doesn’t constitute “amnesty” since there will be fines and paperwork involved.
Immigration “hawks” believe any amnesty has to be accompanied by assurances that it’s “the last time,” the problem will be solved “once and for all.” That’s the unfulfilled promise of the 1986 amnesty.
But that seems symptomatic of the general conservative pathology of insisting on a final solution for every problem. No matter what immigration compromise is agreed to, and indeed if no compromise is agreed to at all, tourists, students, and temporary workers will continue to enter the United States, they’ll continue to overstay their visas, they’ll continue to fall in love, get married, and have children. Why should this year’s immigration bill be the last bill ever passed? Why should every potential immigrant begin to abide by US immigration restrictions in this year that they ignored in every previous year?
The United States is, hopefully, going to be around for a long time. Why do we have to solve every problem we’ll ever face this year?