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April 04, 2006
Immigration and Time Inconsistency
Right now in the Senate, the two major [immigration] plans being debated are from Majority Leader Bill Frist and Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter. Frist's bill focuses primarily on border protection, and has been characterized as an "enforcement only'' proposal. Specter's proposal borrows from a bill that Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy introduced last year. It includes provisions for temporary guest worker visas and for legalizing the status of currently undocumented individuals...
The Frist bill and an immigration measure passed by the House of Representatives in December provide for stiff enforcement measures, including felony charges for smuggling illegal aliens into the U.S.
Such a policy falls into a logic trap that is well known to economists. It lacks what they call "time consistency.'' We feel sympathy for the folks already here, but don't want to allow more illegal immigrants in. Yet as we work out a solution that may take years to become effective, if it ever does, there will arrive a whole new population of illegal immigrants who we will feel sympathy towards.
If we are willing to grant amnesty for immigrants today, we will be willing to grant amnesty again five years later. History appears to bear this out. Some are comparing Specter's proposal to a 1986 bill, signed by Ronald Reagan, that offered amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, and did little to stem the inflow of more of them....
... Accordingly, there really should be only two immigration policies to choose between. We can round up all of the illegal residents today and ship them home, crack down hard at the borders, and promise to do both again and again forever.
Or, we can find a way to ease the path toward citizenship for current residents, establish generous rules for entry into the U.S., and be willing to load anyone who doesn't follow those rules into a bus and ship them home.
The Frist approach resembles neither. The Specter approach resembles the latter, and is the far better policy.
Although I strongly prefer an approach that leads to legal work status, I'm not sure why a policy that strictly shuts down the borders is necessarily time inconsistent unless you begin with the presumption that border enforcement is not possible. But in that case, it would seem that the Frist-McCain-Kennedy plans run into exactly the same sort of problem. If the borders remain porous, and guest worker programs too conservative, illegal entry will occur, and the problem that Hassett emphasizes rises up again. (See, for example, the heart-tugging picture, and accompanying tale, posted at Econbrowser.)
I'm not willing to concede that sufficient border enforcement is impossible, combined with a guest-worker/immigration policy that keeps the cost of legal entry low (bY ensuring that quotas are sufficient to demand, for example). But the point is well taken: We should probably be leery of any policy that does not confront the very human impulse to behave in a time-inconsistent fashion.
Bonus: Hassett also discusses the research on the "diversity gains" of immigration, covered last week at Angry Bear.
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