Getting 'in Line' to Come to the U.S.? It'll Cost You

(Creative Commons photo via Flickr user mdfriendofhillary)


If you think Beltway wonks have been anxious awaiting details of an immigration proposal from the Gang of Eight senators, imagine how undocumented immigrants feel. The much-anticipated plan from the bipartisan group of senators could be released as early as next week, as Florida Republican Marco Rubio and the rest of the gang hammer out deals over farm worker visas and border security.

Some other conservatives are losing their lids just in time, however, claiming that immigration reform will cost a fortune. “These costs are far larger than anyone imagines and would be increased substantially under amnesty,” former South Carolina senator and current president of the conservative Heritage Foundation Jim DeMint told Politico.

Never mind that groups of varying ideological bents suggest DeMint’s assessment is pessimistic by a couple of trillion dollars. The endless debates and oodles of studies about reform are taking taxpayers’ eyes off the ball that’s hurtling toward our collective head: the enormous costs and burdens of the current system. A simple and efficient immigration system, however, could not only eliminate red tape that costs billions of dollars each year, but also offer a straightforward path for the approximately one million people who come to our country each year to work and live.

The right-leaning American Action Forum, which counts former Republican Governor of Florida Jeb Bush as a board member, released a report last week that estimated the toll of our current immigration system: 98.8 million hours that individuals and businesses spend on immigration paperwork each year, at an estimated direct cost of about $30 billion.

For the study, author Sam Batkins analyzed 151 immigration-related regulations and 234 government forms that emanate from seven different federal agencies. The $29.8 billion cost he reports represents the associated dollar value of completing immigration paperwork, a burden that falls on the nonresident aliens, immigrants, and U.S. citizens who deal with our immigration bureaucracy daily. It would take roughly “49,423 [full-time employees] working year-round” to complete all those government forms, Batkins writes. He estimates that the lost productivity from people spending so much time doing paperwork instead of productive work could cost the U.S. economy as much as $5.9 billion annually.

One reason the system is so costly is because there is no one line to ‘get in’ to come to the United States – just a hodgepodge of disparate channels through which potential immigrants can apply based on country of origin, family ties, and employment status.

Most paths that do allow people to come to America make waiting in line at the DMV look like traveling by high-speed rail. One egregious example: a Mexican who wanted to file paperwork tomorrow to obtain a visa by way of her U.S. citizen sibling can expect to wait about 164 years. That Methuselah Line exists because of limits on how many visas can be granted to people of a given nationality in one year, part of an antiquated and inefficient quota system.

The current scheme dates to the 1960s, when it replaced a national-origin quota system that blatantly discriminated against a host of ethnicities and became untenable as a Mad Men Era gave way to a Civil Rights one. Today’s system uses two main channels to ration the number U.S. immigrants: family members already here, and employment. No more than 7 percent of the yearly visa allotment for employment- or family-based immigration can be issued to natives of any one country. So the system doesn’t account for factors like population and proximity to the United States—let alone demand and supply of workers – hence the aforementioned 164-year wait for a Mexican sister.

Some of the best-case routes to become a legal resident or citizen involve waiting at least a decade and navigating a tangle of regulation that would try Jeeves’ patience. Instead of picturing that route to legal citizenship as a manicured suburban hiking path frequented by Yuppies on Sundays, think more along the lines of one of those mazes on kids’ placemats at IHOP, only with the twists and turns dictated by family ties or idiosyncratic employment categories.

Stuart Anderson has illustrated what a coherent immigration system would actually look like: “highly skilled foreign nationals could be hired quickly and gain permanent residence, employers could hire foreign workers to fill niches in lower-skilled jobs, foreign entrepreneurs could easily start businesses in the United States, and close relatives of American citizens could immigrate in a short period of time.” Anderson, an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, worked as counselor to the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in George W. Bush’s first administration. The gulf between his description of a sensible system and the country’s current approach isn’t quite the Mariana Trench, but it might be close.

For low-skilled workers wishing to come to America, there’s as much of a ‘line’ as there is a teleporter. No employment-based path to citizenship, or even legal residency, exists for such workers. Migrant workers who come to wash dishes or pick fruit have no way to gain residency unless they are among the lucky few who have family members who are already here legally. The result, Anderson notes, is that “it remains difficult, if not impossible, for employers to hire foreign nationals to fill lower-skilled jobs legally in America on a long-term basis.”

One little-disputed issue of current immigration debates is that the U.S. economy could benefit from more H-1B visas, for high-skilled professionals in fields such as engineering and science. Native-born workers undersupply these fields—that’s why just last week, companies exhausted the 2013 allotment of H-1B visas in five days, prompting the government to decide to use a lottery to distribute them. The American Council on International Personnel has estimated that the regulatory and legal fees for petitioning an H-1B worker plus one dependent, and renewing the petition after three years, range from $8,540 to $15,083. Another report by the Council found that sponsoring such a worker for permanent U.S. residency could cost more than $35,000.

The government application to become a permanent resident and acquire a green card costs $985. An $85 biometric fee to collect fingerprints and other relevant information brings that cost to four figures. An alien filing paperwork for employment authorization will shell out $380. These are simply routine fees for filing immigration paperwork with the federal government—feeding the leviathan so its bureaucratic inertia can inert for another day. Commonly cited figures for routine lawyers’ fees to handle an immigration case run from $2,000 to $10,000.

All the inadequacies of the current system help explain why an estimated 11 million immigrants refused to heed calls to ‘get in line’ and come legally. Instead, they simply came, either without documentation or with fake or co-opted papers. For many of them, the gap between income that can be earned at home and potential income in the United States is a little like the price difference between Spam and artisanal beef jerky from Williamsburg. A worker from Peru, for instance, could increase his earnings an estimated two and a half times just by moving to the United States. For a Haitian immigrant, income can jump sevenfold.

We’ll have to wait at least one more week to see whether Congress can mold an efficient system to determine who’s allowed to come to the United States, and then actually gets them here without so much red tape. Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker champions a scheme that would do just that: allow people to pay our government, directly, to come. We could screen potential immigrants for criminal backgrounds, terrorism ties, and communicable diseases, collect the entry fee for those who pass muster, and then let them get on with melting into the pot. Becker notes that if the number of people who immigrate legally each year continues to hover around one million, a one-time fee of $50,000 would generate $50 billion a year in revenue.

A pay-to-come plan would discriminate against poor immigrants no more than our current one does, and could be fairer. With such a system, employers could sponsor foreign workers they seek to hire—much like they already do for H-1B and other visas—perhaps with help from other sources. A Florida farmer might join forces with non-profit pro-immigration groups, for example, to sponsor some or all of the cost of bringing laborers to the state to pick oranges.

Congress members from both major parties agree that immigration policy needs change. As always, political reputations remain paramount, and neither Democrats nor Republicans want to appear to give ground in forging the details of a plan. By doing away with the disparate channels, idiosyncratic categories, and convoluted bureaucracy of our current system, lawmakers could also eliminate red tape, lawyers’ fees, and decades-long waitlists for people around the world who are in some cases literally dying to come work in America.

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