Buying Your Way In? A Look at Alternative Immigration Plans

Somewhere in North America, there exists a highly selective club. To be admitted into this club is a sometimes decade-long ordeal. On top of reams of paperwork that require you to wade through the depths of your genealogy, this club also charges you pricey fees for the privilege of even having your application read.

Or you could just buy your way in.

This exclusive club is the United States, and allowing immigrants to buy their way to citizenship is the idea proposed by the late Gary Becker and supported by Casey Mulligan, both economics professors at the University of Chicago. In his 2010 Hayek Memorial Lecture at the Institute of Economic Affairs in 2010, Becker introduced a fairly radical idea: charge a price for the right to immigrate and become a legal resident of the US. The idea would change the current immigration system from quota- to tariff-based, a proposal that would ease the immigration process for poorer illegal immigrants, while also benefiting richer immigrants and the federal government.

The proposal offers a solution that could greatly improve upon some major flaws of current US immigration policy, such as country-of-origin quotas and strict eligibility requirements. However, such a solution conflicts with important sources of human rights doctrine, such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which declares the right to reside within the borders of a state (13) and the right to change nationality (15). Nonetheless, such a system could be implemented with success—given modifications that would at least ameliorate the burden of a fee for an immigrant.

The Benefits:

This system, although restrictive, would leave the US in a much better economic position. In particular, the change would benefit three main groups: skilled migrants, poorer illegal immigrants already living in the United States, and the federal government. By imposing a price for entry, the system would weed out those who are more likely to live in the US only temporarily (around three million annual arrivals) while attracting immigrants who are willing to make a long-term commitment to America.

Skilled Migrants:

Skilled and educated migrants stand to benefit the most from this policy. In the United States today, 32 percent of all immigrants in the workforce are classified as highly educated, meaning they hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The same proportion among US-born workers is only somewhat higher, at around 37 percent of the workforce. However, despite the similar proportions of highly-educated workers in the two groups, there are significantly fewer immigrants in more skill-intensive industries across the board. Clearly, this indicates an underemployment of the human capital that highly skilled immigrants could provide. Although it may not be the definitive cause of this underemployment, one contributing factor is likely the bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining the qualifications necessary to work in highly skilled positions and live in America for extended periods of time.

Eliminating these obstacles and replacing them with a single price has a twofold effect: first, it simplifies the process of acquiring the qualifications necessary for these highly skilled workers, enabling them to work in positions where they can extract the most out of their capabilities. Second, and more important for the American economy, is that it incentivizes them to stay in the country. Having paid a high fee to enter, rationally acting immigrants would be likely to work in the US for at least as long as it takes to recuperate the amount they paid (or borrowed) to enter, or, indeed, to stay a little longer to make a profit for themselves. If anything, this system would just add to the accommodations made for highly skilled migrants within

current immigration policy. Those who spend, invest and create jobs through entrepreneurship are already fast-tracked to permanent resident status under the Green Card Through Investment policy. Tthis proposed system would attract and retain highly skilled migrants who could be more beneficial to the US economy. Therefore, the fee system prevents them from leaving quickly to cash in on American earnings abroad, which would keep their earnings in circulation in the US economy while allowing the US to benefit from the economic gains from their work.

Unskilled/Illegal Migrants Living in the US:

Perhaps those who stand to gain the most from such a system are the people traditionally most disadvantaged by the US immigration system: illegal immigrants and unskilled migrants already living in the US. The negative perception of illegal immigrants in the US disables them from being recognized for their positive contributions to the US economy or advancing into higher positions. The system of fees promises to ameliorate this social stigma and this economic ceiling.

As things stand, illegal migrants, especially unskilled illegal migrants, face a similar predicament to the highly skilled, but on a much more extreme scale. Locked out of jobs and positions that require documentation and education, the majority are relegated to the toughest, worst-paying jobs in sectors of the service industry and agriculture. Instituting a price for legal immigration would alleviate these conditions for unskilled immigrants and illegal immigrants already in the US. A price is much less threatening than the possibility of deportation. One major incentive for undocumented aliens to pay the price would therefore be  the ability to regularize their status: by doing so, they would gain access to jobs and opportunities for further education and training. Even before they win access to these further opportunities, they are entitled to the US minimum wage, which is often an improvement over their previous compensation. By this calculation, paying a monetary price for immigration actually represents an income increase for illegal and unskilled migrants working in low-paying jobs, and therefore an improvement in their living conditions.

Even beyond that lies the incentive of increased social status and respect. Some of the most passionate criticisms of illegal immigration begin from the assumption that illegal immigrants, often unskilled and low-income, do not deserve access to social services or public institutions like education because they have not met the conditions required for citizenship, whether that is paperwork, serving in the military, or being born within the country’s borders. Paying a monetary price to regularize oneself, by replacing all these tasks, removes much of the social stigma associated with being an illegal immigrant.

Mulligan, who was Becker’s student and later his colleague at the University of Chicago, argues that these reasons combine to form a very attractive set of incentives for people; and where there is a will, there is a way. The system Mulligan imagines would “look a lot like the market for student loans to go to college; [immigrants] could take out loans from private banks to pay the government fee with. Once they’ve received the money, the government [would] no longer [be] a part of the process. The immigrants who took out these loans would deal with the banks in the same way that students pay off loans after they graduate.”

Like the risk-benefit analysis involved in taking out loans to pay for a college education and the opportunities it affords, a lower-income immigrant would presumably only take out such loans for a fee after weighing the incentives of immigration over its disadvantages. The ones who would take loans are the ones who would be most willing and able to pay them back.


Lastly, the federal government would perhaps see the most tangible improvement to its situation. The two problems that the federal government faces in relation to illegal immigration are the political gridlock it causes and the burden it places on social services like public education and emergency medical care. By charging for immigration, the government has a solution that serves as a compromise between proponents and opponents of more immigration to the US, while also creating a net income gain for itself.

This proposal appeals to the free-market philosophy of the mostly right-leaning opponents of immigration. Charging for the ability to immigrate to the US helps to ensure that those who choose to do so are committed to staying in America and are therefore more likely to assimilate for longer periods and become active, permanent members of society and contributors to the economy. In addition, a large portion of paying immigrants would be younger and have more to offer in the way of human capital—implying that they would be less likely to exploit their newfound access to the welfare system while continuing to make positive contributions to the American economy, both through taxes and spending, for most of a lifetime.

For left-leaning proponents of immigration, the proposal attracts and retains higher levels of legal migration into the country. As Professor Mulligan states, “market forces work; creating competition in somewhere like the EU, for example, increases the demand for immigrants [given their economic and political boons]. Soon, you would have countries undercutting each other in fees to attract the most immigrants, making everyone better off.” In the case of the US, this proposed system allows for migrants to access their share of services like food stamps and social security (a system to which they contribute billions of dollars annually). It also reunites families, encourages public investment in the children of such migrants, and reduces the cost of human lives lost while crossing the border due to human smuggling.

Apart from the opportunities for political compromise that it would present, the system would also lead to a moderate economic boon for the US government. According to Professor Mulligan, such a proposal would shift the flows of money as fees “go to the government instead of the lawyers.”

It would do so so by causing two effects: reducing the cost of border control while creating a positive stream of revenue for itself. Consider that the costs of immigration detention are upwards of $2 billion per year, with the Department of Homeland Security requesting even more in its 2016 budget. Consider also that, according to the Mexican Migration Project, smugglers can charge anywhere from $3,000-$70,000 to cross the border illegally, often at great risk to the people being smuggled. Using a price to control immigration significantly reduces these costs. If the cost of legal migration is lower than $70,000, then at least some people will choose to buy the right to immigrate. This decision, made by more people over time, reduces the cost to the DHS of maintaining immigration detention centers while significantly denting lucrative smuggling rings across US borders and reducing the amount the government has to spend on defensive border patrol measures. Charging for immigration actually creates a positive income stream for the government—not only through the initial price, but also through the taxes, spending, and investment these immigrants generate when they become legal residents of the US.

“Not everyone who pays the fee is going to use all of the social services provided for them,” Mulligan notes. When people pay the fee: “there would be money within this fee that would be earmarked to go to social services, but you could charge over and above [the cost of social services] because they’re paying for more than that.” For the government, the addition of such immigrant fees could only produce “a positive revenue stream.” From this point of view, the market “will naturally move towards those for whom the gains justify the costs.”

Essentially, the government is left in a win-win position, politically and economically.

Why Restricting Immigration is a Problem: The Human Rights Perspective

Federal immigration restrictions first began in the late 19th century, when the Supreme Court ruled in 1889 that the federal government had the power to regulate flows of immigrants as part of its authority to  of “deal with other nations”. Yet even under the naturalization and commerce clauses, which allow Congress to create rules for citizenship and regulate commerce between the US and other countries, there is not much of a justification for the government’s current levels of control on the immigration. Therein lies the real problem with such a clearly exclusive immigration policy. The very conception of what the US believes it is and therefore what it has a right to control is at odds with major human rights doctrines.

The most popular argument for why the government even has such a far-reaching right to control immigration rests on the assumption that the nation resembles a “club,” defined here as a private organization that gets to restrict its membership. Under this assumption, the government has the right to control who enters the country through whatever means it sees fit. In this case, it implies that setting a price on the right to legally immigrate is a perfectly legitimate means of exercising the government’s power.

However, this assumption of complete control over immigration conflicts with two major human rights doctrines, set out in articles 14 and 15 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and article 8 of the Declaration on the Human Rights of Individuals Who are not Nationals of the Country in which They Live. Articles 14 and 15 of the UDHR guarantee the right to seek asylum from persecution (which need not be political) and the right to a nationality, respectively. When their own nation-states fail to fulfill their obligation to provide the essentials for a decent human life, immigrants have the right to seek a nation-state that will. Restricting access to these rights through monetary means as Mulligan proposes is a violation of those rights: it is an attempt by one government to restrict an individual’s claim to something they are entitled to by virtue of being human.

Such a policy would also be in violation of the Declaration of Individuals Who are not Nationals: article 8 guarantees “the right to health protection, medical care, social security, social services [and] education”. The very idea of charging for the right to legally immigrate is already violating one set of universal, fundamental rights by adding on requirements in addition to simply being human. The idea underlying these doctrines is that humanity is something that all of us are born with, so all are seen as equals under these laws. Limiting access to these enumerated rights on the basis of the ability to pay destabilizes this equality, propagating the inequality between the advantaged and the disadvantaged that the formalization of rights is intended to eliminate. Denying access to rights enumerated in this declaration until payment of the fee would harm the same subset of people that it claims to help (it should be noted that this group of “disadvantaged” people does not just consist of political refugees, but also encompasses those who seek to change their nationality in pursuit of a better life (UDHR, Article 15)).

Interestingly, there is also an economic dimension to this proposal that furthers this human rights argument. According to Felix Tintelnot, another professor in Chicago’s the economics department, Mulligan’s proposal may not actually attract the most economically productive immigrants to the US. Rather than helping lower-income immigrants enter, the policy could potentially attract members of other countries’ middle and upper classes, who may move to the US not to work, but to enjoy a better lifestyle. While there is no problem with this reasoning, it is notable that the point of this policy proposal, to level the playing field for those most disadvantaged by the current system, may actually backfire by making the US easier to access for those who had little trouble entering it anyways.

Fundamentally, the notion of a government restricting immigration through monetary means comes into conflict with human rights doctrines because a nation-state is not a private club or a private enterprise. Exclusion from a country, unlike a club, precludes nonmembers from a large variety of interactions with members. This flawed understanding of the justification for immigration control, embodied in American courts’ generous interpretations of the naturalization and commerce clauses of the Constitution, cannot and should not serve as a justification for a sudden implementation of a price on the right to immigrate into the US.

Mulligan’s proposal is logical, but is based on the assumption that nation-states are rational actors, able to act completely in their own self-interest in controlling migration. However, this is not the reality. The United States has legally binding commitments to upholding the human rights of migrants in both national and international law. The proposal would ignore these obligations, constituting a violation of immigrants’ and refugees’ human rights.

If such a system were to be implemented in the US, it would need modifications to provide all immigrants who wish to enter with a reasonable means of obtaining the immigration fee, whether through government sponsorship, a loans program, or amnesty. Under Mulligan’s proposal, refugees would be treated to the same market forces as everyone else—in some cases, in fact, “you could charge them an even higher price.” However, this proposal, although levels the playing field economically, does little to consider the human rights dimension of immigration. If the federal government believes it has a right to charge for entrance and legal residence within its borders, then the immigrant has the right to be able to feasibly and safely pay that charge.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.