Immigration Restrictions Incentivize Corruption

The allegations surrounding Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff Paul Babeu and his attorney Chris DeRose are what tabloid writers dream of. It’s got it all: a secretive gay affair, potential abuse of power, and a cover-up. The most damning allegation is that DeRose made an implied threat to deport Babeu’s former lover, Jose Orozco, if he did not sign a document promising to not talk publicly about his relationship with Sheriff Babeu.

Orozco’s attorney, Melissa Weiss-Riner, said she was shocked at DeRose’s threat “[b]ecause of his stance on illegal immigration.” Yet the really shocking part of this whole controversy is that the law actually enables–and may even encourage–such underhanded dealings.

The problem does not reside in the minds of a few corrupt officials and their advisers. The problem is that our immigration laws give such a massive incentive for immigrants to try to defraud the system that they create similar incentives for immigration and law enforcement officials to do the same.

The problem with corruption, and why so few of us are surprised by the allegations against Babeu, is that the law makes it possible. It’s time to change that law to take away much of the temptation and discretion that gives immigration officers this arbitrary power. As an example, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer Jose Carmelo Magaña took money to allow unauthorized immigrants through his lane at the San Luis Port of Entry in 2007. Cases like his are expected when there are such large monetary benefits to breaking administrative rules.

A free immigration policy would accomplish just that. By restricting entry of only criminals and the contagiously ill at ports of entry, immigration and law enforcement officials would be relieved of the conflicting incentives they currently face. Immigrants won’t have to live in fear of the law, and Americans working with immigrants could breathe a sigh of relief.

Black markets and corruption go hand in hand. The solution is not more crackdowns, police, or tougher laws like those Sheriff Babeu and other immigration restrictionists propose. The answer is liberalization. The immigration black market only exists because the government has made the legal market so small and restricted. For example, if an Indian waiting for an employment-based green card (EB-3) applied in 2002, he would advance to the next stage sometime in 2012. That’s a 10-year wait for a skilled immigrant with a job offer from a U.S. firm.

Factoring in the enormous monetary and legal costs that exclude most potential applicants, a mere small fraction of applicants for employment-based green cards even bother applying with, and there’s still a long waitlist. And that’s for skilled immigrants. Except for relatives of American citizens and green card holders, there really is no legal way for more than a small number of people to come here legally to work every year. No wonder a black market exists and the expectation of corruption is omnipresent.

True immigration reform would make legal channels more accessible. That means lightening the paperwork and the regulatory burden, and eliminating quotas altogether.

Judicial and prosecutorial discretion are a longstanding and necessary aspect of the common law tradition on which the U.S. Constitution is based, because laws aren’t perfect. But even so, legislators should always have as their goal drafting laws that require as little exercise of discretion as possible, by being clear and conforming to the reality that millions of people want to come here to work, live, and start businesses.

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies describes America’s immigration laws as second in complexity only to the tax code. In that he is correct. But his solution–to make the laws more restrictive–will only increase the size of the black market, incentivize more corruption and fraud, and impose greater costs on American businesses. A simplified immigration law that allows free movement of peaceful and healthy people should be the ideal

Between 2004 and 2011, there were 127 arrests of CBP officers, many of which were immigration-related. In March 2011, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement senior attorney was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison for taking nearly $500,000 in bribes for allowing immigrants to stay in the U.S. and siphoning off their government handouts.

There are many more such cases that didn’t get much attention that often mixed drugs and unauthorized immigrants. More cases have yet to be discovered. The allegations against Babeu may turn out to be false, but at least this case is finally revealing a growing problem.