Mad About Immigration? Blame the Federal Government


Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, HB 56, was recently upheld by a federal judge, giving hope to immigration restrictionists in other states. Indeed, Alabama is not alone in passing draconian state-level immigration laws. Other states, including Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina, are adding more regulations to our already convoluted immigration system. Unfortunately, states can only make the immigration laws worse, not better. While Utah is attempting to issue state level work visas for Mexican workers, that effort will almost certainly be stopped by the courts. But focusing on state policy ignores the federal source of our problems.

Unauthorized immigration occurs because it is so difficult to immigrate legally. Every year, the U.S. government issues 480,000 green cards for family members, with more immediate family members exempted from the numerical cap. There are an additional 140,000 employment-based green cards available yearly (almost all for relatively higher skilled workers) as well as 50,000 so-called diversity visas allocated via lottery. Work visas are too few and expensive to make up for the paucity of green cards.

Many want to legally immigrate to the U.S., but few are legally able to. A recent Gallup poll indicated that 165 million people around the world said they would like to move to the U.S. Since 14.8 million qualified applicants entered this year’s diversity visa lottery for 50,000 green cards, many millions more were dissuaded by their low chance of winning a highly coveted green card, many millions would move to the U.S. to work if they legally could.

The roughly 14,750,000 losers of the small green card lottery program are evidence of how restrictive our laws are; the inflexible nature of our system is the reason why so many break our immigration laws.

According to the Congressional Research Service, there are approximately 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. America is substantially harmed by these restrictive barriers that create black markets domestically, punish American producers, and keep millions of productive people locked in countries lacking the opportunities for upward social mobility that market institutions make possible. 

From its inception, America had open immigration along with the rest of the world. Indeed, one of the many complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was that he “endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither.” In other words, King George III wasn’t pro-immigration enough for the Founding Fathers.

From then until 1882, with very few exceptions, anyone could come to the U.S. who was healthy or not obviously a criminal. That year, Chinese immigration was shamefully banned. Throughout the Progressive Era, progressives, labor unionists, and protectionists combined forces to slowly erode America’s traditional free immigration policy. Congress closed the door in 1921, locked it in 1924, and threw away the key in 1931 through increasingly restrictive laws. Since then, unauthorized immigration has been a problem in America.

The Bracero Program allowed Mexican workers temporary employment during World War II. After the war, the program continued for agricultural workers. But the number of work permits was initially insufficient. In the early 1950s the U.S. was facing large numbers of undocumented immigrants. Instead of just deporting workers and trying to shirk the laws of economics, Congress massively increased the number of work permits available. According to research done by the CATO Institute, the Bracero Program’s expansion decreased illegal border entry by more than 90%. Work visas destroyed much, but not all, of the black market.

In the early 1960s, the National Agricultural Workers Union and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee pressured Congress to kill the Bracero Program which they achieved by 1964. The Immigration Act of 1965 then increased the amount of annual immigration and removed the country of origin quotas that dominated the previous system. But temporary work visas virtually disappeared until they were revived by the Immigration Act of 1990. During the same time undocumented immigration increased but there were never enough legal avenues, green cards, or work visas issued to satisfy demand.

Today, unauthorized immigrants come largely from Mexico and Central America. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service issued in September 2011, of the roughly 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., 80% or about 9 million are from Mexico and Latin America. But as the Mexican and Central American economies are developing quickly, with some pointing to Mexico’s per capita GDP growth of 45% from 2000 to 2009 as proof, potential migrants will see fewer reasons to emigrate. Mexicans and Central Americans will also have fewer reasons to emigrate if American growth remains anemic in the future compared to their home countries. As their incomes rise, fewer will come over the border.

But other people around the world will begin immigrating in large numbers as soon as American economic growth revives. Our immigration system was overtaken by events long ago. It need not happen again.

To prepare for the next round of newcomers, Americans can look back to our Founding Fathers’ legacy of free immigration for peaceful and healthy people. While free immigration is a political pipe dream, there are some reforms that increase the number of visas and green cards and bring us a step closer to America’s traditional immigration policy.

The Red Card (identity card given to temporary workers) solution would increase the number of temporary work visas dramatically, shifting unauthorized immigrants into the legal system. Issuing more green cards to qualified applicants is another way to channel unauthorized immigration into legality. An immigration tariff is another way to do it. Regardless of the type of reform, repairing the federal immigration system, not increasing state level regulation, is the solution for our broken immigration laws.