The Conservative Case for Immigration Tariffs

A Market-Based, Humane Approach to Solving Illegal Immigration

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Americans have a remarkable history of welcoming immigrants and helping them assimilate. Most Americans can trace their ancestry to another country. But while Americans are magnanimous toward immigrants, federal immigration policy has not been as accommodating. Moreover, the law lags behind economic reality. Demand for immigrant workers has slackened because of the poor economy. Vigorous enforcement efforts have had very little impact. In 2010, there were roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Persistent and increasing efforts to enforce our restrictive immigration laws have failed because the economic forces of supply and demand that drive so many immigrants to our shores cannot be repealed through legislation or stopped by a fence. A new approach is needed.

A return policy of free immigration, with exceptions to exclude criminals and those with deadly communicable diseases, would reap the largest economic gains, but is extremely difficult in the current political climate. A majority of Americans believe that immigrants collect welfare benefits, do not pay taxes, and bring down wages. While some such abuses exist, on average immigrants use fewer welfare services than natives with similar characteristics. Several studies show that immigration is a net gain for the U.S. economy or neutral at worst, but perceptions of immigrant welfare abuse and drags on economic growth persist.

An immigration tariff to replace the current system of quotas, restrictions, and regulations would visibly redistribute some gains from immigrants to natives, thus decreasing the perceived net costs of the welfare state by helping to cover the cost of immigration administration, and increasing government revenue.

The current immigration system is a complex bureaucracy that sets quotas, fees, and arbitrary restrictions that prevent most immigrants from attempting legal immigration. Wait times for green cards are sometimes longer than a century. Replacing that system with a tariff would provide a legal avenue to immigrate, deregulate much of the labor market, and end most of the immigration black market.

A new tariff on immigration also would increase economic growth by allowing American employers to hire the workers they demand. Most immigrants want to work legally and openly without the fear of deportation, and many employers want to hire them. The government should let them pay for the privilege instead of fighting a never ending war against economics. An immigration tariff would liberalize international labor markets, shut down most of the black market for human smuggling, and bring transparency to the immigration process.