Sunday, April 30, 2006

❄ IMMIGRATION DESIGN: The Self-Enforcing Immigration System (SEISM)

The United States is now locked in a policy dispute about law to govern immigration into the United States and the status of ‘undocumented’ or ‘illegal’ immigrants already in place.

The Question

What US immigration policy would make the best sense?


A bill promoted by Representative Sensenbrenner in the House defines the problem as one of preventing evasion of entry rules (‘security’) and following the logic of defining aliens whose status is not consistent with law as ‘illegals’ subject to deportation. [1]

A proposal offered in the Senate starts from the assumption that many of those in the United States would agree to pursuing a series of steps toward regularization of their status. It also sets out procedures for workers to come to the United States and work, with the possibility of pursuing permanent status.

The problems are several: [1] there are an estimated 11-12 million ‘undocumented’ aliens already in the United States, and to contemplate mass deportations is absurd; [2] businesses depend on immigrant labor, including that of ‘undocumented’ aliens; [3] some judge that there is a ‘security’ issue in that persons entering the United States who had not been subject to vetting by counter-terrorism procedures could take part in attacks; [4] some do not welcome immigrants; but [5] there are ‘undocumented’ aliens in the United States whose children and spouses, and other relatives, are either US citizens or permanent residents, and maintaining family coherence is an appropriate aim of public policy.

Consider the following approach, which does an end run around several of the barriers to reform.

Call this the Self-enforcing Immigration System (SEISM). Here’s how it would work. Anyone could come to the United States if they met two conditions. First condition: obtaining ‘clearance’ from the United States, an intergovernmental clearance consortium, or a state with which the United States had a clearance agreement, suitably documented. The object is to exclude only those about whom there is reason to believe that their entry would pose a threat to the United States. Using the clearance requirement as a device to limit access to the United States by people with innocent intentions would be an abuse, and safeguards against abuse of the clearance procedure would be necessary. Second condition: that the entrant deposit with the United States a sum—the ‘entry guarantee’— or an equivalent bond (given by the United States, another state, or the intergovernmental clearance consortium) which would earn interest while held and could be returned to the entrant (or the bond provider) upon his or her exit from the United States. [Stipulating that entry guarantee deposits would be returned only to the individual entrant, a state, or the consortium would pose substantial disincentives to exploitation by private lenders.]

What’s interesting about this proposal is that it has no limit on numbers, no limit on length of stay, does not distinguish among purposes for coming (tourism, commercial work, study, intention to remain), and permits any who come to change their intentions while they are in the United States. Intending entrants could seek ‘clearance’ well in advance of intended departure, and there would be straightforward means to update clearances without subjecting travelers to delay. The only distinction, after entry, between citizens and entrants would be those of voting, holding public ofice, and holding sensitive jobs. It would be as if any entrant acquired upon entry the status of a permanent resident—though most would simply leave upon completing their business, study, visit, or tourism. Of course, conviction of committing a sufficiently serious crime could be grounds for deportaton and blocking subsequent entry.

Each entrant would also receive a card upon entering which he or she could use for identification, access to specified public services (such as getting a driver’s license, social security card, library card, or children’s enrolment in public schools) and access to stipulated public goods. What goods? Entrants could earn access to health insurance, unemployment benefits, and welfare benefits in proportion to their length of stay, contributions to social security, and federal tax payments: that is, they would gradually increase their entitlement. Entitlements would be federal charges, reimbursable to the US states. Seniority could be ‘banked’ if entrants chose to leave the United States but returned later.

What would prevent literally millions of people descending on the United States to take up this opportunity? Note the two barriers: clearance and deposit of an entry guarantee. The required entry guarantee would be a substantial sum; there is an expectation that visitors, and many intending immigrants, would be dependent on other sources of their guarantee deposit (their home state, travel agencies, prospective employers). The object, however, would be to modulate the cost so that entering ‘legally’—just getting on a plane and flying in—would be less expensive than meeting the fee of a people smuggler, so driving the smugglers out of business and discouraging people from sneaking across. The United States could also raise the barrier by increasing the size of the required entry guarantee. The effect would not be simply to reward the rich and disadvantage the poor, but to decentralize—for example, to prospective employers and universities competing for able students—decisions to assist entrants in meeting their entry guarantee, shifting choices about the comparative ‘quality’ of prospective entrants to communities, organizations, businesses and universities which would anticipate the closest relationship with the entrant. Note, too, that those who might be smuggled would not have card access to benefits. Of course, no amount of ‘security’ can guarantee that people intending to commit attacks will be unable to find a way to cross the borders; the object is to impose impediments to illegal entry.

I’d speculate that making it easy to come and go would encourage entrants who chose to stay and work to return to their home states. In addition to ‘banking’ seniority there might be good public policy reasons to grant easier access to social security entitlements to those who chose to depart. If the number looking for work more than met need there would be an inbuilt disincentive to come. In short, designers would look for ways to make return attractive, to both empower the individuals and control public costs.

This proposal avoids lots of costs and troubles. There’s no checking to see if employers are hiring ‘illegals’, no police time spent rounding up ‘illegals’, no vetting to determine whether a person‘s stated reasons for coming are true, no incentive for fake marriage, no forced rupture of family. The number seeking work is governed by the market. (There’s little doubt that the Internet will provide people with good information about availability or unavailability of work.) By treating immigration as a national boon, rather than a burden on states supplying education or social services, it relieves the states of uncertain costs.

Would such a sweeping reform be taken seriously? Maybe not. On the other hand, it is comprehensible, simple, and could resolve a number of tough problems. It’s consistent with the best way to resolve ‘the immigration problem’: bringing life prospects in other countries into line with prospects in the United States. There are governmental levers to ‘operate’ the system once it were in place, raising or lowering the required entry guarantee, changing rates of entitlement, altering incentives to leave. There would still be issues for the people’s representatives in Congress to consider, but they would not be about building walls, threatening honest members of our de facto society with deportation, or compelling visa officers to decide whether visa applicants would overstay.

The Political Design Problem

Does SEISM make better sense than present practice? Better sense than proposals on the table? How would it work? What could a serious simulation of SEISM show?


[1] “Sensenbrenner Statement on Immigration Reform Legislation,” 5 December 2005, Key provisions:

“ ... to address some of the problems of our immigration system. Quite clearly, this system is broken and must be fixed. This proposal will focus on preventing illegal immigration by bolstering our border security efforts and beginning a serious interior immigration enforcement effort. This legislation will demand that people follow the law and be held accountable for their actions - whether it's an employer hiring illegal workers, a smuggler trafficking in human beings in a 21st century version of slavery, or a person who ignores the law and enters this country illegally. All will be held accountable.

“While I support establishing a guest worker program, my legislation will not include a guest worker program. I believe it is wise to move cautiously on any guest worker proposal. Currently, we do not have a clear consensus on what a guest worker program should look like. In addition, while significant progress is being made, providing legal immigrants with the timely, efficient, and professional treatment that they deserve remains unfinished business. Serious issues need to be answered, such as how a new guest worker program will impact Citizenship and Immigration Services. ... ”

[Political Design 2006.04.30 Post A15.]


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