The last thing we need is a wall

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I'm generally pretty in favor of open immigration (insert usual libertarian-style economic arguments here) but if we're absolutely insistent on stopping Mexicans from picking our fruit, we can do a lot better than building a wall--a strategy which is pretty much the opposite of defense in depth. A 700 mile wall is relatively easy to bypass and hard to patrol, not to mention unsightly. Moreover, there's a whole bunch of badly patrolled coastline just North of the border. Are we going to wall off our beaches too?

The important thing to remember is that this is about economics--Mexicans want jobs and are welling to work cheap--so we should be able to create a different set of incentives. It's distinctly different from the situation in Israel, where the good being supplied by the Palestinians isn't really one the Israelis are interested in. You'll of course hear a lot of people tell you that the immigration issue in the US is about terrorism, but given the length of the American coastline and the US/Canada border, it's pretty hard to believe that any amount of protection along the US/Mexico border will make it significantly more difficult for terrorists enter the US.

Accordingly, I hereby present the EG half-baked two-point plan for controlling illegal immigration:

  1. Large fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants--whether they do so knowingly or not. This provides them with an incentive to really check people's papers rather than just pretend to--which is what they seem to do now. The fines should be set high enough that they balance out the economic benefit of hiring illegals.
  2. Amnesty for illegals who turn in employers who hire illegals. In the current situation, illegals cooperate with employers to hide their status and it's easy to exploit them because they fear being deported. Providing amnesty would reverse the incentive and make it extremely dangerous to hire illegals.

As I said above, this plan is half-baked, so I'm sure there are a lot of things wrong with it. The obvious problem is that if it really works we'll probably need a way to allow some controlled immigration for agricultural and domestic workers. But there are a variety of approaches (auctions, quotas, lotteries,...) that ought to be usable for that. My main point here is just that if we're fixated on making it difficult for people to come and work in the US we should at least go about it intelligently.


Following the adoption of your immigration control miracle plan, I propose the following business model:

1. Form a corporation
2. Solicit funds from wannabe-immigrants
2a. Move funds somewhere the US govt can't reach them
3. Smuggle wannabe-immigrants into the US
4. Employ them in corporation
5. Encourage them to tattle on corporation
6. Immigrants get amnesty, we get the money from 2a above!
7. ???
8. Profit

This particular hack seems pretty easy to deal with: intentional hiring of illegal immigrants == jail time.

If you're going to make an economic argument (which is the correct thing to do in this case), you have to look at the massively significant economic factors. Prices for some fruits and vegetables could easily double if wages for pickers and packagers goes to fair US labor prices. Further, in the first few years of your proposed laws, vast amounts of food will go unpicked because the field owners are in jail (or at least in bankrupcy court). This would certainly be a boon for the Central and South American produce exporters, but probably not an intended consequence.

This is true but would be mostly as true of the wall project, assuming it would actually work. As I said, I think the whole project is stupid. My point is merely that just because we're doing something stupid doesn't mean we have to do it a stupid way.

Paul, I think Eric knows trying to keep illegals out is economically stupid. What he's saying is, "If you're going to do something stupid, do it right!" ;-)

I have a question about the economics of illegal immigration. It has to do with why illegal immigrants are in such demand as employees.

I have two theories. One is that illegal immigrants are willing to work hard for minimum wage jobs, and there aren't enough legal immigrants and American-born citizens to do those jobs at that wage.

The second is that illegal immigrants are actually employed illegally at sub-minimum-wage jobs, without legally required benefits, breaks, and other protections. Illegals can't complain about these harsh working conditions because they are afraid of being caught and deported.

If the first theory is right, then adding substantially more legal immigration would be a good direction towards solving the problem and reducing demand for illegal immigrants. If the second theory is right, allowing more legal immigration won't help, and instead we should work towards greater enforcement of existing employment law in order to reduce demand for illegals.

Any guesses on which is right?

From a comedian last week:

How do they expect that they're going to be able to build a 700 mile wall without using immigrant labor?!

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