Feds should focus less on fixing immigrants and more on fixing the law

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“I’m not anti-immigrant, I’m anti-illegal.”

As the debate over immigration continues, this is a phrase you often hear. Those who support mass deportation of illegal immigrants often do so in the name of preserving the rule of law. Illegal immigrants, they say, should be deported because they are skirting the immigration process. Others are waiting, so illegal immigrants should just “get in line.”

Most immigrants would prefer to enter legally. Legal immigrants are able to travel more easily and find better jobs, and they don’t need to be on constant lookout for immigration agents. So why have about 11 million undocumented workers chosen to come to the United States? Some would say they simply don’t respect U.S. laws. The reality, however, is that the U.S. immigration system is broken. The line is years, sometimes decades long. In other scenarios, there is no line.

{mosads}With the exception of a few special programs, the process of immigrating can be exceptionally difficult if not impossible. If someone has immediate family in the United States or a job waiting, a legal process exists. Depending on country of origin, however, the wait can vary dramatically. The law limits the number of permanent visas (green cards) issued to immigrants from any single county in a given year.


Consider Mexico, the largest source of undocumented immigrants to the United States. The U.S. government may issue at most some 25,000 visas to Mexicans. Approved applicants over that limit go on a waiting list. Some 1.3 million people in Mexico with approved applications are now waiting for visas. At the current rate, it will take more than 50 years to clear the current queue—assuming no new applications are submitted. In July 2017 the State Department issued family-based green cards to some Mexican immigrants—whose applications had been approved in 1995. That’s right: after filing all the relevant paperwork to come here legally and getting it approved, they still had to wait more than 20 years.

Such wait times are not exclusive to Mexicans. Worldwide, over four million people are waiting in line. For an unskilled worker with no family here, there is no line at all, no path to move to the United States legally.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that so many people choose to immigrate illegally. If given the choice between immigrating illegally today or waiting for 20 years to see your family, you’d probably seriously consider the former.

Those who oppose illegal immigration should focus their attention on fixing a broken immigration system — not deporting millions of people.

A first step is to reform the per-country visa limits. They serve no purpose other than creating an absurdly long waiting list. This would help significantly shorten the lines, thus removing some of the incentive to immigrate illegally. Unfortunately, the White House just endorsed a bill that would do the exact opposite.

Second, a legal immigration path is needed for more low-skilled workers. It’s difficult to get in line if one does not exist.

Finally, rather than spending tens of billions of dollars rounding up and deporting those who are already here, such funds could remain in the pockets of taxpayers. Not only would this reduce the devastating effects of tearing apart families, it would also allow millions of people to come out of the shadows.

To deport illegal immigrants is to fight the wrong fight. Today’s illegal immigrants are here in search of better lives. They want to be with their families. The problem with immigration today is not that hordes of nefarious foreigners are entering our country because they have no respect for the law. The problem is that our law makes it nearly impossible for otherwise good people to do the right thing.

We don’t need to fix people. We need to fix the law.

Abigail R. Hall is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tampa. Michael Coon is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tampa.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Abigail Hall Immigration Michael Coon
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