A better plan than giving $450,000 to each separated immigrant

President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE has spoken: The U.S. will not pay $450,000 to each of the family members who were separated at the border. Biden made the statement in an exchange with a reporter last Wednesday.

Biden’s dismissal leaves little room for doubt, “$450,000 per person? That’s not going to happen.” But it also doesn’t answer the more pressing question: What will the U.S. do instead?

Economists have long had an answer to this question: selling immigration slots. With the funds from the sale, Congress could pay all of the settlement costs without it costing taxpayers a dime and have money left to help those who lose from immigration and globalization. It’s a policy that every group should celebrate, immigrants and natives alike.


In 1992, Nobel laureate Gary Becker advocated opening the doors to immigrants on the condition that they could pay their own way. By auctioning immigration spots, the country would be able to select successful immigrants who would immediately contribute to the economic success of the country. Immigrants have already been paying smugglers and lawyers, why not let them pay the rest of us? 

A visa sale could bring in a hefty sum as well. Our research at the Center for Growth and Opportunity shows that the U.S. could charge $80,000 for each green card. In total, that’s $67 billion at current immigration levels. Paying all 5,500 separated family members a settlement would cost less than $2.5 billion.

To be clear, by selling visas, the U.S. could not only more than settle any lawsuits brought by separated families, but have $60 billion leftover. Those billions could then be given to struggling economic areas and fund retraining programs for those left behind by globalization. And it’s all financed by new taxpayers, not you and me. 

Justifiably, the visa’s $80,000 price tag may shock you. Affording it turns out to be much easier than it seems. For one, poor immigrants from Central and Southern America already pay smugglers thousands for passage with no guarantee of successful entry and no legal status once they are here. A more expensive and certain option will be more valuable. In addition, immigrants could pay for it with a loan, just like you pay for your home or car. 

The real answer here is that a visa sale option would select more talented workers who can pay the cost. $80,000 is not a huge cost for someone who stands to make six-figures a year by coming to the country. In addition, companies pay thousands in immigration-related application fees and for the lawyers to process the paperwork. Much like covering moving expenses, companies could step in to pay for the visa or to offset some of the costs.


Of course, opening up avenues for more migration by selling visas to the next Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskUS-China space cooperation is up in the air more than ever Joe Biden's Big Labor push not winning voters Elon Musk warns SpaceX employees of bankruptcy risk if Starship engine production doesn't increase: report MORE doesn’t mean closing the U.S. refugee program. The U.S. should remain a shining city upon a hill for those yearning to breathe free. Those sentiments still ring true to the American spirit. A robust refugee resettlement program honors our humanitarian obligations to today’s huddled masses.

Not only can we help those in need outside of the country, we can use the funds to help Americans as well. Recent research on the effects of globalization, usually called “the China Shock,” shows that the government has not done enough to support the industrial communities who suffered from trade. In short, international trade has made most of the country better off.

But many of the areas that carried the brunt of the effects still need assistance in recovering. Detroit is a typical example of a city lost to competition with China and the rest of the world. The billions of dollars raised by visa sales are a promising pot to restore Detroit and other communities that have suffered similar fates.

Nearly 30 years since Becker’s proposal, now is the time to start a program to sell visas. The number of people queuing at the border and in the backlogs at government agencies are an indication of the value others place on coming to the U.S. The funds it could raise are more than enough to bridge partisan divides and offer a hand to Americans who haven’t shared in recent economic expansions.

Josh T. Smith is research manager for the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.