Immigration as an issue has proved extraordinarily resistant to compromise. Our elected officials can't even seem to agree on a proposal — amnesty for adult immigrants who came here illegally as children — that large majorities in both parties support. Instead, the DREAMers are being held hostage to debates about whether we should prioritize skilled immigration over family reunification, whether we should promote diversity or promote assimilation. While it may be necessary to have immigration restrictionists at the table to achieve any kind of lasting compromise, it seems far from clear that having them there would be sufficient. The sides are just too far apart to agree on who we want to come here, and in what numbers.
The political process is failing. So maybe we should privatize the immigration debate. What if we just let the market decide?
By that, I don't mean: What if we had open borders? The current immigration system treats the right to live and work in America as a scarce commodity. Advocates of freedom of movement argue that this scarcity is artificial, but let's take that scarcity as a given, and assume that we, as a society, don't want to just let anyone who wants to come here do so. How should we allocate that scarce resource?
A believer in the free market would say: via the price mechanism. Well, suppose we did that with immigration. Suppose we auctioned visas.
The idea appalls a lot of people — and for understandable reasons. Selling visas sounds like it would tilt immigration overwhelmingly in favor of the already-wealthy, and lock out the poor and vulnerable. It also sounds like commodifying something that should be sacred: American citizenship.
But we already effectively "sell" residency permits to the very wealthy through the EB-5 Immigrant Investor program. That's a cheap and easy way for individuals to obtain a green card by investing a certain amount of money domestically, and there is little evidence that it even promotes job creation.
Auctioning visas, by contrast, might empower precisely the skilled immigrants that restrictionists claim to want to prioritize, while also making the system more flexible for people who don't meet Stephen Miller's definition of a desirable addition. Advocates argue it would reduce the deadweight cost of compliance with immigration law, and could dramatically ease workplace enforcement. Finally, it would add incrementally to the treasury, creating a public constituency for progressively increasing the number of visas put up for auction.
A properly designed visa auction system would allow both workers and employers to bid for visas. So if Google wanted to bring a young computer programmer over from Bangalore, they could simply purchase a visa on the market and bring her over. Ditto for a seasonal agricultural worker from Oaxaca, or a physician from Nigeria. Low-skilled immigrants might be priced out by immigrants with higher skills, but this could be addressed by auctioning visas in different categories (as our current system does) — or it could be considered a feature of an auction system.
A hopeful immigrant could also purchase a visa for himself — but if he didn't find employment, the money would just go to waste. For that reason, one would expect that most visas would be purchased by prospective employers with genuine employment needs. And by setting a price on immigrant labor, we could be far more confident that the need was genuine, and not just a matter of wanting to hold down wages.
Meanwhile, precisely because they would have the option to purchase a visa themselves, immigrant workers would have far greater bargaining leverage than they do now — and so would native workers at the same companies. That hypothetical programmer from Bangalore would be able to entertain job offers from Facebook and Apple — all they'd have to do is buy a visa for her. She could also buy a visa herself and start her own company, just like a citizen. Google would know that — and so would have no more leverage over her wages than they did over those of an American programmer.
What about family unification? An auction system would not be an ideal solution in many instances — but it might be an improvement over the status quo in some situations. You want to bring your brother-in-law over from Tegucigalpa? If you have a spot for him in your contracting business, you can buy a visa and bring him over. Your grandmother is another matter, but any developed country with even a somewhat generous welfare system has to be conscious of the cost of bringing in dependents. Putting a price tag on it is probably necessary for a fully honest political conversation.
Ah, but what about refugees? Again, an auction system would be far from ideal — and would have to be supplemented by some number of visas granted freely on the basis of need. But purchasing visas might be a faster way for the International Rescue Committee — or the LDS Church, for that matter — to bring people in who they know they could find employment for. And it would likely be easier politically to draw the line between economic migrants and those fleeing persecution if the former had an alternative path to residency.
I don't know whether, after a full examination, Americans would agree that an auction would be the best way to allocate the bulk of visas, balancing the economic needs of immigrants, the interests of native-born Americans, and the dictates of conscience. Myself, I'd hate to see our immigration system completely reduced to an economic arrangement.
But economics are not irrelevant. I do strongly suspect that if immigration generated revenue directly, the political constituency for increasing the number of visas would quickly increase. And conceptually, the idea of visa auctions does grant a major premise of each side of the immigration debate: the restrictionist premise that the right to live and work in America is a valuable privilege rather than an inherent right of all humanity; and the liberal premise that we all benefit when people can more freely choose where they want to live and work. And conceding some premise of the opposing side is a necessary basis of any compromise.
Once that's accomplished, we're mostly dickering over the price.