Gary Becker thinks we should let almost any immigrant in, and charge them $50,000. Those who can’t pay the costs up front would be offered a student-style loan, which they would have to pay back. He also suggests that the government could set a quota each year and auction off the rights to immigrate here. Becker argues that the welfare state would prevent us from moving to a system of completely free entry. He also points out that a disproportionate number of U.S. immigrants come here for family reunification rather than work reasons when compared to other countries.
I can, and have, get behind this system. I would also be for a system of gradually opening the gates more and more, and seeing what happens as we approach full and free entry. I’m not a conservative by nature, but I think there is a chance that fully open gates would cause some bad consequences, and that it would be a radical experiment that ended somewhat quickly. Maybe everything would go just fine, and people would believe it was going just fine (the former is not nearly sufficient). But maybe it wouldn’t. More immigration is so fundamentally important that in deciding what system to pursue, likelihood of system survival is hugely important.
This, I think, is why an entry fee is probably preferrable to open gates. People disagree whether immigrants are a net cost. They will continue to do so once the borders are open. Even if immigrants are a net cost on society (which I don’t believe they are), those costs are debatable and largely hidden. Making immigrants a transparent and immediate revenue source makes them much more desirable to politicians and voters.
A system of gradually opening the gates strikes me as much more resistant to being overturned and opposed than one with immediately and fully open gates. A system of immigrants paying for entry is even more resistant, especially because stopping the program would entail cutting off a revenue source.
Addendum: It’s worth noting that Becker’s back of the envelope number is $50,000 for entry, and 1 million a year entering, which is revenues of $50 billion a year. While there are some economists who argue that low-skilled immigration has a small affect on the wages of high-school drop outs, is there any economist who would disagree that this mechanism allows a pareto improving outcome? Give the money to states to put towards schools to help reduce the number of drop outs, and to fund expansive pre-k programs so we have less natives competing for very low skilled jobs in the first place. States were bending over backwards for the $4.35 billion of race to the top money, imagine how eager they’d be to get an extra $50 billion of education money.