Immigration policy is hard

That is the title and topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the central analytical point, one that people are not so keen on discussing right now:

If we apply a simple economic model to the migration calculus, for the potential migrant, the expected return of trying to cross the border must exceed the overall return of staying at home. So if we improve conditions for those arriving from, say, Guatemala, more will try to come. That will result in higher prices to the border-crossing coyotes, more coercion and predation on the Mexican route along the way, bad treatment or lower wages in the U.S., or other compensating negative factors.

Basically, more and more people will leave Guatemala until the costs of leaving and staying are roughly equal.

This explains why even desirable changes to immigration policy may not have their intended effect. Improving how migrants are treated by the U.S. legal system, for example, may help those who reach the U.S., but it won’t be of much help to migrants as a group. We should still improve the immigration process, because parent-child separation is immoral, dehumanizing and, not incidentally, terrible publicity. Still, the costs of trying to migrate, and possibly failing, will negate a lot of the gains of those who make it.

I set out my proposed immigration compromise, and I argue also that current asylum law needs to be rethought, a topic to which I may return soon.


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