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Planet Money
2:05 am
Thu February 21, 2013

Three Ways To Totally Transform U.S. Immigration Policy

Originally published on Thu February 21, 2013 9:42 am

With immigration policy in the news again, I asked three economists, "Dream big: If you could create any immigration policy for the U.S., what would it be?" Here's what they said.

1. The Best And The Brightest

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research would give out more visas to highly skilled workers: scientists, engineers, computer programmers and doctors.

In this universe, with fewer low-skill immigrants, low-skilled labor would be more expensive. So, food would cost a bit more. Child care might, too. There could be fewer restaurants. On the other hand, having more doctors could mean that really expensive things like medical care would be cheaper.

2. The Highest Bidder

The problem with favoring highly skilled workers is defining "highly skilled." Our government already tries to do that, and it's a mess, according to University of California, Davis, economist Giovanni Peri.

In Peri's ideal world, the U.S. would auction the visas off to the employers who were willing to pay the most, he says. That way, employers could determine which would-be immigrants would add the most to the U.S. economy.

Peri does think there should be space for low-skilled immigrants, so in his dream world, there would be separate visa auctions for high- and low-skilled workers.

3. Let 'Em In.

Alex Nowrasteh, a self-described libertarian at the Cato Institute, says America should let almost everybody in.

"My dream setup would be a system where only criminals, suspected terrorists and those with serious communicable diseases like drug-resistant tuberculosis are barred from coming to the United States to live and work," Nowrasteh says.

Open borders were the law of the land for almost 100 years of American history, he points out. He says between 50 million and 100 million people might move to the U.S. if those rules were reinstated now. He says that's fine. Compared with Europe, the U.S. is a big, empty country.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For some ideas on how to reform the system, Planet Money's David Kestenbaum called up three economists. And he asked them: If they controlled the borders, how would they run things?

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Economists will tell you that immigrants tend to work hard, tend to start businesses so there's broad agreement that immigration helps our economy grow. The question is, who do you let in? Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and his idea is that he would first give priority to people who have family here, but after that, he would give out visas preferentially to highly skilled people, scientists, engineers, computer programmers, doctors, the people who would benefit our economy the most.

Call his plan the best and brightest.

DEAN BAKER: I would like to make sure that you had a lot of immigrants at the high end.

KESTENBAUM: What about farm workers?

BAKER: You know, I'm less concerned about farm workers. I don't think we need a special under class of people to work at real low wages in the farms. I don't think that makes a lot of sense.

KESTENBAUM: What would things be like under this system? Well, low-skilled labor would be more expensive, so food would cost a bit more, so might child care. There could be fewer restaurants. On the other hand, the really expensive things like medical care, medical care could get cheaper with more doctors around. So that's idea Number One. Idea Number Two, you can call this one The Highest Bidder.

GIOVANNI PERI: My name is Giovanni Peri. I am professor of economics at the University of California, Davis.

KESTENBAUM: Giovanni Peri says the problem with saying you're going to favor high skilled workers is that someone needs to define what high skilled is. We already try to do that, he says, and it's a mess. Lots of special categories.

PERI: There is one specific for models, fashion models.

KESTENBAUM: Did you come to the U.S. on a fashion model visa?

PERI: I tried, but then I failed miserably.

KESTENBAUM: Peri says what the U.S. should do is auction the visas off to the highest bidder.

PERI: Whoever employer is willing to pay more, is going to get the permit to hire the worker.

KESTENBAUM: So if it turns out we do need more fashion models or more doctors, presumably those employers would be willing to pay more and they would get those visas.

PERI: Absolutely, yes.

KESTENBAUM: Peri wants to keep some slots open for farm workers and people like that, so he'd have a separate auctions for low-skilled visas. That's idea Number Two. We have one more Idea, from Alex Nowrasteh, a self-described libertarian at the Cato Institute. Here's his proposal, let them in, all of them, almost.

ALEX NOWRASTEH: My dream setup would be a system whereby only criminals, suspected terrorists and those with serious communicable diseases - like, you know, drug-resistant tuberculosis - are barred from coming to the United States to live and work.

KESTENBAUM: This, he says, it's not as crazy as it sounds.

NOWRASTEH: The United States had a system like that from roughly 1790 to about 1882.

KESTENBAUM: It was the law of the land for almost 100 years of American history. Open borders would be great for the economy, he says, and you wouldn't have to worry about people risking their lives crossing the border. If you are wondering how many people would come, Nowrasteh says there are some polls, asking people around the world, would you like to move to the U.S.

There were a lot of yeses.

NOWRASTEH: About five to 700 million.

KESTENBAUM: So that would more than double, triple the population.

NOWRASTEH: That would, but, you know, you have to take a big grain of salt with that.

KESTENBAUM: Nowrasteh figures more like 50 million and 100 million people would actually want to move here and stay. And thought that would be fine. Compared with Europe, he says, we have a relatively big and empty country. What chances do you give this passing in Congress?

NOWRASTEH: About zero. Of, you know, the type of thing I want right now, somewhere near to zero.

KESTENBAUM: There you have it, three proposals. By the way, when it comes to citizenship, all three economists said these workers, if they want to eventually become citizens, that's fine. We should let them. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.