My colleague David Bier has written and edited two excellent pieces about how the incoming Biden administration and Congress can reform the immigration system. The recommendations are excellent, and I encourage you to read them in full. Of course, politics constrains politicians more than policies. While the above policy recommendations are good ones that would significantly improve the immigration system, ultimately, the incoming administration will choose policies that are politically favorable.
On that front, I offer one piece of advice when implementing the above policies: Do so in a way to increase the perceptions of government control of immigration and reduce the perceptions of chaos in the immigration system. The political psychology literature is clear on this point: Voters tend to oppose any policy where they think the government does not have control of the situation and where they perceive that there is chaos. Perceptions of greater chaos and less government control over immigration reduces support for legal immigration. Migrant caravans, Border Patrol agents firing tear gas, and disorderly crowds that create chaos that frightens people.
Most people react to chaos by supporting greater government control or a greater role for law enforcement. In some cases, more government control and law enforcement can be the correct responses, such as during a riot. But in most cases and especially in immigration, more government control will produce even more chaos that will then attract increased government control and law enforcement in a destructive cycle that will not produce a better immigration policy, will actually reduce real government control, result in more chaos, and increase the perceptions of chaos. Instead, lasting immigration reform will be politically sustainable by a commitment to Make Immigration Boring Again by making it predictable, smooth, and transparent.
The legal immigration system is shockingly complex and restrictive for green cards and temporary work visas. The result of these restrictions is more illegal immigration that has mainly fallen in recent decades due to moderate liberalizations in H-2 visas. Adding more rules on top of these will only lead to more illegal immigration and chaos on the border. The number of Border Patrol agents has climbed about five‐fold over the last 30 years. There’s a border wall along hundreds of miles of the southwest border. More American workers are checked through E‐Verify than ever before. Many of these rules and the extra enforcement intended to enforce them increase the size of black markets and a widespread perception of chaos.
Perceptions of chaos can even increase if more order is achieved. For example, the number of unlawful immigrants apprehended crossing the border, a proxy measurement for the number actually coming across, fell considerably from more than 1.6 million in 2000 to just 331,333 in 2015 when Donald Trump sought the Republican nomination on a “build the wall” platform. Arguably, more Border Patrol agents on hand to report and take pictures of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who were seemingly overwhelming the system convinced many Republican voters that chaos on the border was worse and the government didn’t have control. In such a situation, more voters considered a border wall, more Border Patrol agents, virtually ending asylum, and voting for Donald Trump.
Every additional rule and regulation creates an incentive to circumvent them that could boost perceptions of chaos, further weakening support for liberalization. The only politically sustainable and long‐term solution to illegal immigration is deregulation, liberalization, and increased legal immigration that would channel migrants into the legal system and create an orderly way for asylum seekers to enter lawfully.
Thus, the Biden administration should do everything it can to expand legal immigration without adding more barriers or legal hurdles. Reforms that boost visa processing overseas, speed family reunification in the United States, increase the pace and number of migrants who can adjust their status once here, and that move people away from trying to enter unlawfully will reduce the perception of chaos. If the Biden administration wants its immigration reforms to last, they should embrace the maxim of Make Immigration Boring Again.
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