• Flux Magazine

Open: A Top Down Reform of American Immigration by Niko Aiello

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

A few days ago I came across a Fox News article that was surprisingly critical of Donald Trump. It makes sense since the article alleges that Trump threatened to shut down the entire US-Mexico border if he determines "that its southern ally has lost 'control' on its side." This article and other, more recent events have caused me to contemplate more practical policy solutions for immigration. As in so many other endeavors, I found myself turning to Ancient Greece for guidance.


When most people think of Socrates and his students, they tend to think of Plato. But another one of his students, Xenophon, is who I'm most interested in. The era in which Xenophon wrote, especially near the end of his life, was one marred by the economic and military decline of Athens, thanks in no small part to the crises brought on by the Peloponnesian War and subsequent occupation by Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Xenophon, like all great scholars throughout history, sought to improve the stability of Athens to pre- Peloponnesian levels, part of which is laid out in what many consider his final work, Ways and Means. It's chapter two that I want to analyze since it gives specific recommendations for immigration reform.


Xenophon’s argument can be broken down into three recommendations: for various reasons, the resident alien population should not be obligated to serve as hoplites but may serve in the cavalry; Athens should provide free land grants for certain areas around the city to promote foreign investment; and a separate guardianship council should be created specifically for resident aliens. Beyond this, Xenophon voices his agreement on the taxation of resident aliens. All of these points tie back to increasing revenues for Athens in the wake of the destruction of the Second Athenian Empire.


As failures of contemporary American immigration policy are economically based, in particular the imbalanced localities created from immigrants relying primarily on federal benefits while the bulk of their costs remain at the state level and below, Xenophon’s plan of starting in economics is a solid building block.


Things are a bit more complicated in the United States, as Ancient Greece didn't have an alphabet soup of visas or any visas for that matter. In the United States, the quotas placed on all visas, from H-1B to H-2A and H2-B, simply do not satisfy American labor demands and are always exceeded. Incredibly enough, the failure of the visas does not end there: public companies are not subject to the quota system and, as the system is placed only on private companies, who are incentivized to keep costs low, employ undocumented workers. It’s my opinion that this whole alphabet soup of visas needs to be overhauled entirely.


When it comes to widespread policy proposals and reform, the Brookings Institute’s economic think tank, the Hamilton Project, remains the de facto standard, immigration reform being no exception. The Project’s immigration reform proposal is tiered into three phases, each of which simultaneously tackles both the supply and demand side of the current immigration crisis. Additionally, all three phases of their proposal inherently align themselves with federal law, are driven by market forces, and are more transparent than our current system. Their initial phase deals exclusively with employment-based immigration and represents the backbone of the entire proposal. The general idea is to auction off permits to various employers, whose workers would then apply for visas. The hope is that a market-based system would be better than the current system and that the cost of the permits encourages employers to hire equally competitive American workers. Funds generated through the sale of permits could then be used to offset the cost of increased immigration, or simply help fund entitlement programs.


I, however, foresee two overarching problems to the auctions: just as in our current system, there will be the creation of a monopoly on the purchasing of permits, and there would be a subsequent creation of a black market for second-hand sales. Unfortunately, the Hamilton Project does not rectify either externality in full. Parallel to the permit proposal is the recommendation that after the successful completion of a provisional work period, immigrants may automatically apply for permanent residence. The tradeoff would be additional wages in the form of a bond, held in escrow, which would be forfeited if permanent residence is granted. Similarly, the entire visa system must be consolidated and simplified, starting with the elimination of the arbitrary 7%, country-specific, quotas. Finally, the proposal attempts to deal with the root causes of undocumented immigration, something that was not at the forefront of the minds of Xenophon and the Athenians: the project proposes that there must be more opportunities for low-skilled immigrants, thus dissuading employers from hiring illegally. Long-term, however, there must also be a path to citizenship, albeit with fines and other requirements.

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