Jagdish Bhagwati and Francisco Rivera-Batiz (“A Kinder, Gentler Immigration Policy,” November/December 2013) recommend that the United States stop trying to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country, since that will never work, and instead let the states compete for them. This alluring proposal requires some judicious examination.

The authors begin by dismissing the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill. Even in the unlikely event that the bill was passed by the House, they argue, it would work no better than the 1986 law did. Although many experts are likely to disagree with this conclusion, it is these authors’ main justification for turning immigration policy over to the states. Yet immigration is clearly a federal responsibility. Although states may choose whether or not to provide illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses, for example, they cannot provide citizenship, passports, or refugee status.

The authors also argue that as long as immigration restrictions exist, people will continue to enter the United States illegally. But if Bhagwati and Rivera-Batiz favor open borders, they should have said so explicitly, or at least spelled out their position on border enforcement. Moreover, the policy they propose could produce the opposite of its intended effect. With the states competing, illegal immigration could increase substantially.

Finally, Bhagwati and Rivera-Batiz do not consider the potential application of their arguments to other countries that restrict immigration, such as India, Israel, and Italy. They do not explain why the governments of such countries have not considered their recommended approach. Despite their proposal’s shortcomings, however, the authors provide a fresh look at a vital issue.

Former Director, UN Population Division, and former Editor, International Migration Review

Bhagwati and Rivera-Batiz reply:
Joseph Chamie misreads us. First, he argues that we would turn over immigration policy to the states. We would not. As the Supreme Court has ruled, the federal government controls immigration policy. However, many state-level policies directly and indirectly affect illegal immigrants, especially those policies that regulate access to state and local government services. For example, a number of states, including California and New Jersey, have allowed illegal immigrants to compete for university scholarships. Many other states do not.

Chamie also argues that we favor open borders. Our piece does not propose open borders; it recognizes that border enforcement has diminishing marginal returns. Over the past 20 years, massive increases in funding for border enforcement have failed to reduce illegal immigration.

Finally, Chamie argues that local policies regarding immigrants do not exist in other countries. But they do: Australia allows regions to independently sponsor immigrants depending on local needs, and Canada permits provinces to negotiate immigration quotas with the federal government.