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Coming to America? It's Going to Cost You

The U.S.-Mexico border wall is illuminated at night in Nogales, Ariz.
The U.S.-Mexico border wall is illuminated at night in Nogales, Ariz.Photograph by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

After a presidential election that demonstrated the growing clout of Latino voters, the chance for serious immigration reform appears to be at its highest in years. But if lawmakers were really serious about improving the immigration system, they wouldn’t stop at more generous quotas on migrant numbers and amnesties for those already here. They’d move to a system primarily based on tariffs. It’s an idea that has the backing of Nobel Prize-winning Chicago economist Gary Becker and pretty much no one else. That’s a shame, because the change would generate revenue, reduce the pain and uncertainty faced by potential migrants, and possibly even make the issue less toxic in Washington.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, one of the early and hugely important steps taken by GATT—the predecessor to the World Trade Organization—was to move the world from a reliance on trade quotas to a system based on tariffs. As a rule, quotas are less efficient than tariffs. If the market changes, and there’s more demand for an import, quotas mean that none of that extra demand is met. And someone has to chose who gets the imports that are let in. That process is, at best, bureaucratic, and at worst, rife with corruption and favoritism.