By Patricia Houlihan
Story courtesy of Chicago Booth

Gary Becker’s ideas have always merged economics and sociology, a pioneering approach that has drawn critics but also won him the Nobel Prize—and a joint appointment at Chicago GSB and the College. Looking at the thorny issue of immigration in the United States, he’s come up with a provocative suggestion: what if the country began charging people for the right to immigrate?

Becker, University Professor of Economics and of Sociology, acknowledged that the idea might strike some as “repugnant,” but putting a price tag on immigration could draw more skilled workers here and stem the tide of illegal immigrants—some of whom pay with their lives.

“We have tremendous restrictions now. The price to come legally for low-skilled workers is infinite. We say to them, ’You can’t come,’” Becker said. “We’re proposing another option: You can pay, and then you’re as good as anybody else. That opens up opportunities to everybody, including the unskilled person from Mexico who says, ’I want to come to the United States. It may be expensive for me, but my children can take advantage of it.’”

Posing the question

In 1992, Becker won the Nobel Prize in economic sciences. The award legitimized a lifetime of work in what had been called “oddball” topics for an economist—racial discrimination, the family, crime—and made Becker feel better about the legions of students who had followed his lead in studying unorthodox topics. “Before, I was worried that I got them into this area that was always under attack and wasn’t so accepted,” he said. Winning the Nobel, he said, “I feel I made up for it, to some extent.”

In addressing the immigration problem, Becker brings personal experience to the issue. His brother-in-law was a doctor in Germany and wanted a green card. “It took 11 years for his green card to come up,” he said. “That’s highly restrictive.” Charging a fee would allow more people to immigrate—“a different mix, who would make a significant contribution to the labor force,” Becker said.

Setting the price

Becker has the support of two fellow economists at the GSB, Kevin Murphy, George J. Stigler Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, and Robert Topel, Isidore Brown and Gladys J. Brown Professor in Urban and Labor Economics. Together, they tackled the big question: How to set the price.

Whatever the price, it should be uniform, Becker said. “It would be too complicated and too much a political price—setting system if you tried to determine who’ll pay more, who’ll pay less.”

But setting too high a price could keep out low-skilled immigrants, something none of them wanted to do. “There are many jobs that require people not necessarily to have a lot of skill, but a lot of ambition, ingenuity, and dedication,” said Murphy. And to help those who could only get low-paid jobs, Becker advocates creating a loan program, letting immigrants make a down payment, then borrow privately or publicly.

But should the price be different for those who are already here illegally? Topel suggested establishing a “pay to stay” plan, but acknowledged that setting that price poses a challenge, too. Set it too low and people outside the country may sneak in to take advantage of it; set it too high and face the dilemma of sending millions home.

It’s time to put the idea on the table, Becker said. “It’s a new proposal, but once people become more familiar with it, it won’t seem so radical.”

Originally published on July 7, 2008.