The Institutional Structure of Immigration Law

Innovation and Economic Growth

Article Snapshot


Eric Posner


University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 80, No. 1, pp. 289-313, 2013


Immigration law affects the behavior of migrants and employers. Immigration benefits Americans by providing skilled and unskilled labor. Failure to respect migrants’ rights can discourage migrants. Government delegates the screening of migrants to employers, families, and the states.

Policy Relevance

Skilled laborers can be screened at the time of entry. Illegal immigration provides unskilled labor.

Main Points

  • The rules and institutions of immigration law, together with their effects on behavior related to the goals of immigration policy make up the institutional structure of immigration law.
  • Most people agree that immigration law should benefit Americans by:
    • Bringing migrants with important skills or to fill gaps in the labor market.
    • Allowing the reunification of families.
    • Ensuring that permanent migrants share American values.
  • When migrants join the labor force, they increase the labor supply, lowering wages; this benefits employers and consumers; working migrants benefit government by paying taxes.
  • Government can screen migrants at the time of entry, or after entry, by allowing the migrant to stay to prove he can prosper in the United States.
    • Screening at the time of entry works well for highly skilled migrants.
    • Screening after entry works best for unskilled migrants.
  • The government does not try harder to stop illegal immigration, because illegal immigration satisfies a huge demand for unskilled labor, and there is little point in screening unskilled laborers at the time of entry.
  • Illegal workers lack rights enjoyed by legal workers, and employers do not have the same interest as the government in excluding foreign workers.
    • Asking employers to screen out illegal migrants can have harmful effects.
    • Employers threaten to report illegal migrants who report poor working conditions.
  • Giving illegal and legal workers the same rights would discourage employers from hiring foreign workers; this would harm consumers and unskilled foreign workers.


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