While it might seem extremely difficult to reconcile the views of Emanuel and Gutierrez, who want to make it as easy as possible for immigrants earning very low incomes to become citizens, and Sessions and his allies, who want to make it much harder for aspiring immigrants who are likely to earn very low incomes to settle in the U.S. in the first place, there is one idea that might appeal to both sides of the debate.
In his highly underrated 2010 book, From Immigrants to Americans, Jacob Vigdor, a Duke University economist, proposes an “assimilation bond.” To make his proposal concrete, Vigdor sets the price of the bond at $10,000, but the number could be much lower or higher. The idea is that immigrants would pay a fee of $10,000 to enter the country, yet they would receive substantial reimbursement for meeting various assimilation milestones. Completing an accredited English-language course, for example, would yield a refund of $2,000. Immigrants who speak fluent English on arrival would receive a commensurate discount. Naturalization would also yield a rebate of $2,000. And every year, immigrants who paid the fee would receive a credit against federal income taxes of up to $500 until only $500 is left. Immigrants who work steadily, learn English and naturalize will have paid back almost all of the bond after 11 years.
Vigdor’s proposal elegantly addresses a number of conservative concerns, as it creates a powerful incentive for immigrants to work steadily at jobs that generate at least some income tax liability. It also raises the stakes for immigrants, who will have to make a significant up-front financial commitment to living and working in the U.S. Emanuel and Gutierrez would presumably object to the fact that an expensive assimilation bond would prove a barrier to many low-income immigrants. With this in mind, Vigdor suggests that churches and foundations could sponsor immigrants who lack the necessary funds, and the same could be true of relatives and perhaps even friends and employers. Suffice it to say, an American who has to spend $10,000 to sponsor an immigrant will be far more discerning than one who has to do little more than fill out paperwork and wait. More important, from the perspective of immigration advocates, the Vigdor proposal rids the immigration system of enormous amounts of red tape. Left and right can duke it out over whether the price of the assimilation bond should be set at $10,000 or $20,000 or $5,000. But the basic idea has tremendous potential.