Summary: The U. S. should charge a fee along the Mexican border to enter the country for a set period, and refund a portion of the fee when the entrant leaves the country.
Update 24 Nov 2011
The U. S. economy drives the number of illegal border-crossers from México. The current going rate, with the U. S. economy in a slump, is $7,000 or more, according to my sources. Where would it fall if the economy were in good shape? In any case, if prospective entrants were charged $7,000 to enter the country for, say, three years and given permission to work legally, many would certainly prefer that to the Devil’s Highway and the clutches of the cartels. If the entrants were promised $5,000 on expiration of their time upon leaving the country, that might give them the incentive to leave. (Although the history of the economic abuses of the bracero program, where money was promised and not paid, still are in living memory.) And many do want to leave. Listen to the dreams of the border-crossers in The Devil’s Highway or the sentiments of El mojado acaudalado. Prospective crossers would need to present official documentation to enter, and every Mexican has a voters card that would serve that purpose. That would allow for checks on the comings and goings.
Of course, the system would cost money, but $2,000 a head should cover the costs. Of course, the system would be abused, but even the most orderly, law-abiding and well-documented societies suffer some abuse — Medicare and Social Security, for instance.
Would there be a rush to the border the instant the program was announced? Possibly, although Tamar Jacoby in an article in Foreign Affairs notes that the economic intelligence network among immigrants is fast and accurate: The ones here phone home and let their friends and relatives know not only if the possibilities of getting work are good or not, they let them know where the possibilities are good. An efficient market. If possibilities aren’t good, they won’t come.
Would the entrance fee system be better than what we have now? Absolutely.
Would some potential border-crossers still try to cross illegally? Yes, almost certainly. Would the Mexican cartels try to prevent potential border-crossers from crossing legally? Yes, almost certainly. Would either of those cases be big or significant? Not likely.