Incentives in Economics: An Immigration Example

Economist Steven Landsburg put it neatly in his book The Armchair Economist:

“Most of economics can be summarized in four words: “People respond to incentives.” The rest is commentary.”

That is why an immigration story this morning in the San Diego paper is so unsurprising. Because according to the Union Tribune, more than half the people accused of trying to use phony documents to sneak in to the U.S. recently via the wildly busy San Ysidro border crossing cited President Bush’s proposal to give temporary legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

Of 162 people stopped for using phony documents at San Ysidro since Bush announced his plan on Jan. 7, 94 said they were trying to enter because of the proposed new work program, according to sources present at a Wednesday meeting of a border-security working group in San Diego.


Bush’s plan, designed to match willing workers with willing employers, would provide temporary legal status to illegal immigrants working in the United States and to others outside the country if they can show they have a job offer.

His proposal has been widely publicized in Mexico. In some quarters, it is being characterized as an amnesty, despite Bush’s contention that it is not.

Ah, the wonders of economics. People certainly do respond to incentives, whether said incentives were intended or not.