Let’s Sell Citizenship

Tom Matlack thinks there is a simple solution to the problem of immigrants who work here illegally: charge them money to become citizens.

There are 11.2 million illegal aliens in the United States. We are broke. How about we offer each of those 11 million people a one-time shot at becoming tax-paying American citizens by reporting themselves to authorities and agreeing to pay $10,000 a head over the course of 24 months? The resulting $112 billion will hardly cover the budget deficit—or the ongoing cost of our adventure in the Middle East—but it will solve a vexing social problem.

Then, we can actually enforce the immigration laws on the books with rigor rather than looking the other way or, worse, instituting unfair Arizona-style statutes. Going forward, we can continue to tighten our borders. With the backlog now dealt with, we can also create a workable process by which those who want to come to our country can seek citizenship in an organized way—for a price—that will continue our tradition of being a nation of immigrants.


There is this idea that illegal immigrants are the problem with our economy because they are poor and lazy. This was contradicted for me when I met a retired investment banker, Bob Hildreth. Bob has made it his cause in life to develop saving circles for poor, often illegal, immigrant parents to save for their children’s college education.

A couple of years ago, the Department of Homeland Security raided the Bianca factory mill in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and imprisoned 400 illegal workers. Half, all Mayan-speaking Guatemalans, were taken to a Texas prison. When Hildreth heard what was going on, he got in touch with the pro bono attorneys representing the arrested immigrants and went to a community meeting with the families. In the back of the room, he muttered to one of the attorneys that if one of the immigrants needed bond but didn’t quite have it, he might be willing to pay half. “I thought maybe one, two, three people would take it, because bonds were $5,000 each,” Hildreth recalls. “Forty families took me up on it. And all of a sudden I had to fork over $120,000.

Hildreth got a lot of attention as a result, including a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal, in which Hildreth was quoted as saying, “The raid … was extremely un-American.” Glenn Beck, the national radio and television host, devoted an entire program to Hildreth. “I can think of plenty of crazy ways to waste a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Beck opined. “But if busting illegals and their employers is un-American, I would hate to see what this guy thinks is American.”

Hildreth stood by his belief that defending the rights of the Guatemalan immigrants was no different from defending those of his own Irish ancestors. Hildreth’s mother was a history teacher, so the importance of immigrants to America was taught to him early. “Pick up any American history book, and you would think that American immigrants were angels coming in,” he says. “All the inventors who were from Germany, Austria, and Russia.”

But, he points out, among the very first laws passed by the first U.S. Congress were the Alien and Sedition Acts, intended to keep out the French. “At that time, we thought they were dangerous, just like people who think immigrants now might be terrorists,” Hildreth says. “Nativism has been consistently dark in our history.”

Hildreth’s finance initiative worked. He got the illegals out of jail. What’s more, the families all paid him back. Hildreth gave the money to Legal Aid, but the experience gave him the idea for saving circles.

Immigrants earn more money than most people think; they have less to spend because they send a lot of it home to support their families. The Guatemalans in New Bedford didn’t even speak Spanish; they were Mayans, the poorest of the poor. But even they paid Hildreth back $5,000 each to get out of jail. What if, as U.S. citizens, they could stay out of jail for good for twice that amount?


I’ll say it another way: When immigrants come to this county, they are highly motivated to do anything they possibly can to succeed—no matter what. Whether Hispanic or Asian or Caribbean, their work ethic is not in question. As Bob Hildreth has found out, that means they do have more money than most people think. They just have no legal status in our country.

The argument that the 11.2 million illegals take jobs away from 13.9 million U.S. citizens who are currently unemployed is built on fear and an inaccurate assessment of real jobs, skills, and demographics. Paying an illegal under the table might be cheaper for an employer because of the lack of payroll tax and benefits, but selling citizenships can solve that. But the reality is, the vast majority of America’s unemployed are seeking jobs—in manufacturing, construction, and skilled positions—that few illegals would attempt to fill. The illegals I know are busting their asses as nannies or janitors or manual laborers.

The well-publicized skills gap in our country has absolutely nothing to do with immigration policy. Americans want good-paying jobs. Those jobs are readily available, but in the new economy they require moving fields—to health care and education services, for instance—and getting further education. You may not be able to work in a factory anymore, but you can get a job as a lab technician making about the same amount of money at pretty much any hospital in the country because there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates. But you have to get trained to do it. There is no illegal standing in the way of that shift. It’s us. The illegals are just a convenient scapegoat.

None of this is meant to minimize the depth of our recession or the grave inequity of wealth in our country (see “I Hate Rich People”). But there is a gender issue here. All this End of Men nonsense is based on the data that shows that men are not getting educated, are unwilling to move into female-dominated fields, and are the ones hardest hit by unemployment. One response to all that, by men who are justifiably pissed off, is to want to kick out the illegals.

I just think that is missing the point. Let’s let them in. Make them pay. Collect taxes going forward. And get down to rebuilding our workforce and our economy.

photo by spaceshoe / flickr


About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. Monica Hayden says:

    Hi Tom – I’m an avid follower of GMP, but have been reading a few of your immigration pieces lately and I was surprised to see your use of the word “illegals” to refer to undocumented immigrants. And yes I know people will come back to say “but they came here ILLEGALLY,” but that terminology fosters racism and prejudice, and I invite you to drop the I-word: http://colorlines.com/droptheiword/. People should not be identified solely by their immigration status, they are people first. Thanks for your consideration.

  2. Peter Houlihan says:

    I know we do this already in Ireland, is it the same in the US?

    Its not purely a monetary hurdle, but one of the requirements for becoming Irish, rather than being born to it. Is to cough up dough. I have no problem with that, it shows genuine commitment to the social contract and a (minimum) four year investment in the republic.

  3. RIchard Aubrey says:

    I understand a number of hospitals in southern CA are closing because unreimbursed care of illegals is breaking them. It’s the emergency room as primary care physician which is the problem.

    • Jessica Newsome says:

      That isn’t an immigration issue; that’s a healthcare/poverty issue. Hospitals around the country have to treat anyone who comes to the emergency room, and in places where there are fewer undocumented immigrants, there are still poor, homeless, and/or uninsured people who have nowhere else to turn, and so use up resources that are supposed to be for emergencies. Letting immigrants pay to come into the United States would clear up the administrative issue that is immigration status, but it would not remedy the number of people in the US who use ERs as primary care.

  4. An interesting idea for the immigration problem. However in my opinion there are certain things that should not be sold in the marketplace. A price tag should not be placed on a human life, on military service, on jury duty, etc. To do so corrupts the things that we see as valuable. Citizenship falls into the same category.

    Though in one sense new members are already going to be charged for their citizenship through taxation and other obligations. If a foreign born person holds the same ideals as us and desires to live a country that honors those ideas why should we charge them for the misfortune of being born in another country? To me it seems unjust to charge someone based on a factor they have no control over.

  5. MichelleG says:

    “I’ll say it another way: When immigrants come to this county, they are highly motivated to do anything they possibly can to succeed—no matter what. Whether Hispanic or Asian or Caribbean, their work ethic is not in question.”

    Tom, you left out Europeans. Immigrants can be of any race, I’m sure you know that. People are always targeting and crucifying visible minorities because they are obvious by the colour of their skin – this is racist. People forget there are a lot of European immigrants as well, especially up here in Canada.

    I hate to add to the finger pointing – but the reality is that If anyone is taking your jobs, it’s the European immigrants (and I know of some illegal ones – they try to get married, have kids and try to gain status that way). They blend in with Caucasians, most speak English, usually have higher education than visible minorities; European religion and culture are most like Westerners – employers give European immigrants preferential treatment when they’re hiring. Visible minorities, legal or not, don’t stand a chance against this bias. European immigrants are hired for the better jobs, while visible minority immigrants get the scraps – this goes for legal and illegal. Everything still boils down to race. Race determines status.

    • Jessica Newsome says:

      Do you have any references for the racial preferences regarding immigrants? I don’t doubt you; I’m just working on some research projects and hoping you could provide some leads.

      • MichelleG says:

        My references are from personal life experiences and observations, and from friends and families. I’m sure if you search the web, you’ll find something regarding racial preferences regarding immigrants – if they dare publish them. If not, then this would be a great research study; although the preferences are so obvious and self-explanatory.

        I wouldn’t count on the hiring managers to divulge the truth. Instead, personally visit some firms and do a head count of whites vs. colour; you’ll get a better picture. The visible minority immigrants probably couldn’t help you either, most of them don’t speak English…unless you speak to their children. (My parents try their best to understand, but inevitably hang up the phone when it’s an English speaking person on the other end).

        The last company I worked for is a good example of racial preferences. It employed 180 employees and I was one of two visible minorities hired, the rest were white-skinned. The other person was black – I don’t know if he was a permanent employee or not…but I felt he and I looked out of place. The company’s President moonlighted as a Christian church Pastor and had been at the company since it’s inception – 25 years long. He ran the company like a cult, only certain people could gain membership into it (he probably hired most of his staff from his congregation) – if you’re white of Christian or Catholic faith. At an Easter potluck, he lead the staff in a “give thanks the lord prayer” in which we all had to bow our heads down. Because of their Christian faith, I was told Christmas cards had to be printed “Merry Christmas” and that happy holidays was not acceptable (I don’t give a shit either way; I’m non-religious, non-racist). Lunchtimes were weird. Everyone was expected to eat at 12:30pm like some family dinner gathering – the managers sat at one table, the regular staff at another; there was no mixing – somehow this was automatically understood. I was made to feel like an outcast because more often than not, I went out for lunch – for fresh air and exercise, while others stayed in. I hated the idea of sitting from the office desk, to the lunch desk, back to the office desk. Lunch was only half an hour (managers get one hour) – so I cherished it when I went outdoors. This company is an oil company in Ontario, and starts with the letter “U” – you can go there and do a head count of whites, actually faster if you do the reverse – count the visible minority — there’s one.

        One other company I worked at…was a non-profit company with a couple handful of staff. We had a new President on the board of directors the year i was hired (not by him) – surprise, he’s white. During my first year, he decided the company needed “restructuring” of staff because the company was relocating to a better, larger building. Okay, that makes a hell of a lot of sense. The restructuring was actually his cover up term for firing visible minorities from the company – there were just 3 working there – all got fired, including myself. The company then hired new people for the same positions but gave them different position titles with same responsibilities. These new employees who came on board of course were all white-skinned.

    • Tom Matlack says:

      Actually Michelle the idea that the United States is run by European immigrants (who killed the Native Americans and then kicked them out of the way) who are imposing these laws against newer immigrants, whether dark skinned or European, goes directly to the hypocrisy. We are all immigrants so why the line in the sand saying that we are okay and the folks coming to our country now to live out the American Dream are evil?

      • Precisely. All whites have European roots.

        I don’t know how to explain this hypocrisy, other than some/most whites have superiority complexes.

      • Douglas Presler says:

        One need not be evil, or think others are evil to doubt that the United States can afford free-market extremism and unlimited immigration simultaneously. In such circumstances, immigration can become a form of internal outsourcing.

        • MichelleG says:

          There isn’t an illegal immigration problem in Canada not anywhere near as the States, but the hypocrisy exists here as well; so the free-market extremism and unlimited immigration angles don’t cut it at all.

          One of the most ignorant things I often hear on blogs and posts whenever the topic of immigrants/immigration comes up, is the Whites telling people of colour to “ship them back where they came from” along those lines. The irony as Tom’s mentioned is that all the whites have come from a lineage of European immigrants – who killed off the native indians….same history here in Canada. What is sad is that once European immigrants, through a generation or so, have lived here awhile, some gain racist attitudes – as though that is their right as a “white” person now and they must carry on this “tradition”; they forget their roots.

          There is a lack of love and tolerance for newcomers who look different, sound different, dress different, (maybe smell different), cultural differences…

          More love for people who look like ourselves, speak English and so on. If you’re white, most will welcome European immigrants more readily than visible minorities. (So is this natural science, and is this something we can be aware of and adjust to be fairer to others?)

          • Douglas Presler says:

            You’re welcome to take undocumented newcomers into your home and heart, just as you’re welcome to conclude that past perfidies add up to unlimited immigration as the solution and reparation. Let us know how that goes.

  6. Jessica Newsome says:


    I think this is an excellent and balanced article, which I appreciate greatly, but I’m unsure who the reader is supposed to be. Undocumented immigrants or US policy makers? The overwhelming majority would jump at the chance to pay for their citizenship. Legal immigration to the United States is a mind-blowingly bureaucratic and asinine process; the people who need to be convinced it should be changed aren’t undocumented immigrants, but the ones who make the rules.

    • Tom Matlack says:

      Jessica I realize that the immigrants would jump at the chance. This argument is targeted at the rest of us in an attempt to think about a better way to deal with the problem than trying to put people in jail or send them back.

    • Douglas Presler says:

      It’s asinine only because people like Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington were able to settle here. Even so, the system allows a Christopher Hitchens and an Alexander Cockburn to gain entry.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    We can’t keep them out. We can’t pick them up and send them back. How on earth are you going to collect from somebody who wants to stay here and not pay? Whose point in being here is to send money home, not assimilate or become citizens.
    I’ve got it! Let’s hammer the hell out of employers, large and small, who hire illegals. Let’s have immigration sweeps in Little Managua or wherever. Let’s have every person arrested run through the data bases to find if he’s illegal.
    No recourse, no how.
    That way, they’ll see they have to pay or get sent home.
    Practical, much?
    And, of course, it’s the bitter clingers who are annoyed. Predictable.

  8. There is no arguing that our country needs immigration reform. But I have a friend from India and while I discussed with him what it takes for him to pay for his Visa and what it will ultimately take for him to become a citizen, I was in awe! It cost +$3000 for his 3 yr Visa and it will cost +$10,000 for the immigration process to become a citizen. I have doubt that most illegals will want to do this. In my county, there is a large illegal immigration problem. Last year one of our mayors hit the national spotlight by trying to pass a law in his city that would punish landlords for renting to illegals and employers from hiring them illegally. He met a great deal of condemnation for simply trying to re-enforce what our Federal Government says is illegal, but does not strictly enforce. I fall in the middle on this debate because I believe that many of the jobs they take really are the jobs that most US Americans really dont want. But the problem comes down to the fact that they still receive the same public services and benefits (in many cases) as any of us who HAVE to pay into the government system that provides those services. Their untaxed money goes a longer way than mine because +35% of my money goes towards taxes. I think there is a great deal of misconception over people being anti-immigration vs. people being anti-tax-evasive. I still believe there should be an additional punishment for those that have broken the laws by coming here illegally, but they should not be jailed, instead they should be fined. Non-violent crimes really don’t get punished properly by taking away freedom through imprisonment. A better punishment would be public restitution through fines.

    • Gordon, can you elaborate which public services and benefits you believe the illegal immigrants are accessing? I’m just trying to follow your logic and I’m a bit lost here. Have you actually met illegal immigrants in real life to make that assessment as FACT?

      My parents and relatives came to Canada legally and became Canadian citizens. Plus a lot of other LEGAL immigrants I know, DO NOT use public services and benefits to the extent that you’re imagining even for illegal immigrants:

      Number one reason why? Lack of knowledge of these services/benefits
      Number 2 reason: language barrier problem (HUGE PROBLEM)
      And for illegal immigrants – Number 3 reason: afraid of being found out.

      Here are some facts about my own family and relatives, and other legal immigrants I know of:

      – My grandmother died within 2-3 weeks of arriving to Canada (we were the “boat people”). We didn’t know how to get her medical help. We knew shit about public services and benefits.

      – Within TWO years of immigrating to Canada my family saved enough to buy a 3-storey HOUSE in 1982 for $48,000. Shortly after my parents bought a BRAND NEW CAR – Buick.

      – First paid job my parents had were picking WORMS. 4 litre can of worms, got them $10 bucks. Best results were nights when it was raining, or after a rain shower and the ground is nice and wet for – those squirmy critters love this soaky conditions. They were out with flashlights, in fields somewhere in the city. My mother sewed baseballs at home. She used needle and strung each hole on those leather pieces and pulled them tight around the ball form. She probably got a dollar for each ball…sewing those balls could give anyone arthritis.

      – My father has never been on employment insurance in his life (he’s retired now). He worked at one company for 25 years being paid peanuts (drug benefits only last two years or so) in manual labour; his boss was an immigrant who started his own factory. My mother, I don’t recall her ever being on EI either during her working life. They knew shit about Canada, labour laws, public services and benefits – let alone EI. Children were too young to help them out. They busted their ass off working to put food on the table – because where they’re from – EI is non-existent, nor public healthcare!

      – My parents have never been to the library or other community centres. My father has never taken public transit, he rode a bike in place of that; my mother took the bus maybe 3 times in her lifetime.

      – My parents have never been to city parades or city events. My relatives haven’t either. It’s just not their cup of tea.

      – The above examples are typical of most immigrants whether legal or illegal. People need to look in the mirror when they judge and make inane comments or accusations about the lives of immigrants whom most have little to no connections or experience with. Get off your high-horses!

    • Jessica Newsome says:

      I’m sorry if this comes off as harsh, but you very clearly have no idea what you are talking about.
      1) illegal immigrants do pay taxes. They pay sales tax, at the very least, on every item they buy in the United States, the same as you do. They often pay other taxes such as property taxes, etc. or if they have a fake SSN while they are working, they also pay full FICA and state taxes.
      2) illegal immigrants do not get public benefits. If you do not have a social security number, you do not qualify for food stamps, medical benefits (except emergency care, but that’s another can of worms), tax returns, or many many other benefits. Public benefit eligibility is my living; please don’t talk about things you’ve not actually researched.
      3) illegal immigrants who work in the United States do not take jobs from US citizens. Google the department of agriculture, look at the requirements for what employers must do before they can hire even documented migrant workers. Also, since you seem to lack the basic googling skills it would take to verify any of your claims in the above comment, I have googled this link for you. Do you know any American citizens who would like to take these jobs back? They can sign up here. http://www.takeourjobs.org/

      At the very least we agree that immigration is an expensive process and that those who have not committed violent crimes should not be prosecuted. As sad as your ignorance on the above issues makes me, I do appreciate that you have at least recognized the importance of the latter issue.

      • Douglas Presler says:

        If, in the course of your duty, you’ve accepted Puerto Rican documents, it’s possible the presenter was an illegal alien. The market in birth certificates from the commonwealth was so large and pervasive that birth certificates issued before summer of 2010 are now invalid.

        This black market might explain the fifty or so letters I received from employers in the fall of 2008, when I worked for the hotel employees union in Minneapolis, where I live. In less than three months, my desk alone received dozens of letters informing me that there was no social security number match for a new hire. Without exception, the employees involved were Latin American. My fellow agents received such letters as well; they were routine.

        It often surprises people folks to discover how many American citizens want jobs like restaurant cook, hotel bellhop and chamber maid. Even our non-union competitors, who pay execrable wages and offer working conditions worthy of a Roman latifundium, get applications from people born and raised in Minnesota.

        Perhaps some research on your part would be salubrious.

        • MichelleG says:

          “It often surprises people folks to discover how many American citizens want jobs like restaurant cook, hotel bellhop and chamber maid”.

          Those jobs actually make very good money. I’m surprised that you think those are low end and why are you surprised that economically challenged Americans want those jobs? Hotel work is much cleaner, more respectable and better pay than fast-food, fruit picking; while restaurant cook is far better than dishwashing job – most cooks receive tips (get a percentage in tips split with waitresses/bartenders) and free food or 50% off. Did you hire for dishwashers? Did these jobs go to the illegal Mexicans or legal immigrants, or did they get squeeze out because of high-competition?

          There seems to be a hierarchy of who gets what.

          • Douglas Presler says:

            Enjoying your coma? The non-union sector of the hospitality industry (by far the lion’s share) is rife with pay that barely meets 150% of minimum wage. Many states have ‘tip credit’ laws; tipped workers can have their wages lowered by the employer until they are at par with minimum wage. The last gubernatorial election here in Minnesota saw the GOP propose exactly that. Cooks in non-union latifundia—I can scarcely call them restaurants–do shake down wait staff for tips. We call that extortion here in Saneville.
            Now that you mention dishwahsers, I’ll let you know that most of our stewarding staff, at the unionized hotel that employs me, is not Hispanic. The Hispanics didn’t get squeezed out; others elected to compete for these jobs because of the union difference: humane pay, humane conditions, humane conditions, respect. Apply that difference to fast food and fruit picking and a different workforce composition will emerge in time.

        • Jessica Newsome says:

          As to whether or not I’m doing my research, your one anecdotal example of where you work isn’t exactly research, but since you’ve gone there…

          Considering that I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for the past 7 years and I’m an American citizen, it doesn’t surprise me at all that American citizens want jobs as cooks, bellhops, and chambermaids. As far as blue collar/working-class jobs go, those are the cream of the crop.

          I’m not sure you understand poverty or the culture of the working poor, for all your seeming experience in it. Be aware that upper management and those who are in charge of the working poor, such as union leaders, are often middle-class and so have an entirely different culture and different understanding about what jobs are “bad” jobs. Just because *you* wouldn’t work the jobs for crap wages and no benefits doesn’t mean other people won’t, or that other people won’t consider them “good” jobs. Trust me. Compared to many, many other jobs for blue-collar workers, hospitality is top pickings.

          I was referring to migrant farm workers when discussing what jobs undocumented immigrants often take that US citizens won’t work. If you’re attempting to go back to the original argument I took issue with, that undocumented immigrants take jobs from US citizens, saying that US citizens are applying for those jobs / working those jobs doesn’t aid your argument; it aids mine. We fill jobs we don’t want with immigrants. Again, see the Department of Agriculture.

          • Douglas Presler says:

            All your diatribe has demonstrated is that some are grateful to take low-paying jobs. I don’t differ, indeed, I aver that plenty of American-born want just those jobs. This apart from the idea that to classify these jobs as ‘good’ might simply involve lowering the bar to about a nanometer from the ground. All I’ve pointed out is that many jobs are more wanted than advocates for illegal aliens are willing to admit. I’m glad we fill truly unwanted jobs with immigrants. What is wrong with wanting them to be documented?

            I understand much more than you ever could what it’s like to have a job, as distinct from a career. So do many of these union leaders you patronize, who don’t ‘manage’ the working poor, but help them in ways that you and the rest of the identity politics crowd wouldn’t, even if you could. When was the last time you handed people a bag of groceries? Or kept an employer from firing someone for spurious reasons?

            • Jessica Newsome says:

              I certainly don’t appreciate you attacking me personally or assuming you understand what makes up my daily life from a few internet comments. I’m actually a social worker who works at a workforce training center, so a good portion of my job is assisting the working class exactly as you’ve described, as well as being a part of the working class since birth (hence how long I spent in hospitality, as well as why I’m interested in accurately representing the working class. I’m honestly not sure what you mean by “identity politics;” the only reason I can think for you talking about what I believe as “identity politics” would be because the working class is my identity and the identity of the people I serve at my agency. Is that what you meant?

              There’s nothing wrong with wanting immigrants to be documented. *I* want immigrants to be documented, too. The difference is that I know there’s not a whole lot they can do about it. There *is* something wrong with pretending that being documented and staying documented is an achievable goal for most immigrants, because it’s not. The administrative and bureaucratic process that is legal immigration has backlogs from the early 90s currently being processed. Hence Tom’s suggestions for making it an achievable goal.

              • Douglas Presler says:

                “I certainly don’t appreciate you…assuming you understand what makes up my daily life from a few internet comments.”

                But, evidently, I should appreciate being told I ‘don’t understand…the culture of the working poor’ and that my being less than affluent is somehow ersatz. Marvelous.

                • Jessica Newsome says:

                  I could have been more forgiving in my own assumptions, yes. I also responded to your arguments and thoughts as carefully as I could even though I haven’t appreciated your tone–something I’ve yet to see from you. Also, I’m not sure where you got the impression that I was attempting to denigrate you for being less than affluent, but, I apologize if that was the end result.

Speak Your Mind