So, how much could—or should—we charge for the right to live and work in the U.S.? [Gary] Becker suggested the U.S. should let in anyone who can pay $50,000 to Uncle Sam and pass a criminal background check. That may seem like a lot of money, but Miao Chi and Scott Drewianka of the University of Wisconsin estimate (PDF) that, allowing for factors including age and education, the average recent Mexican immigrant with a green card (permanent resident status) earns roughly $20,000 a year more than the average Mexican immigrant without one (on a more limited visa or undocumented). So, allowing for education, the average immigrant from south of the border would recoup that $50,000 in less than three years.
If this was about buying citizenship (as Sullivan incorrectly takes it to be), it would be precisely the sort of silly and insane market logic that Michael Sandel rightly brought attention to through his book last year. Subjecting the concept of citizenship to financial forces would utterly corrupt it. That honour is supposed to reflect your being welcomed into a political community as a free person amongst equals, acquiring all the social rights and benefits that come with such a status. To be welcomed in that way has to reflect one’s character and ethos to some degree; not simply the size of your wallet.
With regards to the mere right to residency, though, I’m not so sure. The function of a green card is specifically to work, so subjecting them to market forces isn’t as obviously perverse. If your main reason to be in a country is to make more money, it’s plausible that paying to do so is fair.