Social Studies June 2007

A Simpler, Better Immigration Plan

Writing a perfect immigration bill is impossible, but writing a better one than the Senate's is a piece of cake.
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In a tight immigration market, discriminating against the skilled seems perverse. Recognizing as much, the Senate bill would have reduced the flow of illegals (through tighter enforcement) while admitting fewer family-based immigrants. The family slots would be replaced with a point system based on merit. But the bill overshot.

As amended, it would have slowed legal low-skilled immigration to a trickle.

Well, why not? On the surface, sharply curtailing less-skilled immigration to make room for software engineers and medical technicians has some appeal. Why not just favor the elite over the rabble and be done with it? In fact, however, shorting the market of less-skilled workers is a bad idea, for three reasons. First, the demand for low-skilled workers greatly exceeds the native-born supply at anything like current wages. That is what the illegal influx of half a million a year tells us.

Second, America has always been about extending its promise to the poor and striving as well as to the talented and fortunate—that is, to people like my grandmother, who arrived in 1910 with no skills and wound up as a single mother on welfare. She seems the very model of an undesirable immigrant, except for a couple of things: America saved her and her descendants from the Holocaust, and those descendants include three lawyers, two business executives, two Ph.D.s, a Web programmer, a computer-network engineer, a transportation planner, and one grateful journalist.

The third reason to bring in unskilled labor legally is that the alternative is to bring it in illegally, as the last few years have amply shown. True, legals do not displace illegals one-for-one; as long as 25-year-old Mexicans can almost quadruple their wages by crossing the border, some will defy the law to come. Still, providing an adequate supply of visas for low-skilled workers would considerably relieve pressure on the borders.

Experience bears this out: Illegal border crossings nearly ended in the 1950s, after Congress expanded the bracero guest-worker program to admit as many as 450,000 migrant farm laborers from Mexico, and then increased by a factor of 10 after that program was shut down in the 1960s.

What reform needs to do, then, is admit more skilled immigrants without choking off the supply of less-skilled ones. That means, of course, admitting more immigrants. In other words, raise the ceiling.

And raise it for good. The Senate's bill included a temporary-worker program under which low-skilled workers could come in for two years, leave for one year, come in for two more years, leave again for one year, come in for two more years, and then leave forever. This was just silly. People who come here to work or learn tend to put down roots; allowing them to do so gives them incentives to follow the law and connect with communities.

Even in principle, there is no "right" number of immigrants, but the kind of plan I describe here has the advantage of squaring with marketplace realities. According to CBO, in 2006 almost 600,000 immediate relatives of citizens got green cards; under the Rauch plan, that would not change. In 2006, an additional 222,000 more-distant relatives came in under family-sponsored visas, and about 160,000 workers came in with employer sponsorship; those almost 400,000 extended-family and work slots would become more than a million work and education slots. That would make room for more legal workers at both ends of the skill spectrum; it would leave room for some extended-family members to come in with either jobs or college degrees; and it would sop up much of what is now illegal immigration.

Not least, tying visas to jobs and diplomas would let employers and universities choose American immigrants. Their choices, however imperfect, will surely be better than the ones made by the Senate's cumbersome, arbitrary, and finicky point system, which amounted to an industrialpolicy for labor. (Why eight points for completing a Labor Department-registered apprenticeship program, but only 10 points for five years of actual work experience? Why a maximum of 47 points for employment versus 28 for education?) Think, too, how many more young men and women in the developing world might go to college in hopes of qualifying for a permanent U.S. visa.

What, you're not sold on my reform? You can think of 887 objections? I can answer them all, but, sorry, I seem to be out of space. Suffice it to say that writing a perfect immigration bill is impossible, but writing a better one than the Senate's is a piece of cake. Whatever the numbers or fine print, the principles are these: adequate numbers, pathways to permanence, and rough cuts instead of micromanagement. That bird will fly.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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