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.
More

Like the supine parrot of Monty Python fame, the Senate's immigration reform bill might be dead, or it might be resting. Has it joined the choir invisible, or is it pinin' for the fjords?

Anyway, it has troubles. One is that the 12 million or so illegal immigrants already in the United States pose a problem with no easy solutions, only difficult trade-offs. Liberals are right to say that bringing unauthorized aliens into the open would make them less vulnerable to exploitation and easier for law enforcement to track, but conservatives are also right to say that mass normalization might stimulate more unauthorized immigration and erode respect for the law. Where illegal migration is concerned, the country will have to make a political choice. Mine, for what it's worth, would be to legalize some but not all.

Another problem, though, was that the Senate bill was worse than it needed to be. On the legal side of the immigration equation, there are easy trade-ups to be had. In fact, even a National Journal columnist with no apparent qualifications could write a better bill.

And what might that look like? Glad you asked.

  • First, raise the number of legal immigrants by about 50 percent, to about 1.8 million a year. That meets the economy's demonstrated demand for workers.
  • Second, provide pathways to permanence. Bring in these 1.8 million people on temporary visas, say for three to five years, with the promise of permanent legal residency (a green card) if they stay out of trouble, pose no security risk, and work or get a college degree.
  • Third, don't micromanage who gets in. Allocate visas using a simple three-way formula that gives about equal weight to family, work, and education: 600,000 family visas for close relatives of citizens and green-card holders; 600,000 work visas for people who are sponsored by an employer and have less than a bachelor's degree; 600,000 education visas for people who hold a bachelor's degree or higher, with first call going to those who also have employer sponsorships or family ties.
  • There is no chance, at the moment, that this plan will be adopted. But there is some chance that making the case for it might help clarify what the country should be shopping for in an immigration reform measure.

    The most basic decision any immigration bill needs to make is this: How many immigrants does the country need and want? Bizarrely, this was the one question that the debate over the Senate bill did not seem to concern itself with. Even finding estimates for total immigration under the Senate reform proved dauntingly difficult until the Congressional Budget Office published some projections last week.

    What CBO concluded was that the bill would increase immigration by about 170,000 a year through 2017. That modest increase would be temporary, however. Once the system had processed a backlog of visas, the law would admit no more bodies than come in at present.

    According to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, an average of 1.8 million new permanent immigrants came into the United States annually from 2002 to 2006. Of those, about half a million were illegal. Unemployment has been low through most of that period, and high-immigration states have thrived. What the numbers suggest, therefore, is that the economy needs at least half a million more workers than legal channels currently provide. Think of 1.8 million as the revealed demand for immigration. The Senate bill would not meet that demand—at least not legally.

    What the bill would do is exchange less-skilled for more-skilled immigrants. Fair enough; improving the balance makes sense. Today's immigration stream is tilted lopsidedly toward less-skilled workers. Most legal immigrants come in because they are relatives of people who are here; these family-based immigrants have less education, on average, than native-born Americans, and they may or may not work after they arrive. Illegal immigrants generally do work, but they are predominantly low-skilled.

    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.

    Jump to comments
    Presented by

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

    Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

    Why Do Men Assume They're So Great?

    Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of this month's Atlantic cover story, sit down with Hanna Rosin to discuss the power of confidence and how self doubt holds women back. 


    Elsewhere on the web

    Join the Discussion

    After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

    Video

    Where Time Comes From

    The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

    Video

    Computer Vision Syndrome and You

    Save your eyes. Take breaks.

    Video

    What Happens in 60 Seconds

    Quantifying human activity around the world

    Writers

    Up
    Down

    More in Politics

    More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

    Just In