Could a Visa Auction Fix Immigration?

The plan would go like this: Companies that want to hire immigrants would bid for a number of visas made available by Congress. They could trade or resell the permits. Immigrants could move between companies as needed.

This plan -- which would be rolled out in phases, starting with a pilot program that would auction off temporary work visas, including those for some agricultural and technical work --could simplify and streamline today's lumbering immigration system, according to Giovanni Peri, a professor at the University of California Davis. His proposal was released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution.

The visa auction would generate revenue for the federal government, which could be used to compensate communities that extend social services to immigrants or on training for American workers, according to the report.

Peri also recommends consolidating visa categories, incentivizing foreign workers to return to their home countries by placing a portion of their earnings in an escrow account which is forfeited if they decide to stay, and encouraging some immigrants, who currently apply for visas through their familial relationships -- like adult children and parents of immigrants -- to apply for visas to work in the U.S.

Those here illegally should be given the opportunity to legalize if they pay fines and meet certain requirements, according to Peri. Once that path is available, enforcement should be "reinvigorated" through the use of the employment-verification system eVerify and sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.

According to Peri, there are a lot of reasons why we need a fix: The current system no longer meets the U.S.'s economic needs, doesn't reunify families (historically a goal of U.S. immigration policy), undermines Americans' confidence in the rule of law, and has resulted in divisive and fragmented policies on the state level.

But not everyone is convinced that a visa auction will make the immigration system more sensitive to the economy's need for labor.

If you have an auction, an immigrant worker isn't necessarily going to end up where there's a worker shortage, said David Leopold, incoming counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Rather, that worker could end up with a company that can afford to win the auction, possibly leaving smaller firms or non-profits out in the cold.

This year, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, recommended that the U.S. implement a market-based temporary-worker program. The foundation opposes amensty on the grounds that it will lead to more illegal immigration.

The foundation prefers strong enforcement of immigration laws, through support for local and state initiatives like Secure Communities and the use of eVerify.

Regardless of whether the Brookings proposal is the cure-all for the country's immigration malaise, it's time to talk about solutions, said Leopold, adding that the proposal is a good place to start.