The significant increase in unaccompanied minors entering our country illegally has brought the discussion of border security back to the forefront. It is true that very little could have been done to prevent the current surge since, as at least one serious study has shown, what leads most of these children to leave their home countries in Central America is the warlike conditions they are facing there on a daily basis. Yet, there is something we could do to address one of our own policies that has for 20 years encouraged many of them to come. They come because of a desire to reunite with parents who left them back home to find a good-paying job in the United States.
Amassing more assets at the border and providing a path to citizenship as President Obama proposes would not do anything to deal with this particular problem because neither solution address immigration's root cause: the demand our country has for foreign workers.
American employers need a steady supply of foreign workers to do jobs Americans don't want or for which there are not enough Americans available. Foreign workers are vital for the continued growth of many so-called low-skilled industries, including hotels, warehousing, agriculture, food services, and construction, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. And demand for foreign workers is so strong that even if we were to bolster security at the border to its maximum capacity, migrant workers would still find a way to get in and find work when they arrive. Such are the forces of the market in a free economy.
Moreover, recruiting and hiring foreign workers helps American businesses grow and creates good-paying jobs for Americans. In fact, adding temporary nonagriculture workers results in additional jobs for American workers, according to a 2011 American Enterprise Institute analysis.
Our immigration system, however, lacks a dynamic guest-worker program to fulfill the country's economic needs. This, in turn, has helped create the circumstances in which illegal immigration has become a major problem. In the 1990s, immigrants came to this country in large numbers because of a desire to work, not because they wanted to stay here permanently, as demonstrated by the fact that fewer than half even applied for citizenship when it was offered in 1986. We believe most ultimately did not return to their families in their home countries due to a fear that they would be unable to reenter and find work. To a lesser degree since the recession, both of these phenomena continue.
This situation leads to the breakup of families and incentivizes children to cross the border to be with their families. A study from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, "Children on the Run," analyzed the recent surge in unaccompanied minors making their way to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America after interviewing 404 of these children. The researchers found that 36 percent wanted to join one or both of their parents living in the U.S.
Our policies also indirectly feed the violence that drives others to cross the border. People trapped in dire economic conditions are more likely to get involved in black-market and illegal activities. That reality has shaped lives all over Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and many other countries. And immigrants seeking jobs and safety are forced to pay for the exploitation of smugglers, known as coyotes, because they have almost no legal option to enter the U.S.
Decent jobs are hard to find in places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where a World Bank study found that anywhere from 17 percent to 30 percent of people live on less than $2 a day. A Pew Research Center survey in December found that by a 20-point margin, even Hispanics already in the U.S. think legal work status is more important than citizenship. In short, these people need work, and the U.S. needs workers.
To fix our immigration system's inability to properly and legally manage the flow of the foreign workers our economy needs, and thereby relieve the pressure on our border, a market-based guest-worker program—such as the proposed Red Card Solution, an idea advanced by Helen Krieble, founder and president of the Vernon Krieble Foundation, and one of this op-ed's coauthors—is sorely needed.
We believe that this type of program would allow for circularity in the flow of workers, giving foreign workers the opportunity to come to the U.S. to work and then return home again to their families. This would dry up demand for undocumented workers, help discourage illegal immigration, and drive coyotes out of business. This will also allow the government to focus its efforts on more important security issues, such as keeping terrorists, drug traffickers, and other dangerous and violent criminals out of the country. And it might foster economic opportunity and hope south of our border, the ultimate defense against violent, illegal industries.
Ironically, considering all their public grandstanding over immigration, President Obama and Democrats in Congress oppose a market-oriented guest-worker program. Pressured by Big Labor leaders who don't want foreign workers in the U.S., Democrats have historically torpedoed any effort to facilitate the legal entry of the workers we need from abroad. The only reason the AFL-CIO signed off on the guest-worker program for unskilled nonagriculture workers contained in the still-pending Senate immigration-reform bill is that it's so small that it's practically irrelevant.
We believe that the market alone can determine with precision how many foreign workers we may need at a specific time. In recent congressional testimony, Tamar Jacoby of Immigration Works estimated that in future years our economy may need from 250,000 to 400,000 unskilled nonagriculture foreign workers each year. Yet the Senate bill's nonagriculture temporary-worker program would provide only 20,000 of the new "W visas" annually for this type of work in its first five years, and no more than 200,000 afterwards.
Rather than debating how many workers an artificial quota should allow, Republicans should reclaim the high ground and create a dynamic, market-based guest-worker program, which, at the end, is a uniquely conservative proposal.
Ronald Reagan realized that at some point we would need to toughen security at the border, but he never would have argued for doing it at the expense of closing the door to foreign workers who want to come here to work hard and help our economy and people thrive. Speaking from the Oval Office, in his farewell to the nation, President Reagan noted: "I've spoken of the shinning city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said this."¦ But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here."
A functional guest-worker program would ensure that, as we secure the border, the doors of America remain open.
Alfonso Aguilar served as the chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration and is the executive director of the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership. Helen Krieble is the president of the Center for Opportunity, Protection, and Fairness.
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