Six proposals for pro-growth immigration reform

  • Two experts at the George W. Bush Institute have set forth a series of proposals focused on the economic benefits of immigration.
  • Suggest reforms include expanding high-skilled visas, streamlining temporary visa programs, creating a pathway to citizenship, and enhancing the enforcement of immigration laws.
  • “The objective of immigration policy should be to affirm America as the land of opportunity,” the authors conclude.

At a moment when the immigration debate has driven a wedge between political parties and become the sticking point for the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history, the George W. Bush Institute (GWBI) has set forth a series of proposals focused on the economic benefits of immigration.

The piece, written by GWBI immigration experts Laura Collins and Matthew Denhart, outlines six policy changes that they believe Congress should implement to make the U.S. immigration system more pro-growth and better position America to compete in the global economy:

Shift U.S. immigration policy from family reunification to employment-based migration

The majority of the 1.1 million green cards issued by the United States each year are allocated for family-based preference categories, while only 10 percent of them go to employment-based migrants.

This stands in sharp contrast to the policies of other industrialized countries. Germany and Switzerland, for instance, admit around 80 percent of permanent immigrants on employment-based green cards. Similarly, Spain, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Italy all admit the majority of permanent immigrants on an employment basis.

By reorienting its green-card policies toward talent and employment, Collins and Denhart argue the U.S. can remain more competitive in an increasingly globalized world.

“The shift from family reunification to employment-based migration must maintain or expand future flows of legal immigrants to the U.S. Any legislation that purports to promote merit-based immigration, but eliminates family-based green card categories and reduces overall immigration levels, is not pro-growth immigration policy,” they conclude.

“Such proposals are counterproductive and fail to recognize immigrants as an asset.”

Expand the H-1B high-skilled visa program

The H-1B visa program helps to fill labor shortages in the U.S. by allowing companies to employ highly-skilled immigrants on a short-term basis. The problem, Collins and Denhart argue, is that it is capped at 65,000 each year (plus 20,000 for immigrants with advanced degrees from U.S. universities), which is not enough to meet the needs of a vibrant, thriving economy.

The U.S. has a robust demand for high-skilled labor. Every year the H-1B application cap is hit within a week of the filing period. As a result, many high-skilled immigrants who would prefer to come to the U.S. take their talents elsewhere.

“The temporary nature of the H-1B program is also problematic,” Collins and Denhart add. “Visa holders are eligible to stay and work in the U.S. for a maximum of six years. While they can apply for employment-based green cards, the process is uncertain and wait times can stretch for years. This leads many high-skilled immigrants to take their talents elsewhere. Canada is one such beneficiary.”

Their recommendation? Increase or eliminate the H-1B visa cap and streamline the process for workers to transition to a green card.

Eliminate per-country percentage caps

Another unnecessary limitation on immigration is America’s quota on the percentage of green cards allowed per country, Collins and Denhart write. This system caps the number of green cards that can be given to migrants from any individual country at 7 percent of the total. Countries like China and India, with populations greater than 1 billion, thus face the same cap on green cards as small countries like Lithuania and Albania.

The result is that certain countries face grossly disproportionate wait times. One study, for instance, found that an applicant from India applying for a high-skilled, employment-based green card would have to wait 150 years to be processed. Wait times are also excessively long for would-be migrants from Mexico, especially given the nation’s proximity to the U.S.

“Green cards should be allocated to individuals with the most potential to benefit the United States,” Collins and Denhart write. “Eliminating the 7 percent quota would more closely align the supply of green cards to demand and make it easier for skilled immigrants to come to America and grow our economy.”

Overhaul the existing H-2A and H-2B temporary visa worker programs

Industries like agriculture, construction, landscaping, and hospitality depend on workers hired through the H-2A (agricultural work) and H-2B (nonagricultural jobs) visas. These allow employers to hire low-skilled migrant workers on a temporary basis.

The problem, according to Collins and Denhart, is that these programs are “overly complicated, costly, and not user-friendly.” Even though the H-2A has no annual cap, the cumbersome, bureaucratic nature of the program makes it underutilized and ineffective. The H-2B program caps at 66,000 visas, but although the government has allowed one-off increases to this cap in recent years, the increases often come too late for employers seeking to fill peak labor needs.

According to Collins and Denhart, a better system for businesses would tie a higher cap to labor market demand and make these low-skilled viases portable between jobs. With employers currently controlling these visas, immigrant workers are more subject to abuse from employers. They also make the economy less efficient since workers cannot quickly move to jobs where their labor is needed.

Create a pathway to earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants

With an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., mass deportations are simply not feasible given the extensive process of identifying, apprehending, detaining, adjudicating, and transporting unauthorized migrants. Doing so would take two decades and cost somewhere between $100 billion and $300 billion, according to estimates.

Worse, Collins and Denhart point out that such a draconian measure would seriously hamper the economy, causing the labor force to shrink by 4.5 percent and reduce GDP by up to $4.5 trillion over the next decade. Instead, they say a pathway to citizenship is the most reasonable way to support America’s economic growth.

“Citizenship should not be handed out, but earned through a process that screens out bad actors,” they write. “Unauthorized immigrants should be required to come forward, admit they broke the law, pay fines and back taxes, and pass a criminal background check. Only then should they be eligible to pursue the naturalization process.”

Enhance the enforcement of immigration laws

Lastly, Collins and Denhart argue for a robust enforcement of America’s immigration laws both at and within our borders in order to maintain a “functioning, economically vibrant immigration system.”

“Enforcement upholds the integrity of the rule of law and reduces future flows of illegal immigration, especially if a path to citizenship is offered to the undocumented,” they wrote. Better enforcement, however, would come with simplifying the immigration system and creating more legal channels for immigrants to come to the U.S. An improved and expanded temporary guest worker program, for instance, would free Border Patrol to focus on finding and stopping bad actors instead of migrants coming for open jobs.

Better enforcement is also critical inside the country because an estimated 40 percent of unauthorized migrants crossed the border into the U.S. legally and simply overstayed their visas. By partnering with state and local governments and implementing new technologies such as biometric electronic identification and tamper-proof fingerprint identification cards, the federal government could create a better system of tracking and identifying temporary migrants. Furthermore, implementing a mandatory employment verification system would incentivize employers to not break the law by hiring unauthorized immigrants.

“More than ever America needs the brightest, most talented, and hardest-working people the world has to offer,” Collins and Denhart conclude. “The objective of immigration policy should be to affirm America as the land of opportunity — where people of any background can work hard, develop ideas, and benefit from the fruits of their labor.”

Read more about their immigration proposals here.

Image Credit: Photo by Elias Castillo on Unsplash.

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