The Split Politics of Immigration Reform—And What To Do About It

A solution to help our economy grow, and at the same time, help the 12 million undocumented workers here in the U.S. today.

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In this photo from Tuesday, May 10, 2011, farm workers weed strawberry rows on a field outside Salinas, Calif. The strawberry field fumigant methyl iodide is being pulled from the U.S. market by its Tokyo manufacturer. Arysta LifeScience Inc. confirmed in a news release late Tuesday, March 20, 2012 that it was immediately suspending the sale of all formulations of the fumigant Midas, saying the decision is based on its economic viability in the United States.

David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.

Immigration is caught up in congressional gridlock—but it's a gridlock of a unique kind. Unlike so many important issues, the real fight on immigration is not between Republicans and Democrats—it's within each political party. Only when we understand this conflict can we identify a solution.

Within the Republican Party, the Tea Party base of mostly working class and middle class whites opposes immigration out of fear of competition for jobs driving down wages. And—let's be honest—in some cases racism plays a role. But other parts of the Republican Party strongly support a relaxed immigration policy: employers in agriculture and other industries that depend on cheap immigrant labor; and Republican political strategists who rightly fear the rapid growth in Latino voters, who tend to vote for Democrats. The Republican Party is a house divided.

The Democratic Party is also divided. Many (but not all) Latino groups favor looser immigration laws. But labor unions, an essential source of money and organizing capacity vital to Democrats, have long opposed a guest worker program. The guest worker program is a central part—perhaps an inescapable part—of comprehensive immigration reform proposals.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Given the conflicts within the parties, it's not surprising that little progress has been made to date. Both parties have a vested interest in appearing to support comprehensive reform without ever reaching agreement.

For the growth and vibrancy of the U.S. economy, we need to act, now. The major economic issue is not the path to citizenship. It is the need for a system of visas for those with talent, skills, or simply ambition and the capacity for hard work. Companies that need educated workers, particularly in the STEM fields, should be able to bring in roughly as many as they need. Little good can come of restricting immigration of technically-skilled workers. If we continue to restrict skilled foreign workers, it undermines the competitiveness of the U.S. economy in strategically-important industries. Worse, it encourages corporations to relocate R&D centers to parts of the world with a stronger talent pool.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

For less skilled workers, such as agricultural workers, the situation is somewhat more complex. We already have a de facto guest worker program with no practical way to eliminate it. Let's legalize it so we can keep track of the people involved and collect their payroll and income taxes consistently. We should cap the numbers of workers admitted each year based on a formula that considers the numbers of people each industry can absorb, average wages, and the unemployment rate. Let's legally admit the people our economy needs, and no more. This formula would have to be administered by an independent agency kept at arm's length distance from direct political influence, just as the Federal Reserve's decisions on lending rates are insulated from political meddling.

The lack of a system for employer verification is a red herring. This system is not complicated; it is simpler than credit card verification or online airline ticketing. Google could build it very quickly. The reason this system does not exist is not technical; it hasn't been built because many employers don't want it to be built. Once the incentives are aligned, the system can be built and deployed quickly.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Once we have a system that allows the legal hiring of noncitizens, with verification, we can reform the path toward citizenship. From the standpoint of having a robust economy and a fair, uniform, sustainable process, the path to citizenship should not be based on the number of years here, nor on passing a civics test. It should be based on economic productivity. Let people advance to citizenship when they have logged a certain amount of paid hours worked, or wages earned, or payroll and income taxes contributed. The number of hours, wages, or taxes required can be set higher for those already here illegally than for those who first enter legally; that would address the concern that people who broke the law upon entry not be rewarded for it. This approach would create the right incentives. Earnings from undocumented labor would simply not count on the path for citizenship. Thus, immigrants would have a strong incentive to become properly-documented guest workers because that would provide the fastest possible path to citizenship. Immigrants who can't hold a documented job would not advance to citizenship and their work visa would soon end.

A system like this sets the right incentives for those wishing to come to the United States and become U.S. citizens. Having the right incentives encourages lawful participation in the labor market, and reduces the amount we need to spend on policing. A system like this allows companies more flexibility in hiring, but requires they support the development and use of a verification system. A system like this creates a clear path toward citizenship, and it allows prospective citizens to shorten that path through their own hard work. It can help our economy grow, and at the same time, help the 12 million undocumented workers here in the United States today.

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