A fix for our immigration woes


In the late ’80s, Congress enacted immigration reform, but the problem of illegal immigration didn’t stop, it only grew.

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By Alfonso Aguilar

People are skeptical that Congress can really fix our dysfunctional immigration system. And with good reason. In the late ’80s, Congress enacted immigration reform, but the problem of illegal immigration didn’t stop, it only grew.

However, proponents of immigration reform, both Democrats and Republicans, tell us things are going to be different this time around because they’re going to mandate what the 1986 law didn’t: mainly, that operational control of the border is guaranteed, that an effective electronic system of employment eligibility is implemented, and that extremely steep fines are imposed on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

There is no question that these provisions are necessary to properly address our immigration challenges. But, they’re still not enough to solve the problem permanently.

The only way to do this is by creating an effective mechanism to manage the future flow of immigrants: that is, by creating a credible guest-worker program.

A guest-worker program was also absent in the 1986 immigration-reform law. That’s the central reason it failed. The more than 3 million undocumented immigrants legalized at the time had already been absorbed by the labor market; yet American employers still needed more foreign workers. And, without any more work visas available, they kept coming in illegally.

The reality is that our economy needs a steady stream of foreign workers to perform jobs Americans don’t want to do or for which there are simply not enough Americans of working age. Even during these difficult times, there are many industries that could not continue to exist in their present prosperity without foreign labor. Agriculture is certainly one of them.

Let’s face it: Most Americans don’t want to pick fruit, mow lawns or wash dishes. Most feel they are overeducated for this kind of work. Moreover, often employers cannot find American-born workers under 50 to do many labor-intensive jobs. It’s evident that our native-born population is aging and we don’t have enough people to replenish our unskilled workforce.

At present, there are not enough work visas for foreign workers to come in legally. Moreover, work visa programs in existence are overregulated and burdensome on employers. The yearly limit for unskilled non-agricultural workers, for instance, is only 66,000 a year.

This is why immigrants end up entering illegally or overstaying their visas. There are no efficient legal ways for migrant workers to enter the country. In other words, government intervention and regulation has created the problem of illegality.

The population of undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. is only a symptom of the immigration problem. We can improve border security and toughen domestic enforcement of immigration law, but if we don’t have a way to manage the future flows of immigrants, we will continue to see people coming here illegally to work. That is the power of the market forces of an economy like ours, which, after all, is the largest in the world.

A temporary worker program would incorporate into our system the concept of circular migration. Foreign workers would come in legally, perform their work, return to their home countries when they want to, and then re-enter legally to get back to work. Contrary to popular belief, most immigrants who come here don’t want to settle in the United States and become citizens. If they end up staying, it’s because to return home would require them to go through the unpleasant and dangerous experience of trying to enter the United States illegally all over again.

An effective guest-worker program is not only important for businesses that cannot find Americans for certain jobs. It is also essential to avoid separating migrant workers for extended periods of time from their families in their home countries. Too many children remain without parents in countries like Mexico because we impede the circular movement of migrant workers.

The Senate bill introduced by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” does provide a good, realistic, worker program for agriculture, but the guest worker plan for non-agriculture unskilled workers is too small. Once it’s fully phased in by 2020, it would cap work visas at only 200,000. And, for construction in particular, it would cap them at 15,000.

It is absolutely imperative that the proposed guest worker program be expanded and improved if we are to succeed in fixing our immigration system. The Vernon Krieble Foundation, for example, has proposed a market-based program that could serve as a framework for legislators.

President Reagan understood this better than many. Already back in the ’70s and ’80s, labor groups and restrictionist organizations complained about immigrants who come here to work. To them Reagan simply replied: “It makes one wonder about the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion, or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won’t do? One thing is certain in this hungry world: No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.”

Alfonso Aguilar is the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration.

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