+ What immigration policy reforms outside the amnesty fight should receive priority in the next administration?
In the weeks leading up to the election, In Theory will be asking policy experts to weigh in on the critical questions our presidential candidates should be addressing — but often aren’t. This week we’re discussing immigration reform.
Immigration has been a prevailing topic in this election cycle, thanks to Donald Trump. And after a major immigration speech in Phoenix following a visit to Mexico, we are now fairly sure that the Republican candidate will continue to oppose a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
This stance is important, as the previous attempt to pass immigration reform — orchestrated by the so-called Gang of Eight and passed by the Senate with bipartisan support in 2013 — was derailed by Republicans in the House, primarily due to resistance to the idea of granting citizenship. Now that the Republican presidential nominee has made firm that he won’t be removing any obstacles to citizenship any time soon, the prospects of passing any future pathway are murky at best.
But of course, the pathway to citizenship is not the only urgent area of immigration reform that Congress can address. Border enforcement, E-Verify measures and visa reform, for example, are areas in which there seems to be room for bipartisan cooperation. Some politicians such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), have argued that the only way to get legislation to the White House would be through a piecemeal approach.
While Hillary Clinton is dedicated to comprehensive immigration reform including a path to “full and equal citizenship,” focusing instead on portions of reform could be a good way to at least get the ball rolling. Could this be the right strategy for reform? Would a reform package be worthwhile without addressing the citizenship question? What specific policy points should receive priority for the next administration?
Ali Noorani is executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
Our immigration system must serve the interests of all Americans.
And the vast majority of Americans — Republicans as well as Democrats — recognize that our immigration system is broken, and support a new process that replaces our outdated laws. One key area is visa programs that are part of our legal immigration system. We need to update visa programs in a careful way that helps our economy — not reduce visas significantly, as some politicians and policy makers have proposed.
The last update to the number of permanent worker visas took place in 1990, the year Germany reunified. Our current legal immigration system does not meet our economic needs because our inflexible visa system constrains the growth of businesses, therefore undermining the competitiveness of the American worker and the livelihood of our families.
America’s dairy industry is a unique example: Farmers regularly report labor shortages and raise concerns about availability of reliable year-round labor. More than half of dairy laborers are immigrants, and 79 percent of the U.S. milk supply comes from dairies with immigrant labor, according to a 2015 Texas A&M report paid for by the National Milk Producers Federation.
Yet here’s the rub: We have no effective visa for such the legal entry of such workers. The H-2A visa covers temporary, seasonal agricultural workers, but there is no “milk season”; milking cows is a year-round endeavor. The H-1B visa program covers temporary high-skilled workers, and dairy jobs do not meet the requirements.
People often seek progress on immigration reform by calling for a stand-alone E-Verify bill to guarantee a legal workforce. But without visa reforms, this type of enforcement program would gut the dairy industry, lower production of milk and increase dairy prices across the board.
That’s just one example. A functioning work visa program would control legal immigration, align it with our economic and social needs and minimize the incentive to skip the legal immigration process. Frankly, the smartest way to secure our border is to have a 21st-century immigration process that advances the social and economic interests of all Americans.
Here are other components of a visa process that works: First, a legal immigration process that includes visa numbers in line with labor and workforce needs will make it easier for employers to hire immigrants with documentation. Sourcing labor in this way will help create new upstream and downstream jobs in the United States, instead of outsourcing entire industries.
Second, a reformed visa system should allow foreign students educated at U.S. colleges and universities to obtain work visas and contribute their talents here after graduation. We should be stapling green cards, not plane tickets, to diplomas.
Finally, visa reform must keep the family at the core of our immigration process. American families with loved ones abroad face a growing wait for a visa allotment process that has not changed in a generation. Employment- and family-based visa reform should go hand in hand.
Congress, with leadership from our next president, can account for our economic needs in a way that benefits American workers and businesses alike. Visa reform may not electrify the electorate, but it is crucial.