Fix immigration by next Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving festival was celebrated in 1621 in Massachusetts by the Pilgrims, immigrants to America, out of gratitude for a plentiful harvest.
As we sit around our Thanksgiving tables this Thursday, almost all of us immigrants or their descendants, we’re reminded that one of President-elect Obama’s most important challenges will be to mend our broken immigration policy.
Instead of a rational immigration system, we have occasional raids by immigration officers on plants suspected of employing illegals. Then come deportations that may separate an undocumented parent and children whose birth in the United States made them citizens.
The most controversial facet of the immigration challenge is what to do about the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. Most are unlikely to return to their native lands, even in today’s tough economic climate.
Nor would we want them to do so. They work at jobs that few Americans choose to do, both in high-skill area—scientific and medical research, for instance—and in mundane yet essential low-skill jobs, such as gardening, washing cars, and cleaning.
In 2007, Congress did not pass President Bush’s comprehensive immigration proposals, supported by the Democratic leadership and many Republicans. Will Obama succeed where Bush failed?
Obama’s proposal mirrors the bill that failed: increased border protection; more visas for new immigrants; penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers; and eventual citizenship for undocumented workers already here, after payment of a fine. It would be a major improvement.
But with unemployment rising, if Congress won’t pass immigration reform, it could still improve the functioning of American labor markets with narrower action. It could authorize the Department of Labor to decide on its own the number of work permits and temporary visas to be issued each calendar quarter.
Every year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), as instructed by law, issues 65,000 H-1b temporary visas for skilled workers. These lucky workers are certified by the Labor Department out of approximately 630,000 approved applications from employers. Immigrants who hold H-1b visas must return to their home countries when their jobs end.
Yet, as the numbers show, most applicants do not get a visa. Many skilled foreign college graduates who have been studying in America, often at American taxpayer expense, are denied access to American jobs. They must leave, taking their intellectual achievements and valuable skills with them.
Foreign workers benefit the American economy. They pay taxes. They keep laboratories and motels, high-tech shows and construction sites, running. They cannot if they are sent away.
For 2009, the H-1b visa cap of 65,000 was reached one week after the start of the application process on April 1, 2008. That represents a tiny part of the U.S. labor force of 154 million. Even if the quota were raised to 150,000, that would be less than one tenth of 1% of the labor force. Such a quota would still deny admission to the vast majority of prospective applicants who don’t apply due to the small likelihood of success.
Whereas Congress is ill-suited to change laws each time the economy goes up or down, the Labor Department has both the expertise to evaluate changing labor markets and the flexibility to adjust visa quotas. Congress should consider letting the Labor Department make quarterly decisions about how many visas to issue.
When unemployment rises, the Department would issue fewer visas; when it goes down, visas could be increased. The Department could manage visas without causing undue burden on U.S. workers or community facilities, such as schools and hospitals.
Allowing the Labor Department to adjust legal immigration every quarter would help America. President-elect Obama could leave behind the rancor and division over immigration that have plagued the Bush administration, and set a new tone for a new year. That would be something to be thankful for next Thanksgiving.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.