The RP’s Weekly Web Gems: The Politics of Immigration

Wilbur has taken flight. Not only to both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO support some manner of comprehensive immigration reform, but they have found at least a modicum of common ground on the matter, releasing a statement of principles yesterday afternoon.

This is a good thing—if organizations as ideologically divergent as the Chamber and AFL-CIO can agree on significant reforms of the American immigration system, maybe Congress can do the same. Their statement rests on three basic principles: American workers should have the first opportunity to fill American jobs, businesses that cannot fill all positions with American workers should be able to hire foreign-born workers through a streamlined process, and we need an accurate and transparent system to identify and address labor shortages to enable hiring foreign workers when it is needed. To fulfill these requirements, the Chamber and AFL-CIO suggest creating federal agency that would track the status and needs of the American labor market.

Apart from the incongruity of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calling for another organ of the federal government, there are some flaws with this plan. To be sure, the underlying goals of these principles, to protect both American- and foreign-born workers and optimize the labor market for them and their employers, are laudable. As, of course, is these organizations’ willingness to cross ideological boundaries and work together. From an economic and regulatory perspective, however, there are some problems.

In their statement, the Chamber and AFL-CIO call for a guest worker program, designed to respond to the needs of the labor market. In theory, this is a great idea—when they can, American business will hire American-born workers, and when they cannot, they will be able to hire foreign-born workers with a minimum of bureaucratic involvement. Therein lies the catch: the fact is, it is nearly impossible for a federal, top-down program to ascertain, let alone keep up with, the visa needs of a complicated labor market.

This sort of program has been tried before, most notably with the Bracero Program. A sort of predecessor to contemporary H-2A visas, the Bracero Program was a joint effort with the Mexican government between the 1940’s and 1960’s that brought agricultural and railroad workers into the United States to work for a set period of time before heading back to their homes (although a number stayed and received green cards). Even then, when the population of the United States was around half of its current level, federal regulations couldn’t keep up with demand levels in the labor market, and illegal immigration continued. Illegal immigration, as it turns out, almost perfectly meets labor market demands, and is really a complement to legal immigration under the current system. (This idea has been gaining currency and is not a new one.)

So, what of it? Just because a guest worker program as has been proposed is too cumbersome for a long-term solution does not mean we should abandon the notion altogether—allowing illegal immigration to continue as it does only contributes to degraded working conditions of both American- and foreign-born workers. This country can find a solution, and I will start exploring some of the specifics and (humbly) proposing some of my own ideas in the coming weeks.

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