Prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in the new Democratic Congress are on the rise. Voters in November failed to rally around the tough rhetoric of the Republican House majority, replacing the GOP Congress with Democratic leadership that has shown itself more open to expanding legal channels for immigrant workers.
Nonetheless, momentum is building for major reform — and not a minute too soon. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 1, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez remarked that America’s dynamic economy continues to create jobs for low-skilled workers, yet the number of native-born Americans willing to fill lower-end jobs continues to shrink.
From 1996 to 2004, the number of adult Americans without a high school education — the demographic group that typically fills low-skilled jobs — fell by another 4.6 million. The biggest flaw in our current immigration system is its lack of an adequate legal channel for low-skilled immigrants who are crucial to filling that gap between demand and supply on the lower rungs of the labor ladder.
In the face of those powerful economic and demographic trends, federal enforcement efforts have failed to stem the inflow of low-skilled immigrants.
Dramatic increases in funding, personnel and technology for border control have pushed the flow of people to more remote regions of our 2,000-mile border with Mexico, driving up smuggling fees and death rates without making a dent in the net inflow of illegal immigrants.
Because of the cost and risk of crossing the border, the still-large number of illegal immigrants who make it across are more likely to stay for an extended period once inside the country. Enforcement efforts intended to reduce illegal immigration have perversely increased the illegal population by reducing what historically had been a circular flow of migration from and back to Mexico.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, after reporting the administration’s increased efforts at border enforcement, told the Senate committee that a policy of enforcement only cannot work. He called on Congress to create a temporary worker program so that foreign workers can enter the United States legally to fill jobs that U.S. workers do not want.
“This regulated channel for temporary workers would dramatically reduce the pressure on our borders, aid our economy and ease the task of our law enforcement agents inside the country,” Chertoff told the committee. “There is an inextricable link between the creation of a temporary worker program and better enforcement at the border.”
For immigration reform to succeed, it must contain a workable temporary worker program.
Such a program must create a sufficient number of visas to meet the needs of the U.S. economy. A crucial flaw in the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform that the Senate passed in May 2006 was that it capped annual visas at 200,000, a number far below the actual demand of the U.S. labor market.
According to Labor Department projections, our economy will continue to create a net 400,000 or more low-skilled jobs annually in service sectors like food preparation, cleaning, construction, landscaping and retail. Any visa cap below the actual demand in our economy will only perpetuate the problem of illegal immigration.
True reforms must also avoid stifling labor regulations that discourage legal hiring.
Union leaders are pressuring Democrats to require that temporary workers be paid “prevailing wages” — that is, artificially high, union-level wages rather than market wages. This would be a recipe for failure, given that many of the jobs filled by immigrant workers are low-skilled, low-wage jobs that simply would not exist in the legal economy if union-level wages were mandated.
Adding cumbersome labor rules will only perpetuate the underground labor market that the current system has created.
Waiting won’t make the problem go away. If the new Congress fails to enact comprehensive immigration reform, the alternative will be two more years of widespread illegal immigration, and no one but the smugglers at the border will benefit from it.