January 30, 2014 4:54PM

GOP Statement Seeks Reform to Legal Immigration System

A statement of principles was released at today’s Republican members retreat.  Part of it was a brief outline of how the legal immigration system and guest worker visa systems should be reformed.  It reads:

“For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration.  This is inconsistent with nearly every other developed country. Every year thousands of foreign nationals pursue degrees at America’s colleges and universities, particularly in high skilled fields. Many of them want to use their expertise in U.S. industries that will spur economic growth and create jobs for Americans. When visas aren’t available, we end up exporting this labor and ingenuity to other countries. Visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers and the desire for these exceptional individuals to help grow our economy.

The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, legal paths for entry into the United States. Of particular concern are the needs of the agricultural industry, among others. It is imperative that these temporary workers are able to meet the economic needs of the country and do not displace or disadvantage American workers.”

One point these principles don’t mention is that a working legal immigration system is essential to resolving unauthorized immigration. The solution to America’s problem with unauthorized immigration does not lie with more restrictions, less lawful immigration, and more restrictions on the freedom of Americans.  The solution lies with deregulating our immigration system, allowing more immigrants to come lawful on green cards and guest worker visas, and minimizing the government’s role in picking immigrant winners and losers.  The market can do that far more effectively than a government agency, regardless of all the shiny new fences, border drones, and invasive government databases they command.   

Some of these ideas are good starts and I would have welcomed them more enthusiastically last year, but better late than never.  One big problem is that they are too negative on family-based immigration, 54 percent of whom work.  Agriculture did not deserve special mention as only about 5 percent of unauthorized immigrants work in agriculture, while many more work in retail or manufacturing.  Here are some moderate and broad libertarian suggestions for marginally improving the current immigration system:

  1. Low skilled guest worker visas:  Create a large, cheap, lightly-regulated, and minimally protectionist (small fees and comparable wage requirements) guest worker visa program for Zones 1, 2, and 3 occupations. The numbers should be uncapped but at the minimum should not be numerically limited per sector.  Guest workers should also be able to change employers very easily without ex ante government permission.  As a way to get rid of government regulation of employers, the federal government should license employers who are allowed to hire guest workers so they can move freely between them.  After all, being able to quit a job is the best defense against an abusive employer.  A similar visa should be created for agricultural workers.  Peaceful and non-welfare using workers ought to be able to move back and forth between the U.S. and their home countries easily.  The Senate’s guest worker visa plan was unworkable, overly complex, and too small – it should be scrapped in favor of something bigger and simpler.
  2. Green card reform:  There should be more ways for highly skilled and medium skilled immigrants to get green cards with fewer regulations, higher caps, no limitations on the country of origin, and far fewer restrictions on the types of skilled immigrants who can enter.  The category for immediate relatives for family-based green cards should include the spouses, minor children, and parents of all green card holders.           
  3. State based visas:  States and localities should be able to sponsor guest worker visas or at least get more allocated to businesses in their jurisdictions. 
  4. Welfare reform:  Poor immigrants are less likely to use welfare benefits than poor Americans and the size of their received benefits is typically smaller. Regardless, non-citizens who are here on guest worker visas or green cards should not be able to access means-tested welfare programs. This is a relatively easy reform (here’s the Cato blueprint) that’s fair for American taxpayers and the immigrants. 

This GOP statement comes on the heels of President Obama’s SOTU, where he was very conciliatory toward House Republicans.  He tried to give them room to pursue reform this year at their own pace and he appeared sensitive to the demands of some Republicans in the House.  Hopefully these Republican principles can blossom into bills. 

There is a chorus of prominent conservative voices against immigration reform this year.  In The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol opposed reform in 2014 because it would hurt the GOP’s chances to make Congressional gains.  The editors of National Review echoed Kristol’s worries about Republican political prospects in 2014 but also moved beyond partisanship and developed a set of principles that call for the economic central planning of the American supply of labor, a massive government database to track employment and employees, and for another domestic police force just as the intensity of the War on Drugs could be diminishing.