Chapter 9: Immigration Designed to Enhance American Lives (IDEAL)

May 13, 2020 • Publications
By Steve Kuhn

This chapter is a part of 12 New Immigration Ideas for the 21st Century.

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The immigration reform proposals most likely to succeed are those that create benefits for Americans and immigrants and that garner bipartisan support. The Immigration Designed to Enhance American Lives (IDEAL) proposal strikes a balance between competing interests by allowing more legal immigrants to work in the United States by paying the federal government for the opportunity. That revenue could then be used to reduce the tax burden or otherwise benefit native‐​born Americans. This essay and planks are based on the IDEAL Immigration Policy.100

The 10 Planks of the IDEAL Immigration Proposal

  1. The U.S. government should deny residence to criminals and national security threats.
  2. Foreign workers must receive a valid job offer to receive an IDEAL visa.
  3. IDEAL workers must pay an annual $2,500 fee upfront to the government.
  4. U.S. employers’ only requirement to hire IDEAL workers would be to pay them $2,500 annually—in addition to agreed‐​upon weekly wages—in biweekly installments.
  5. The $2,500 upfront payment to the government would go into a trust fund for workforce development in the state where the visa holder would be employed.
  6. Foreign workers would receive one‐​year permission to live in the United States that could be renewed with a second valid job offer.
  7. IDEAL workers would have the same labor rights as U.S. citizens, including the rights to join a labor union or leave their job for a new one.
  8. IDEAL workers could not vote or receive public benefits of any kind.
  9. IDEAL workers could adjust status to legal permanent residence after $50,000 in total payments—after 20 years or after 10 years and a $25,000 payment.
  10. The number of IDEAL visas would fluctuate based on the needs of the economy, not based on congressional or bureaucratic mandates.

IDEAL Plank 1: No Security Threats

The most important plank of the IDEAL Immigration proposal is that the United States should maintain a vigorous screening system to exclude foreigners who pose a public safety or national security threat. IDEAL applicants would have to undergo a thorough biometric background check and receive careful vetting for prior criminal history, including criminal records from their home state or region and checks across all U.S. security databases. If those checks revealed no derogatory information, trained consular officers would interview them and grant visas only if they felt all questions had been adequately answered. The process would be very similar but slightly more intense than the current system of background checks, security checks, and other steps to exclude dangerous foreign‐​born people from the United States.

One purpose of the IDEAL Immigration reform is to direct future immigration into legal channels so that the government could more effectively enforce laws against the admission and entry of criminals, terrorists, and other threats at U.S. borders. All IDEAL applicants would pay an upfront processing fee—as most applicants do today—to cover the cost of background checks and visa interviews.

IDEAL Plank 2: A Valid Job Offer

With IDEAL Immigration, workers would need to have a genuine offer of employment before traveling to and entering the United States. A genuine offer of employment would come from a bona fide U.S. employer with a history of federal taxes and a statement of need for full‐​time employ­ment at an agreed‐​upon wage. The regulatory requirements for the employer at this stage would be less onerous than those for most current temporary work visas. Valid job offers would pay at least the minimum wage, comply with all federal, state, and local labor laws, and generally provide health insurance coverage (except in certain short‐​term jobs or for some small employers).

The IDEAL proposal focuses on economic migration for three main reasons. First, the current immigration system already systemically favors family ties over economic ones. Employer‐​sponsored immigrants accounted for less than 6 percent of new legal permanent residents in 2017.101 The IDEAL proposal would not cut family immigration but would instead increase economic migration.

The second reason to focus on employer‐​sponsored immi­grants is that illegal immigrants generally lack family ties to the United States, and nearly all are seeking jobs in lower‐​skill industries. Current immigration law provides only a few thousand visas for year‐​round employ­ment in those jobs, which causes many immigrants to cross the border illegally. This fact makes it critical that Congress address the shortfall in visas for foreign job seekers.

Finally, a job offer is the most important regulator for immigration. The IDEAL Immigration proposal strikes the balance between openness and orderliness. Migrating to a job increases the odds that a migrant will be a success in the United States, which is beneficial for the migrant’s long‐​run integration and in building support for more relatively less‐​regulated immigration reforms.

By requiring job offers, the government would need to police evidence that workers submit to ensure that job offers are authentic. While some workers may submit fraudulent job offers—and some may even escape the notice of trained adjudicators—the purpose is not to reduce the number of workers without jobs to zero. The purpose of the requirement is to use market forces to meaningfully regulate immigration to the point where unemployed migrants are rare.

IDEAL Plank 3: Annual $2,500 Upfront Fee

The IDEAL Immigration proposal would require workers to pay an annual fee of $2,500 to the U.S. government before they enter the United States. This fee would be on top of all other processing fees normally charged to temporary workers to cover costs for visa application, background checks, and entry. The upfront payment would ensure that even if the worker fails to abide by any other rules after entry, the U.S. government would retain the funds. The fee would help regulate the number of admissions, would show Americans that immigrants want to contribute, and could fund tax cuts, pay down the national debt, or otherwise be spent on other programs that politicians prioritize.

One of the most important functions of the fee would be to serve as another regulator of immigration, in addition to the job offer. Again, the purpose of the IDEAL proposal is not to admit as many immigrants as possible but to create an orderly process for those who have the means and to benefit Americans. Illegal immigrants and asylum seekers already pay up to $10,000 for the chance to get across the U.S.-Mexican border.102 A $2,500 per year fee would not be unreasonable. It is low enough that most workers could afford it but high enough to act as a meaningful regulation on the number of immigrants.

It is important that immigrants, not employers, initially pay the $2,500 fee. This would appropriately shift the risk to workers and away from Americans in employer‐​pays systems. If a worker abandons the initial employer, that employer has lost a significant amount of money and has not received any benefit. For this reason, such systems inevitably involve a tradeoff where employers can tie workers to jobs, which is unfair to workers and could enable abusive employment. These situations ultimately lead to heavy‐​handed government regulation to ensure employers treat their workers adequately.

On the other hand, an employer‐​pays system without a worker tie would likely go underutilized because the employer would take a major risk by paying the fee while there is a chance that the migrant could switch jobs, harming both migrants and employers. The IDEAL proposal strikes a balance, giving workers freedom to change jobs but requiring them to cover their costs upfront.

IDEAL Plank 4: Employer $2,500 Repayments

The IDEAL Immigration proposal would require employers to repay workers on a biweekly basis the $2,500 that the workers paid to the government—above the wages that employers agreed to pay. This biweekly repayment would fund the legal residence of workers without the government forcing employers to front $2,500 for workers who may decide to quickly find another employer after entry (see IDEAL Plank 3).

The repayments would also serve as a moderate deterrent to preferencing foreign workers over U.S. workers. The government would issue workers an employment authorization document that indicated the rights of the worker and obligations of the employer, including the require­ment that the employer pay the worker the agreed‐​upon wage plus the $2,500. The Department of Homeland Security would need to create a hotline for workers to call to report employers who refuse to make the payments.

From an employer’s perspective, $2,500 annually amounts to $48 per week. For a 40‐​hour‐​per‐​week worker, that would equal $1.20 an hour—about 17 percent of the U.S. minimum wage. This additional cost would prevent employers from having a reason to favor IDEAL workers over native‐​born American workers but would not make it prohibitively difficult to hire foreign‐​born workers when necessary.

IDEAL Plank 5: State Trust Funds

The IDEAL Immigration proposal would transfer the $2,500 payments from the IDEAL workers to the U.S. government. The IDEAL worker payments would easily raise tens of billions of dollars annually.103 States would receive grants, funded by the fees, in proportion to the number of IDEAL immigrants who received valid job offers in those states in the prior year. State governments could spend this money or fund a tax cut, but it would most likely be spent on some variant of a workforce development trust fund to support job training, apprenticeships, job placement, and education programs established by state governments.

IDEAL Plank 6: One‐​Year Admissions

With IDEAL Immigration, foreign workers would be admitted with a one‐​year status that they could renew with a subsequent job offer. The temporary status would enable Congress to more effectively create policies specifically for these immigrants. While one year is less than many other visa categories, the short authorization period would serve a couple important purposes. First, it would keep the initial cost to enter for the worker more reasonable. Workers would not need to raise all the money that they would need to pay over the course of their entire stay upfront; only a single payment of $2,500 would be necessary. Requiring workers to prepay for two, three, or four years would unduly obstruct the ability of employers to hire workers they need now.

Second, the one‐​year period would create a natural check‐​in every 12 months where workers would have to again prove that they had a valid job offer. Most Americans, and even fewer members of Congress, want to allow foreigners to enter to live unemployed (see IDEAL Plank 2). At the same time, however, IDEAL workers should have the right to leave their employers to protect their economic rights (see IDEAL Plank 7). A 12‐​month requirement would guarantee that if the initial job doesn’t work out, the worker would only have at most a few months of legal unemployment in the United States before they would need to leave and wait for a new job offer. But it would enable them to freely access the labor market throughout the year.

IDEAL Plank 7: Equal Labor Rights, No Red Tape

The IDEAL Immigration proposal would grant foreign workers access to the U.S. labor market under the same conditions and regulations as U.S. citizens. As long as they pay the $2,500 annual employer fee, foreign workers could enter contracts or at‐​will employment, leave their jobs, join or organize labor unions, and otherwise compete for jobs under the same laws and rules as U.S. citizens.

Perhaps the most important of these rights would be the ability to leave any employer and seek another job at any time. The only requirement to extend status would be that the worker had a job offer at the start of the year. Periods of unemployment—which are inherent in many low‐​skilled, temporary, or seasonal industries—would not preclude extensions of status. This is significant because IDEAL workers could feel comfortable leaving an employer that underpays or abuses them. This would benefit U.S. workers as well by making sure that employers have no reason to prefer foreign workers.

But this would be a good deal for employers as well. Because IDEAL workers could negotiate wages and working conditions on a level playing field, employers would not have to jump through endless bureaucratic red tape to hire them—unlike nearly all current immigration programs. By giving workers more liberty to assert and defend their rights, employers need less governmental oversight to protect workers’ rights. This is a win‐​win‐​win for all—workers, employers, and government agencies.

IDEAL Plank 8: No Voting or Welfare

The IDEAL Immigration proposal would not authorize access to voting or public benefits. The purpose of the IDEAL visa is to create a legal way for employers and foreign workers to contribute to the U.S. economy and to benefit both Americans and immigrants alike. Voting is a right properly reserved for U.S. citizens.

Public benefits exist to provide a safety net for Americans who fall on difficult times, not for foreign workers whose entries the government permits to serve the national interest. If foreign workers become unemployed and unable to support themselves, they should rely on friends, family members, or private charity—not U.S. taxpayers. Only a system that walls off the welfare state from immigrants would receive the support of the broadest section of the American public, obviating the need for a wall around the country.

IDEAL Plank 9: Adjustment to Permanent Residence

With IDEAL Immigration, workers who enter on that program could become legal permanent residents after 10 years and a $25,000 payment ($50,000 total) or after 20 years legally in the United States paying $2,500 each year. Legal permanent residence in the United States brings with it the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship, if the immigrant meets additional requirements, after five years. The purpose of the one‐​year IDEAL visa is to create a proving ground for new Americans.

Immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens could prove over the course of two decades that they will follow the rules and contribute to the U.S. economy. If they want permanent status more quickly, after 10 years they could pay $25,000 for the second decade upfront. This would create a faster path for those most likely to contribute significantly to the U.S. economy but would not preclude those with lower incomes from participating. These workers could eventually apply for U.S. citizenship after 15 or 25 years in the country, by which time the vast majority would have assimilated and learned the American system and culture.

IDEAL Plank 10: Market‐​Based Numbers

The IDEAL Immigration proposal would allow the number of IDEAL visas to fluctuate with the economy. Beyond restricting criminals and threats, the IDEAL proposal would regulate the numbers solely using market forces—valid job offers from employers willing to pay a $2,500 annual premium. This would create a natural esca­lator for when the economy is growing and natural de‐​escalator for when it contracts.

Arbitrary restrictions that reduce the number of visas below the needs of employers would inevitably result in illegal immigration, a black market in labor, and all the problems that result for clandestine and unregulated employment. Moreover, arbitrarily excluding workers that the economy needs automatically cuts economic growth and hurts America. Fewer workers would also mean less revenue to fund workforce development, education, and job placement for natives. The goal of IDEAL Immigration is not some specific demographic outcome but whatever best serves the interest of this country.

About the Author

Steve Kuhn is the founder of the IDEAL Immigration program.


100 This essay and planks are partly based on “The IDEAL Immigration Policy,” IDEAL Immigration, https://​www​.ide​al​im​mi​gra​tion​.us/​p​olicy.

101 Office of Immigration Statistics, 2017 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Washington: Department of Homeland Security, July 2019), 20–24, table 7, https://​www​.dhs​.gov/​s​i​t​e​s​/​d​e​f​a​u​l​t​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​y​e​a​r​b​o​o​k​_​i​m​m​i​g​r​a​t​i​o​n​_​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​c​s​_​2​0​1​7​_​0.pdf.

102 Victoria A. Greenfield et al., Human Smuggling and Associated Revenues: What Do or Can We Know about Routes from Central America to the United States? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019), https://​www​.rand​.org/​p​u​b​s​/​r​e​s​e​a​r​c​h​_​r​e​p​o​r​t​s​/​R​R​2​8​5​2​.html.

103 Conservatively estimating a net flow of 1 million per year, there would be 10 million participants by year 10, paying $25 billion each year.