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6 Ways To Improve The Senate's Immigration Proposal

“We will ensure that this is a successful permanent reform to our immigration system that will not need to be revisited.” That’s from a statement released today from Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). The senators argue that their proposal will provide the permanent fix America’s immigration system needs, but here’s six ways it could be better.

  1. Keep immigration enforcement a government responsibility. The proposal endorses “stiff fines and criminal penalties” for employers who hire unauthorized workers. These penalties conscript American employers to act as de facto immigration agents. They force them to do the job that federal agents were apparently unable to do -- identify unauthorized immigrants. The only difference is that employers face the real danger of penalties for failing to fill out forms or properly perform federal surveillance of their workers, including American citizens. Studies have shown that many “foreign-looking” Americans face discrimination based on the fear that they are more likely to be unauthorized.
  2. Don’t impose electronic employment verification on Americans. The senators also endorse “requiring prospective workers to demonstrate both legal status and identity, through non-forgeable electronic means prior to obtaining employment.” This requirement fundamentally changes the nature of employment in the U.S. It creates a “presumption of guilt” that workers must overcome to legally work. This will entrap hundreds of thousands of workers in a federal bureaucracy due to name changes, typos, and other common errors. Worse, it will result in a federal database on every single American, including photos and other biometric information that could be used in any sphere, not just employment. Every American should oppose such surveillance state measures.
  3. Allow businesses to hire workers. The proposal permits employers to hire foreign workers “if it can be demonstrated that they were unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position.” But current law already requires businesses to demonstrate this, and it is precisely this protectionist policy that prevents farmers and other businesses -- particularly small businesses -- from hiring the workers they need. Just like E-Verify flips the burden of proof, this requirement assumes that all employers do not need to hire foreign workers -- an assumption that must be overcome in order to do so. It forces businessmen to take out advertisements, conduct interviews, and even hire substandard candidates, who often quit after a few days. Employers should be able to hire the workers they want, and immigration enforcement should stop real threats to America’s wellbeing.
  4. Recognize the need for all kinds of workers. For obvious reasons, the senators focus on bringing in more lower-skilled workers and higher-skilled workers. At the high end, Ph.D. or Master’s graduates in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) would provide the innovations and new businesses that America’s economy needs to grow. At the low end, workers without college degrees will prevent U.S. agricultural decline and, through specialization, push all Americans upward, increasing wages and boosting GDP. More low-skilled immigration will also drastically cut unauthorized immigration. But immigration policy should not end there. Graduates with bachelor’s degree and others will contribute more to economic growth and federal revenues than low-skilled workers, but no legal path for such workers is mentioned. A visa specifically for entrepreneurs is also not mentioned.
  5. Allow more temporary visa extensions. The first section of the proposal focuses in part on “combating visa overstays,” but just like border security would be enhanced by providing legal avenues for workers to enter legally, the first step toward reducing visa overstays is legal means for temporary migrants to lengthen their residence. Temporary migration is a free market reality, but so is prolonged or permanent migration. Any proposal that allows workers to enter on only a temporary basis is sure to result in some illegal immigration. The best alternative would be to create more green cards and allow easier visa extensions, but short of this, wouldn’t it make sense to prioritize visa applications from workers who have already lived and worked in the United States?
  6. Regulatory reform for businesses and workers. Immigration is a very costly process for everyone involved -- employers, workers, and families. Easing the regulatory burden on spouses is long overdue. Employers should be expected to attest that they have not simply fired all Americans and replaced them with foreigners, but not prove definitively that there’s no American in the country who might take the job if the price was raised high enough. Congress should allow temporary workers to change employers to guard against abuse by employers and create greater labor mobility.

Overall, this proposal should be seen as tweaking the current system. It works within the status quo visa and enforcement arrangements and seeks to make them work better. It does not seek a whole-scale change from quotas on the number of immigrants admitted enforced by detention and deportation, and workplace restrictions imposed by increased government surveillance of the workforce. It offers no fundamental change to how visas are issued either, but its increases in the number of available visas and its offer of legalization with heavy civil fines and without a special pathway to citizenship should be embraced by those who want free, rather than black, markets.