Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Immigration Reform Needs Consensus on Flow of Foreign Labor

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Immigration Reform Needs Consensus on Flow of Foreign Labor

Article excerpt

In the debate over US immigration reform, the media and public have focused on controversial issues such as citizenship for those who are here now illegally, and enforcement efforts on the US- Mexican border and in American workplaces.

But another issue is also critically important. The United States must get the future flow of immigrants right, whether these be low- skilled guest workers or educated foreigners for the tech sector.

These flows must be managed to ensure that immigrants come legally, and in the numbers and categories that Americans agree fit their vision for a better society. If we get this part of immigration reform wrong, then our current effort at comprehensive reform is doomed to fail - just as other efforts have failed in the past.

The latest example is the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. This law generated an amnesty for those here illegally at the time, as well as new procedures and penalties to prevent employers from hiring newly arriving illegal workers. But it did little to address the future flows of legal immigrant labor.

That missing piece in the reform became a glaring hole during the economic boom of the 1990s, when foreign workers poured into the US illegally to take plentiful jobs at low wages. Limited enforcement to restrict illegal flows also posed few effective constraints on the workers and employers who were interested in these arrangements.

This huge flow of illegal immigrants created a need for reform. If the issue of future immigrant labor is again avoided, then another flow of illegal immigrants over time might lead the US back to the same situation as today, and yet another major fight over reform in a decade or two.

But coming up with a consensus on how to regulate the influx of guest workers and other legal foreign labor is difficult - that's why an immigration reform effort in Congress collapsed in 2007. Labor and industry couldn't agree. Unions generally fear that too many guest workers undercut jobs and wages for Americans, while industry complains it can't stay in business without this influx.

A bipartisan reform effort shaping up in the Senate includes future foreign workers. For this piece of the package to work, it must adhere to the following three broad principles.

Incentives for legal immigration

First, both employers and potential immigrants need much stronger incentives to engage in legal rather than illegal immigration.

For employers, there must be sufficient numbers of legal immigrants available to them, and at wages roughly consistent with US market realities. For incoming workers, it should mean that legal status allows them to switch jobs when opportunities arise, and to apply for permanent residence and eventual citizenship. Thus, they aren't trapped in exploitative working conditions, and employers are motivated to adhere to reasonable workplace standards.

Competing needs

Second, the competing needs of workers who are already US citizens, employers, and the economy must also be recognized.

There is little controversy now over the notion that the US economy will benefit from permanently attracting more highly educated immigrants or keep immigrants educated in the US. Those workers will start businesses, pursue patents, and power the technology sector. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.