The Recession
The Recession

Immigration Can Speed Economic Recovery

| by Diana Furchtgott-Roth
From Hudson.org

It’s welcome news that President Obama will turn his attention to immigration reform this year, as was announced on Wednesday by deputy assistant to the president Cecilia Muñoz. Economic recovery will happen more quickly if both high- and low-skill immigrants are permitted to enter the United States and work legally.

Two years ago, when Congress was considering comprehensive immigration reform, both President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers and the Congressional Budget Office, headed by Peter Orszag, an economist closely identified with the Democratic Party, estimated that the benefits of additional immigrants outweigh the costs. If Congress allowed more immigration, then American taxpayers would come out ahead financially.

Yet, after Congress refused to pass President Bush’s plan to allow most undocumented workers to receive work visas and wait in line for citizenship, the Bush administration’s immigration policy deteriorated into a series of arbitrary raids on different companies, rounding up undocumented workers and deporting them, in many cases separating husbands and wives, parents and children.

We can do better. Although the unemployment rate reached 8.5 percent last month, the jobs are going to come back, and, as has been the case in the past, native-born Americans will want jobs that are different from those of immigrants, according to economics professor Giovanni Peri of the University of California at Davis.

Congress needs to overhaul immigration law and create an expanded temporary worker program with a path to citizenship, along with more verification to prevent workers from working illegally, and monitoring of tourists and students so that they do not overstay their visas.

A rational immigration policy would have numerous advantages.
• Undocumented workers would pay taxes to federal and state governments rather than to grey-market check cashing services.

• Payments for health care through insurance could be collected more easily, rather than burdening hospital emergency rooms with immigrants without health insurance.

• Foreigners who want to work here could pay the government for visas rather than pay smugglers for unsafe, illicit transportation.

• Improvements in security. Legal visas and bank accounts would make it far easier to identify and track potential terrorists, dubious financial transactions, and those who simply overstay visas.

A rational immigration policy would solve several real problems the United States faces with regard to immigration. The international economy is tremendously dynamic; our immigration system is not. Temporary workers must spend months applying for admission, and due to the pile-up in April of every year, may not even get a visa.

Few low-skilled workers have a legal and reliable method to enter this country and work legally, and few Americans want to do the jobs, such as fruit picking and cleaning, that these workers want to pursue. And even high-skilled workers trained at U.S. colleges and universities, often at taxpayer expense, might have to wait years and spend thousands of dollars to become permanent residents of the nation.

Mr. Obama might want to consider transferring the authority of setting quotas from Congress to the Labor Department. The Labor Department already has the presumptive authority to judge whether demand for foreign labor is justified, through its foreign labor certifications. If the Labor Department is allowed to determine whether or not a foreign worker would displace a native one, it could also be allowed to calculate visa quotas.

High-skilled workers educated in America ought to be able to stay; otherwise, our investment in their education becomes lost to another country. If the Labor Department determines that a foreign worker would not displace Americans, that worker should not be barred from entering the country due to an arbitrary quota. And people who want to enter this country in order to work in jobs Americans are not willing to take ought to have an easy, legal way to do so.

Mr. Obama has the opportunity to craft a sensible and dynamic immigration system. All Americans should wish him success.

This commentary appeared in Reuters.com on April 10, 2009.

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