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Immigration Can Speed Economic Recovery


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.

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.

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 on April 10, 2009.


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