Immigration Reform: “Redirect, Not Reduce”

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President Trump last week endorsed legislation introduced by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Representative David Perdue (R-GA) that would reform legal immigration in America through a “merit-based” system and slash immigration based on family ties – for a 41 percent reduction in legal immigration the first year alone.

They’ve got it about half right.

We need only look north to see that a merit or employment-based immigration system would be far preferable to America’s current process. Although Canada’s inflow of immigrants as a percent of population is twice the rate of the United States’, immigration is far less an issue there. As Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association points out, sixty percent of visas in Canada are assigned to those judged most capable of helping Canada. Here in the United States, 66 percent are granted entrance based on family connections.

In fact, the American system of immigration is out of line with international norms. Western nations focus on identifying and bringing in immigrants who want to work and add to their economic growth; America’s system emphasizes family members, refugees – even a special “diversity” category from “low-admission” countries.

Employment or skills-based immigration is what we should want. Here in Virginia, 17 percent of all business owners are foreign-born, generating $3 billion in total net business income. Nationally, about 25 percent of technology and engineering firms started in the last decade had at least one immigrant founder. About half of technology startups worth at least $1 billion had immigrants as their founders. U.S. immigrants are responsible for a higher than ordinary number of international patent applications.

So when smart people want to come to America, we should encourage it. Those smart people are either going to contribute to our economy or to some other economy.

But the Cotton-Perdue-Trump proposal takes a wrong turn in slashing legal immigration overall and placing far too great an emphasis only on highly skilled workers.

Limiting employment-based immigration will abandon huge swaths of the American economy desperately in need of foreign workers to fill jobs it appears Americans won’t take. For example, in 2011, the North Carolina Growers Association had roughly 6,500 jobs available in that state. Of the 268 U.S. natives who applied, only 163 showed up for work and only seven completed the growing season. In contrast, 90 percent of the Mexican farm workers hired remained through the end of the season.

That same year, a Georgia law giving police the authority to demand immigration documentation drove off harvest workers, creating labor shortages that triggered an estimated $140 million in agricultural losses. Georgians, it seems, don’t want to work in the fields, nor do they have the skills: those who do are deemed “low-skilled” by federal definition but, according to Dick Minor, president of the Georgia Fruit and Grower’s Association are “pretty much professional harvesters.”

And when American growers can’t find legal workers to cross the border, the companies cross the border instead, taking their resources elsewhere. Since 2000, U.S. direct investment in Mexican agriculture has increased seven-fold and U.S. companies now farm more than 45,000 acres in Mexico, employing 45,000 workers. Economic growth ends up somewhere else, not in the U.S.

To build the American economy, the Cotton-Perdue-Trump bill should expand the number of legal immigrant and non-immigrant (those not seeking to stay) workers, not reduce it – because we are going to need those workers.

According to a report from Wells Fargo Securities, “Growth in the U.S. labor supply has been slowing for decades due to weaker population growth and lower labor force participation.” In fact, notes the report “foreign-born workers have accounted for half the growth in the labor supply over the past decade.”

But the alphabet soup of categories for admission are a system only a government bureaucrat could love. With more than 50 immigrant and non-immigrant visa categories, navigating the system is both lengthy and expensive, and the product of special-interest lobbying, crony capitalism, and the “swamp” President Trump says he wants to drain.

A simpler solution would be to abolish all the quotas, categories and government attempts to determine how many workers each business needs, replacing it with just one visa employment category for potential workers, and letting American business and American economic demand decide whether we need more tomato pickers, scientists or “fashion models of distinguished merit and ability” (an actual visa category today).

The Cotton-Perdue-Trump plan moves in the right direction when it argues for a merit-based system as a means of building the American economy. But it defeats its own purpose by slashing immigration levels and making work permits too limiting.

The answer lies in redirecting our immigration numbers, not reducing them.

What America needs is simply to make legal immigration easier, stop incentivizing illegal immigration and encourage the kind of immigration that will – as somebody once said – make America great again.

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About Christian Braunlich

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute and past president of the Virginia State Board of Education. The opinions expressed are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute or its Board of Directors. He can be reached at chris@thomasjeffersoninst.org.
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