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There's a better way to do immigration reform

Immigration experts to Congress: Three strikes, you're out

Immigration is the definitive wedge issue in American politics, but it doesn't have to be. When the Senate's Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act failed to pass the House this year, it was the third such failure of comprehensive reform in a decade. Here's a good rule: Three strikes, you're out. It's time for a different approach. Congress should forget comprehensive reform and try for pragmatic and incremental change instead.

Skeptics will thunder that there's no room for compromise, the “other party” is unreasonable, the issue boils down to either amnesty or deportation and there's nothing in between that anyone can agree on.

Want to bet?

The Hoover Institution has been surveying immigration experts — a 40-member working group of scholars from across the political spectrum — to test that hypothesis. We have asked them to consider policy innovations that purposefully look at all aspects of immigration, not just the hypersensitive topic of illegal immigration.

Most recently we challenged our panel to think about work visas. The United States issues
60 million visas annually, but only 3 million are for work. Indeed, work visas in the United States are an excessively complex mixture of quotas, rules and bureaucracy.

How could work visas be improved? How would reforms affect the economy? And could liberal, conservative and independent wonks agree on any of it?

The answer is yes. Almost everyone surveyed (86%) thought that the bureaucratic thicket regulating temporary work visas should be reduced. There was strong consensus (79%) for eliminating the cap on non-agricultural H-2 visas (which cover seasonal jobs such as food servers or landscape crew members), for making the E-Verify program mandatory so that only legal workers could be hired (73%) and for unlimited visas for high-skilled STEM workers (66%). Sixty-one percent favored using visa “pricing” (61%) — requiring employers to pay a fee when they hire guest workers — which would provide an incentive for hiring the native-born and is a better way to allocate visas than the centrally planned and administered quotas in place today.

We also asked the scholars to judge nine components for a better temporary work visa system. One idea known as “portability” had overwhelming support, with 97% in favor. So if Congress could do just one thing related to immigration, this is it: Allow visa portability, so that guest workers can change employers and thus avoid exploitation.

As it turned out, some of the least popular ideas were ones that had been embedded in the Senate's latest failed comprehensive plan. Can you say poison pill?

Only 20% of experts supported the Senate bill's requirement for employers to certify that no U.S. worker could be found before they could hire guest workers. Only 14% supported the requirement that employers guarantee non-displacement of its U.S. employees.

Such rules are politically appealing, but they are more likely to chill guest work opportunities and reduce economic dynamism than to protect jobs. Research shows that the U.S. economy is stronger on balance with immigration, just as it is with free trade, which is why so many of the surveyed experts are bullish on the “likely effects of an expanded and more efficient U.S. guest worker program for all skill levels five years after enactment.” Ninety-four percent of the experts said it would increase GDP. All but one thought U.S. exports would increase (51%) or at least stay the same. On balance, our experts thought there would be no effect on unemployment among U.S. workers.

In addition, 80% of the respondents think an improved guest worker visa would decrease illegal border crossings. There was also near-consensus that it would reduce the number of undocumented immigrants (71% to 12%) within U.S. borders.

The theory that immigration reform is too controversial and that all of its parts have to be addressed in a mega-bill are myths. That approach lets various special interests hide poison pills in legislation and keep the public bamboozled with endless bickering.

We are discovering a series of solutions that are pragmatic, incremental and enjoy an amazing amount of support among immigration experts, no matter their ideology. Somebody, please, tell the president.

Tim Kane is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and editor of its online immigration journal, Peregrine, which conducts and publishes the surveys of its working group of immigration experts. He is the coauthor of "Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America."

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