Opinion: How to turn down the pressure on the southern border

Migrants lined up and wrapped in blankets
Asylum-seeking migrants wrapped in blankets lined up Friday to be processed after crossing the California-Mexico border near Jacumba Hot Springs.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

There is an irony about our southern border. It’s a flashpoint for the country right now — strung with razor wire, overwhelmed by migrants, feeding feverish emotion — and better border management is urgently needed. But while the border is where immigration challenges confront us, it is not the place where solutions will be found.

If we want to reduce the stress on the border and bring down our shared political temperature, we need to take a more expansive look at our immigration policies. Building more worker visa programs is a good place to start.

For the record:

11:21 a.m. Feb. 7, 2024

An earlier version of this piece identified former U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad’s home state as South Dakota. He is from North Dakota.

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It’s no secret that our country’s gobsmacking backlog of more than 2 million asylum cases is driven, in large part, by migrants fleeing poverty. Yes, some are fleeing poverty and violence, but many are directly fleeing poverty. Their asylum applications, by and large, will be denied because economic desperation, no matter how severe, is not one of the few legally recognized criteria for asylum. Still, these migrants enter the years-long adjudication process because there are no other options for them.

Many Americans think “economic” migrants should “get in line and wait their turn,” but this admonition fails to recognize that, other than the asylum morass, there is generally no line for those fleeing poverty to wait in. The U.S. offers approximately 140,000 employment-based visas each year, in a labor market that is short somewhere around 3 million workers — and many of the workers are needed for types of labor that have few or no visas available. By creating more guest worker programs we would not only thin the crowds at the border, but also help the country meet some glaring economic needs.

There are already bipartisan road maps for such programs.

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Take, for instance, the proposed Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, which included the creation of a W visa to allow entry for low-skilled temporary workers seeking jobs that do not require a college degree. This would have met so many of our country’s needs when it comes to critical industries like construction, landscaping and food services — pieces of the economy for which we already rely so heavily on unauthorized workers, as much as we hate to admit it.

The 2013 legislation did not become law — despite support from 68 senators — but there are similar bipartisan proposals on the table now, even in our explosive political environment. Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) introduced a bill called the Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act last spring, which would establish a new visa category, H-2V, for filling jobs that have remained open for a required amount of time and are located in regions where the unemployment rate is below 8%.

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The “essential worker” approach would work to the benefit of migrants and a range of American industries, as laid out in “Immigration Reform: A Path Forward,” a recent white paper from Cornell Law School’s Immigration Law and Policy Program. One of several suggestions made there is to start with healthcare.


The government already allows some non-U.S. resident healthcare professionals who have been trained in the U.S. to stay in the country to work, if there is a facility seeking to hire them. The Conrad-30 Waiver Program — “30” refers to a cap for each state on how many individuals can receive the waiver each year — used to be called the Conrad-20 program, but demand required a jump to 30, and still it’s not providing enough healthcare workers in states such as North Dakota, the home of former Republican Sen. Kent Conrad, who originally proposed the program. Our need for more healthcare professionals — particularly in rural, Republican-leaning regions — is so vast that it becomes difficult to understand why we insist that foreign healthcare professionals who are trained in the U.S. leave the country after graduation.

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The Conrad-30 success surely points the way forward. Why not let states decide how many foreign workers they need and give each participating state an allocation of work visas or waivers to issue in industries with labor shortages?

In 2019, Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis introduced a bill that would create a pilot program for states to customize their worker visa allocations based on local economic needs. States that choose to participate could determine, within limits, the duration of the visas and the skill sets of the recipients. Visa holders would be required to apply regularly for renewal.

Such a state-based visa program would be an opportunity for the “laboratories of democracy” to flex their muscles, address specific labor shortages and reduce stress on the nation’s southern border. As Curtis said in one interview, a state-tailored program is smart small government. “It’s a million times easier to hold the governor accountable than your congressman, right?,” he said. “It gives people on the ground more control over their destiny.”

Perhaps most importantly, implementation of these and other viable visa proposals do not require any legislative confrontation with the question of permanent residency. They put forward temporary visas only, and each program comes with caps on how many visas can be administered and requirements for regular renewal. Permanent residency, if pursued by anyone holding such a visa, would have to be gained through other immigration channels.


The Republican governor has continued putting up razor wire and impeding federal agents at the U.S.-Mexico border in violation of the law and the Constitution.

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Of course, strict oversight would be necessary to ensure employers carry out the due diligence required by any of these programs, first offering available positions to American workers and being held accountable for any exploitation of foreign workers.

When we build dynamic worker visa programs, a swath of individuals who would otherwise show up at our southern border asking for asylum are instead welcomed into a state or industry that needs and wants them. Migrants get the opportunity they sought, our country makes progress on labor shortages, the southern border gets much needed relief, and our fractious immigration debate has a chance to cool a bit.

DW Gibson is the author of “14 Miles: Building the Border Wall” and research director for Ideaspace, which is collaborating with Cornell Law School to support its recent white paper on immigration.