One detail on which all sides of the immigration debate seem to agree is the need to increase immigration quotas for the highly skilled, highly trained workers, so that more of these workers can enter the country. But a new immigration policy that does not adjust the quotas for workers along the entire wage and skill spectrum is doomed to fail.
As the Obama administration and members of Congress submit their proposals for immigration reform, one only hopes that in the course of the discussion, Congress, the president and the stakeholder community do not lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is reducing illegal entry and overstays of legal entrants. What to do about the estimated millions of illegal aliens already in the United States has, for practical purposes, stood in the way of badly needed immigration reform.
The various proposals discourage illegal immigration in several ways. For example, the president wants to establish mandatory verification by all employers to confirm employment authorization for new employees through the government database, E-Verify. Currently only certain employers are required to use E-Verify.
All the proposals call for increased border security and dedication of additional funds to secure the border. Finally, most proposals streamline the deportation of overstays who are threats to public safety. Congress will debate the effectiveness of these policies, and will enact some form of punishment and deterrent to illegal entry and overstay.
But if the goal is to prevent another illegal surge, our immigration policy must include a combination of reward and punishment. Comprehensive immigration reform will only be effective if there are legal opportunities for unskilled, semiskilled and highly skilled workers. Otherwise, the United States will continue to be a magnet for illegal entry and overstay.
The president has proposed increasing the quotas to eliminate the backlog for employment-sponsored immigration. The quotas were last overhauled in 1986. Under current quotas, most sponsored employees — even professionals — wait six years from the time an employer can establish a shortage of U.S. workers for the position until the employee is allowed to fill the position. Six years is simply too long for both the employer and the employee.
Streamlining the process for highly skilled immigrants, those with so-called “world class” skills, is an easy political sell. But reform needs to be across the board. The United States must offer realistic immigration opportunities at all levels, if another illegal immigration crisis is to be avoided.
Once we offer immigrants reasonable opportunities to immigrate to the United States, we can realistically expect that punishments imposed on those who fail to obey our laws will serve as effective deterrents.
Without a viable legal option, too many workers at all skill levels will be too tempted by the higher wages and greater opportunity in the United States. Without increased quotas at all levels, criminalizing unlawful status or taking other enforcement measures will simply create a revolving door of illegal aliens coming to the United States faster than we can deport those we find.
Whatever legislation is finally passed should reward aliens who follow our laws. The only reward that matters is to increase employment-based immigration visas and temporary guest worker visas. Otherwise, millions more will find illegal ways to enter the United States.
This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Business Forum section.