People are skeptical that Congress can really fix our dysfunctional immigration system. And with good reason. In the late 80s, Congress enacted immigration reform, but the problem of illegal immigration didnt stop, it only grew.
However, proponents of immigration reform, both Democrats and Republicans, tell us things are going to be different this time around because theyre going to mandate what the 1986 law didnt: mainly, that operational control of the border is guaranteed, that an effective electronic system of employment eligibility is implemented, and that extremely steep fines are imposed on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.
There is no question that these provisions are necessary to properly address our immigration challenges. But, theyre still not enough to solve the problem permanently.
The only way to do this is by creating an effective mechanism to manage the future flow of immigrants: that is, by creating a credible guest-worker program.
A guest-worker program was also absent in the 1986 immigration-reform law. Thats the central reason it failed. The more than 3 million undocumented immigrants legalized at the time had already been absorbed by the labor market; yet American employers still needed more foreign workers. And, without any more work visas available, they kept coming in illegally.
The reality is that our economy needs a steady stream of foreign workers to perform jobs Americans dont want to do or for which there are simply not enough Americans of working age. Even during these difficult times, there are many industries that could not continue to exist in their present prosperity without foreign labor. Agriculture is certainly one of them.
Lets face it: Most Americans dont want to pick fruit, mow lawns or wash dishes. Most feel they are overeducated for this kind of work. Moreover, often employers cannot find American-born workers under 50 to do many labor-intensive jobs. Its evident that our native-born population is aging and we dont have enough people to replenish our unskilled workforce.
At present, there are not enough work visas for foreign workers to come in legally. Moreover, work visa programs in existence are overregulated and burdensome on employers. The yearly limit for unskilled non-agricultural workers, for instance, is only 66,000 a year.
This is why immigrants end up entering illegally or overstaying their visas. There are no efficient legal ways for migrant workers to enter the country. In other words, government intervention and regulation has created the problem of illegality.
The population of undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. is only a symptom of the immigration problem. We can improve border security and toughen domestic enforcement of immigration law, but if we dont have a way to manage the future flows of immigrants, we will continue to see people coming here illegally to work. That is the power of the market forces of an economy like ours, which, after all, is the largest in the world.
A temporary worker program would incorporate into our system the concept of circular migration. Foreign workers would come in legally, perform their work, return to their home countries when they want to, and then re-enter legally to get back to work. Contrary to popular belief, most immigrants who come here dont want to settle in the United States and become citizens. If they end up staying, its because to return home would require them to go through the unpleasant and dangerous experience of trying to enter the United States illegally all over again.