Forging Consensus on Immigration

The Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform released earlier this year by four Democratic and four Republican senators has been the basis of virtually all the serious discussions about immigration reform going on in Washington these past several weeks. Substantial disagreement has now surfaced over proposed limits on family-based visas as well as over ways to bring in greater numbers of unskilled workers. Yet one topic that may prove to be one of the more nettlesome has thus far received little attention: While the Framework links legalization and eventual naturalization of undocumented immigrants almost entirely to border controls, it neglects what has long been the weakest aspect of immigration enforcement—the workplace. Surprisingly, the Gang of Eight’s many critics have yet to focus on this aspect of their Framework.

Four years ago, as immigration reform fell off the congressional agenda, the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable grappled with precisely these issues. Ours was a deliberative effort involving twenty individuals from the left, right and center—think tank analysts, academics, political and policy entrepreneurs, former government officials, and community leaders—who saw immigration from divergent, even conflicting perspectives. Over the course of a year, we convened regularly and explored our differences in order to determine where we could come together on specific policy proposals. In October 2009 we issued our report, Breaking the Immigration Stalemate. Its findings and recommendations are highly relevant to the Senators’ new push to forge consensus behind comprehensive immigration reform.

When their Bipartisan Framework asserts that “the United States must do a better job of attracting and keeping the world’s best and brightest,” it comes to the same conclusion as did the Brookings-Duke Roundtable—America’s economy demands a policy that supports high-skill immigration. Yet unlike the Senators, we took the next step and considered how to “pay for” those additional newcomers in a political environment where any increase in overall numbers of immigrants meets entrenched resistance. So while the Roundtable called for an additional 150,000 permanent resident visas for skilled workers, we also urged elimination of the controversial Diversity Visa Program, which each year awards 50,000 green cards to the winners of a lottery that the GAO has concluded is vulnerable to fraud.

Download the policy brief.

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