Shift to “Demand Driven” Immigration

The COVID-19 crisis initially affected the U.S. immigration system by prompting the shutdown of immigration courts and suspension of routine visa processing services. These actions were more or less in line with broader economic shutdowns and closures. The Trump administration, however, has seized on the COVID-19 crisis as a fresh pretext for enacting a cruel and radically restrictive immigration agenda that slows economic recovery, hurts the United States in the long-term, and is out of step with what Americans support.

In June, for example, President Trump announced an extension, through the end of the year, of his “temporary” ban on new work visas. This includes high-skilled workers, executives, and seasonal workers who are critical to U.S. innovation and growth. While small modifications to the order have been made—and lawsuits have been brought—it still places serious limitations on America’s ability to act as a magnet for talent. Immigrant workers already in the country have also faced disproportionate exposure to the pandemic at, for example, meatpacking plants, thanks to the administration’s lax approach to occupational safety.

The administration’s actions are bad policy at any time; today they make life even more difficult for immigrants and dig the pandemic-created economic hole even deeper. They also follow three years of immigration policymaking that has made our labor markets less flexible and our economy less dynamic and less innovative.

Yet it must also be said that America’s immigration system was not in the best shape even before the Trump administration’s detour into nativism and wall-building. Despite some progress made by President Obama, U.S. immigration policy had been growing misaligned with the nation’s changing economic needs. For progressives, the challenge is not merely to undo what Trump has done, but to make our economy more dynamic and resilient by bringing our immigration laws into the 21st century.

The key change is to make U.S. immigration laws more “demand-driven” and responsive to labor market needs as America ages, our workforce grows more slowly, and labor shortages hamper production from agriculture to high tech.

Two-thirds of green cards issued each year are for family reunification, with about one in six being employment-based. A large share of employment-based green cards, moreover, are issued to family members of workers. While family reunification is the broad superhighway by which most legal immigrants enter the United States, we also have an alphabet soup of visa programs which offer certain workers narrow routes of entry. There are, for example, nearly two dozen different types of visas for “temporary nonimmigrant workers.” Some of these programs function fairly well but taken as a whole they make work-based immigration unduly fragmented and complex, and subject to industry capture.

Family reunification should remain an important goal for U.S. immigration policy. Our country has a proud tradition of welcoming migrants and refugees as families as well as individuals. Many economically successful first- and second-generation immigrants that we celebrate—such as Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs—came here as children or students.

Nonetheless, the time has come to adjust the balance and widen channels for work-based immigration, making sure they more closely match employer demand and economic need. To shift our policies in this direction, PPI proposes to replace the welter of narrow visa programs with a new Willing Worker Visa that admits people regardless of the kind of skills they have as long as they have a valid job offer from a U.S. employer. In order to be valid, employers would have to show they could not meet their labor needs with native workers alone.

In addition to expanding the supply of legal workers and dramatically simplifying our immigration laws, our approach would crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. The Trump administration has focused instead on penalizing workers while letting employers off the hook—echoing the president’s own record of using illegal workers in his businesses.

Key elements of the Willing Worker Visa would include:

  • Simplification and consolidation of existing visa programs to make entry and certification processes far smoother.
  • Contingency on job offers from U.S. employers, just as many employment-based visas are now.
  • Expanded pathways for temporary and nonimmigrants workers to become citizens, in part to discourage and reduce illegal border-crossing.
  • Tying visas for willing workers to areas of demonstrated skill gaps and labor shortages.
  • Tougher penalties on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers, fail to check documentation, or ignore immigration law.

It may seem incongruous to argue for more employment-based immigration as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the United States. Much of our economy is still locked down, we have double-digit unemployment, and there’s deep uncertainty about how long it will take the economy to recover.

Current projections are that unemployment rates will remain over 10 percent well into 2021. We know, however, that even at the height of the economic expansion in 2019, the U.S. economy faced severe skill shortages, with more than seven million jobs unfilled.

Moreover, Trump’s claim that he wants to restrict immigration to preserve U.S. jobs for
U.S. workers stems from a faulty, zero-sum understanding of how labor markets work. In
a dynamic market economy, the number of jobs is never fixed but grows with labor supply. We have a compelling national interest in opening America’s doors to willing workers from elsewhere who can help us close skills gaps and fill labor shortages.

The challenge is to ensure that unemployed native workers are successfully reabsorbed into the labor force while also ensuring a strong supply of willing foreign workers who help make the U.S. economy more productive and innovative.

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