HUENNEKENS: Immigration Reform Can Drive Our Recovery

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the nationwide unemployment rate stood at 7.9 percent – double what it was in February before the COVID-19 crisis hit our shores. Stay-at-home orders, government-mandated shutdowns, and delayed reopening of state and local economies continues to derail the ability of our country to recover from the economic and human impact of COVID-19. Worse still, millions of Americans remain unemployed, particularly in the service sector of our economy.

Fortunately, there is a strategy that the president and Congress could pursue to level the playing field for American workers and give them every available opportunity to fill jobs with high-paying wages. That strategy is pursuing meaningful immigration reform that puts the American worker first.

new report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) outlines how our government can seize this opportunity to make our country’s immigration policy work for American workers, rather than against them. Addressing rampant illegal immigration, burgeoning overall legal admissions, and misguided guestworker programs, this blueprint for the American worker proposes three policy changes that would put American workers and their wages first.

The first step that Congress and the president must take is arguably the simplest and easiest: mandatory E-Verify for every employer in the country. E-Verify is a free, online tool that allows employers to quickly check a job applicant’s I-9 form against Social Security and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) records to determine if the employee is eligible to work in the United States. Mandatory E-Verify is also easily the least-controversial and least-restrictive policy change that would have the greatest effect on curbing illegal immigration in the country. Studies prove its effectiveness, and it is already used by hundreds of thousands of employers in many states.  

Illegal aliens come to the United States almost singularly for one reason: to work. And as long as there are employers willing to flout immigration laws or look the other way when given suspicious documentation, nothing will change. Mandatory E-Verify would reduce the incentives to illegally enter the United States and will subsequently raise wages for low-skilled American workers and legal immigrants struggling to find work in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown.

The second step is a significantly heavier lift than E-Verify, but critical to the continued public support for legal immigration.  Unlike most developed countries with advanced economies, our immigration system – through chain migration – rewards blood ties rather than intelligence or skill. Moving our outdated legal immigration system to a modern, merit-based model would pay dividends for the American economy and its workforce by making citizens out of younger, highly educated, and better-assimilated immigrants, compared to our current model which rewards familial ties regardless of skills. Moving to a skills-based immigration system and reducing the number of legal immigrants to more traditional levels would give both native-born and naturalized Americans a greater opportunity to find meaningful work at higher wages.

This would require action by Congress and it is not something that a president can do on their own through executive action. Fortunately, some proposals already exist. One of those is Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) RAISE Act, which proposes a merit-based immigration model, eliminates the visa lottery system, and reduces chain migration to only the nuclear family while shifting the majority of our annual visas from the chain migration category to the employment-based category.

Finally, changes to our legal immigration law must accompany reforms and reductions to our guestworker visas, notably the H-1B, H-2B, H-2A, J-1, and OPT programs. These programs have spiraled out of control and betray their original purpose as temporary patches to labor shortages. Worse still, it is well accepted by experts on both sides of the aisle that these programs reduce job opportunities for Americans and depress wages. Citing the COVID-19 economic crisis, President Trump wisely paused guestworker admissions in July. The blueprint for the American worker argues that our government must go farther to protect vulnerable workers by significantly reforming these programs and ensuring that it never cost less to hire a foreign guest worker than a willing American citizen.

Until there is a workable vaccine, the United States will continue to live under the “new normal” of COVID-19 shutdowns, social distancing, and other public safety measures that derailed our red-hot pre-virus economy. Americans are suffering due to the economic fallout of this virus. Economic stimulus packages can only go so far to patch up the economy. At a time like this, it is important to recognize that we have a unique opportunity to reform our immigration policy so that it works for American workers, rather than against their interests. These recommendations will go a long way in creating an economy and an immigration system that works together to raise both wages and working conditions for all Americans and legal immigrants during these trying times.

Preston Huennekens is a Government Relations Associate at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.