I haven’t written much about the immigration reform effort not for a lack of interest, but rather because I found myself adrift with respect to which direction I thought it should take. Generally, I favor “solving” the issue of 11 million or so people who have entered this country illegally and work and live here. It’s always been readily apparent that some form of legal status has to be offered to them since there is no tenable alternative. Since I live in Phoenix which means I live amongst and interact with a lot of these people on a daily basis, the debate is not to me entirely abstract. I use their labor, enjoy their culture and generally find them overall to be far more pleasant than many multigeneration Americans. So, I’m pretty much open to any solution which legalizes their residency up to and including immediate citizenship.
So far so good, but somehow along the way this entirely rational outcome has become part of what we now call immigration reform. That it is not, and it would have been much better had the two never been joined together. So as I talk a little bit about immigration reform from here, I am not referring in anyway to a solution for the existing base of undocumented residents, rather about how we open the borders to future immigration.
With respect to immigration, I have always been an open borders proponent. Legal immigration for people looking to improve their lives and presumably sign onto American culture and values has always seemed to me to be a relatively easy call. The country has thrived as a result of successive waves of immigration and there seems little reason to believe that future immigration should not yield the same results. So, I welcomed the move to reform the country’s immigration architecture. Unfortunately what would should be a relatively simple exercise is in danger of foundering as various interest groups attempt to secure advantages or thwart imagined perils.
Strangely I find myself at least partially in agreement with Senator Bernie Sanders’ skepticism towards the need for a significant expansion of visas for high-tech workers. Given that there would appear to be some holes in the arguments advanced by the tech industry that they can’t find American workers with the requisite skills, one has to at least ask if they aren’t trying to game the system in order to attract lower wage employees from abroad. John Carney pointed out a couple days ago that wages for software-related jobs declined by about 2% in the last year despite an increase in individuals employed. Hardly an indication of a shortage of qualified employees. Senator Sanders points out that there are 9 million individuals with degrees in STEM related disciplines yet only 3 million employed in those fields. I have no objection to awarding visas to any foreign born student who graduates from a US university with a technical degree, but I do think we need to take a closer look at the motives behind the push for an increase in the quota for highly skilled immigrants.
I am dismayed by the failure of the proponents of the bill to provide for a straight forward guest worker provision. Unions have opposed it on the premise that it would impinge upon the work prospects for their workers or unskilled workers in general. All of which would be of some merit were a lot of unskilled Americans, let alone unionized workers, picking lettuce, harvesting grapes or toiling in livestock processing plants. There is just a lot of work that our citizens don’t want to do but others find acceptable, and we should know by now that if the jobs are there they will come to fill them, illegally if necessary. The lack of a generous guest worker program that allows individuals to come and go as the market demands it simply setting the conditions for the next wave of human beings who risk everything in search of a job.
Having come across as a flaming liberal on this particular topic, let me throw in a couple of caveats.
First, we would do well to reflect on some of the problems currently being encountered by other developed Western countries with their immigration policies. Discussing the six nights of rioting by immigrants and anti-immigrant citizens in Sweden Walter Russell Mead notes that:
High immigration societies need to be high opportunity societies. Immigrants and refugees come in search of a better life, but blue model societies like Sweden are more focused on providing welfare rather than opportunities for growth. The blue model social worker mind sees ‘excluded youth’ and thinks about programs: more midnight basketball, more food stamps, and the like.
Other European countries have seen similar disruptions (or worse as we know from the recent episode in London) and they can be traced to a lack of assimilation of the immigrant population into the larger society and certainly by a lack of economic opportunity. In many instances immigrants to these countries have upgraded their general standard of living through participation in the host country’s social welfare programs not through employment.
Two issues stand out. First, assimilation must occur. I am well aware that first generation immigrants have and always will tend to congregate in their own communities, and I’ve no interest in robbing any group of their particular culture. The goal is to make sure that those communities do not continue to be homes for the next generations. To be perfectly blunt about it the best way to ensure that assimilation occurs is via language. Currently the vogue is to cater to the immigrants unfamiliarity with English which serves neither their interest nor that of American society. If the whole exercise of immigration reform managed to achieve nothing more than a system which forces the mastery of English, I would probably pronounce myself satisfied.
The second issue concerns the ability of immigrants to be self-sustaining. I am not interested in creating the European conundrum of large unassimilated immigrants dependent upon the welfare state and simmering with resentment. Actually, our reluctance to deal with immigration, legal or illegal, for these many years have created just such a situation, though minor when compared to the European impasse. We are taxing our social welfare nets dealing with what we already have, so there is little reason to add to the burden.
Which brings us full circle to the guest worker solution or W-visa as it is now called. We cannot take in all of the world’s poor or even a smattering. We can provide meaningful work to our neighbors who don’t have it in their own countries. It’s arrogance to assume that many who come here seeking employment want to live in this country. Many want only the work and are quite happy to leave and return on a regular basis. Their contribution to the economy is substantial and it does us no good to deny them the jobs that would go begging without their willing participation. A guest worker program greatly expanded above that which is currently proposed in the immigration reform bills is a humane win for both the US and those who need more income.
We will no doubt get a half-baked solution from Congress which I suppose is better than nothing baked at all. I fear that the lack of a strong guest worker program is just setting us up for the next wave of desperate human beings risking everything for a chance to make some money. Hopefully, we don’t wait until there are another desperate 11 million souls who have come here illegally to adopt programs that make sense.