I wrote an opinion piece after President Trump’s State of the Union address last year, in which I suggested trying to make legal entry to the U.S. more feasible and then seeing if the numbers of illegal crossings decline before concluding that a wall is necessary. Well, I am humbled to discover that this idea has already been tried in the past.
In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law gave amnesty, permanent legal status, to 3.1 million unauthorized immigrants and increased temporary work permits in exchange for government imposed penalties on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, according to Public Law 99-603.
Unfortunately, the latter requirement was difficult to enforce, so the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country has only grown from the over 3 million in 1986 to approximately 12 million in 2015, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Indeed, the Center for Migration Studies of New York found that from 2016 to 2017, people who overstayed their visas accounted for 62% of the newly undocumented, while 38% had crossed the border illegally.
So, clearly any future attempts at giving out more temporary work visas must be accompanied by better tracking and enforcement of employer requirements to periodically ascertain the legal status of their employees on temporary visas.
Charles Krauthammer, Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Washington Post columnist recommends the institution of an extensive e-verify system to make it inexcusably easy for an employer to check a potential worker’s visa status, he said in an Op-Ed video for Prager University.
If, under such a system, unauthorized immigration indeed drops because of better employer surveillance of worker documentation, then perhaps more temporary work visas could be issued in industrial sectors such as child and elder care and agriculture that suffer labor shortages.
Even better, perhaps a pathway to citizenship could be created for lower skilled workers, who, under current U.S. immigration policy of giving higher priority to close relatives of citizens and the higher educated, have little chance of ever gaining permanent residence.
This is another fact I hadn’t realized — although the U.S. welcomes the most immigration of any country in the world, granting over a million permanent residencies a year, there are still, according the Center for Immigration Studies, over 4 million applicants for legal immigration on the waiting list, according to the Council on Foreign Relations
This new pathway might grant citizenship to lower-skilled workers who have proven their citizenship potential while on their temporary work visas by having records of good employment, filing taxes, and absence of law infractions, thus creating the incentive for people to obey the law instead of to skirt it.
Although the U.S. has over 12 million unauthorized immigrants living among us, our unemployment rate is extremely low at 3.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That must mean that these unauthorized immigrants are not taking jobs away from American citizens, but are likely fulfilling the labor needs of the country.
If we can get the rates of unauthorized immigration down by reducing the economic incentive to come illegally, perhaps we could then grant amnesty to the ones who are already here, plus create this pathway to citizenship for new immigrants who come on temporary visas to contribute to fulfilling labor shortages we could track, industry by industry.
Making sure that the granting of temporary work visas is matched to a tracking of labor needs is really important. In the years 1942 to 1947, and 1951 to 1964, the U.S. government instituted the Bracero Program, which gave out 5 million temporary work visas to Mexicans to do seasonal work on U.S. farms and railroads, according to the 2018 World Book Encyclopedia.
Unfortunately, despite U.S. guarantees for a minimum wage and decent work conditions, worker exploitation was frequent and conditions were harsh. Cesar Chavez, representing the United Farm Workers, lobbied against the Bracero Program because it created an unlimited supply of cheap labor whom employers used as strikebreakers, according to the World Book Encyclopedia. Any future attempts to make it easier for workers to come legally would have to be accompanied by better enforcement of protections against exploitation and the right to unionize.
So, do we need a wall? If employers were really vigilant about checking the documentation of workers and only hiring those here legally, the economic incentive to come illegally would disappear. Unfortunately, there is a big economic disincentive for employers to screen out undocumented workers, as such workers fear deportation and are therefore willing to work for less pay under lower standards for working conditions. Wouldn’t it be great if the Border Patrol could shift their attention from tracking down unauthorized immigrants to tracking employers and enforcing their obligation to hire only documented workers and adhere to fair labor practices?
Ironically, our current political divisions in the U.S. might provide the opportunity to finally create comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans could be allowed to institute an extensive e-verify system and put resources into enforcing it in exchange for Democrats making legal immigration easier by issuing more temporary work visas and creating a pathway for lower-skilled workers in underserved industries to earn citizenship.
Illegal immigration is a complex and emotional issue, but that shouldn’t paralyze us into tolerating it, as it is a part of a bigger problem of social justice and worker exploitation. If we can get this balance right of decreasing the economic incentives to come illegally, while increasing the incentives to prove fruitful citizens, we can solve the problem of unauthorized immigration without a wall while encouraging and rewarding those who respect our laws and contribute to the needs of our country.