Plan B for the Pro-Migration Advocates

By David North on January 14, 2011

Now that "comprehensive immigration reform" is either dead or in slumber for the next two years, the pro-migration people have come up with a somewhat different approach, and it was discussed at a meeting in Washington Thursday.

It is useful to note that the pro-migration advocates, though allied with each other, come in three different groupings. There are the employers, who want lower wages; there are the ethnic organizations who say, in effect, "Let My People In"; and then there are the intellectuals, represented Thursday at a session of the foundation-supported Migration Policy Institute.

On display Thursday was a gently stated, appropriately nuanced discussion of how to deal with immigration policy. The principal speaker was Harry J. Holzer, a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, and now a Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University. There were friendly comments from Doris Meissner, one-time INS Commissioner and an MPI official, Demetrious Papademetriou, also ex-DOL and President of MPI, and Darrell West of the Brookings Institution.

MPI had just issued Holzer's new paper "Immigration Policy and Less-Skilled Workers in the United States: Reflections on Future Directions for Reform."

Holzer is frankly pro-immigration, but is honest enough to admit that it can be hard on less-skilled resident workers, and particularly black males. He speaks of, among other things, increasing the costs for illegal immigrants, and increasing the benefits for those in legal status, as part of a scheme to restore some order in the labor market. He is an enthusiastic supporter of high-skilled immigration and mentioned no adverse impacts on high-skilled resident workers, which I think is a mistake.

He is also honest enough to acknowledge that it is not only employers who benefit from low-wage workers, it is also consumers generally, including, he said, to a white-collar, well-educated audience, "people like you." He spoke of how international migration increased the supply of nannies and people who work in "the restaurants that you like."

I had not met him before, and I do not agree with him on many of his policies, but he does make a good impression. I was, however, somewhat discouraged not to hear anything, from this economist, at least at that event, regarding how immigration helps broaden the gap between the rich and the poor.

He also made the useful point that no matter how many more Border Patrol agents are hired, that will make no impact on the "forty percent or so of the undocumented alien population who came here legally, and who overstayed their visas." He did not, however, follow this thought with any suggestions regarding upgrading interior enforcement to apprehend such persons.

Although he made other points, these four stuck with me:

  • There should be a new administrative visa, that will let workers come into this country without ties to an employer; a visa that could, under some circumstances, be converted to permanent legal status.

  • The number of employment-based visas should be regulated, not by the Congress, but by a standing commission, that would lift and lower the numbers to be admitted to match economic conditions. (I have argued against that position in an August 2010 CIS Backgrounder.)

  • Low wages caused by the large numbers of low-skilled immigrants, both legal and illegal, should be corrected not by limiting the number of immigrants, but by better enforcement of (a perhaps higher) minimum wage.

  • And, as he writes in his report, there should be: "employer visa fees sufficient to offset some of the costs that low-skilled immigration imposes on American workers in similar jobs and on public finances at the local level."

While I am totally supportive of a higher minimum wage much more vigorously enforced, and while I think employers in the foreign worker programs are getting away with murder as far as the minimal fees they pay, I find his last two points somewhat unrealistic in terms of the real politics of this country.

While various administrations have been happy to beef up the Border Patrol to something like 20,000 agents, to enforce one part of the immigration law in one part of the country, there are fewer than 2,000 minimum wage investigators, to enforce the minimum wage law nationwide. Similarly, large portions of the higher fees established for the better enforcement of the H-1B program, for instance, have been siphoned off for other governmental programs.