Newsweek, February 3, 2021
Is there a way to discourage illegal immigration to the U.S. without building more walls, spending lots of money or imposing draconian enforcement policies? And could such policy changes generate bipartisan approval?
The answer to both questions is yes. But it will take some imagination.
We all have seen reports over the years about large groups of low-income Central Americans seeking admission to the U.S., often in caravans. There are ways to divert existing resources to encourage would-be migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (the so-called Northern Triangle countries) to stay home or to come to the U.S. legally through existing channels, in ways that decrease illegal immigration without increasing overall legal immigration.
How would this magic happen? Well, it includes a certain amount of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and using some obscure U.S. resources. The first of our proposals would involve Congress, but the second and third would not.
The first is lottery visas. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the U.S. runs a worldwide lottery that distributes 50,000 immigrant visas among nations that do not supply large groups of migrants to America. People from Mexico, India and China, for example, cannot apply, but the lottery brings annual arrivals from other countries, such as (in 2018) 4,494 from Uzbekistan and 1,020 from Tajikistan.
Why not change the law to divert 5,000 of these visas a year to the Northern Triangle nations? This would convert some would-be illegal migrants to legal ones and, more importantly, discourage larger numbers from trying to come to the U.S. illegally while they wait to see if they win the lottery. This would cost the U.S. nothing in dollars; nor would it increase legal migration to the U.S., which now runs at the rate of more than one million a year.
Our second proposal has to do with farm workers' jobs. Some 190,000 temporary farm worker jobs go to aliens from Mexico in the H-2A program each year. The workers spend part of the year in the U.S. and return home when the harvests are finished. Meanwhile, the flows of illegal aliens from Mexico have dropped over the years and, for complicated reasons, it is much easier to repatriate Mexican illegal immigrants than Central American ones.
So why not use that resource, and tell agribusiness users of the program that they must take at least 50,000 part-year farmworkers from Central America in their H-2A workforces? Assuming each farm worker comes from a family of five, that would help keep some 250,000 Central Americans at home, while raising their incomes and easing the pressure on our southern border.
Third, government purchases of coffee. Instead of buying coffee from all over the world as we do now, the U.S. government could, over the next two years, buy (and require its vendors to buy) all of its coffee from the Northern Triangle. Doing so could more than double the "farm gate" price, which is now less than $1 a pound—a level which is driving Central Americans to seek illegal entry into the U.S.—for farmers in those countries.
Government buyers and suppliers would guarantee an extra dollar per pound for Central American farmers for the next two years. The multi-billion dollar budgets of the government agencies doing the buying would absorb the additional costs—which will be similar to what we paid a few years ago (in 2014, for example) when coffee prices were higher.
Additionally, over the same time frame, we could ask the U.S. coffee industry to increase its purchases of Northern Triangle coffee by 10 percent and to increase the minimum value of that coffee to the growers by 25 percent, perhaps using some recycled AID funds from other nations (like Egypt and Israel) to encourage these payment levels.
Over two years the government and the coffee industry could pump an additional $300 million directly into the rural economies of those three countries. Doing so would encourage Central Americans who are in or near the coffee trade to stay at home, and not risk their lives on illegal trips to the U.S.
With more visas from the lottery and H-2A programs, as well as higher coffee prices, we could reduce illegal migration from Northern Triangle nations substantially, without increasing overall legal immigration. As a lifelong Democrat and Biden voter who wants the new administration to succeed, I believe these changes can be an important part of a unity agenda.