The More-Workers-Needed Fallacy

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on January 3, 2011

With the decreasing likelihood of "comprehensive immigration reform," at least as it has been formulated to date, and the defeat of the so-called DREAM act, interested parties on all sides of the immigration debate are searching for new policy initiatives that can stand on their own and not be dependent on any "grand bargain" of amnesty and increased immigration in exchange for promises of enforcement.

A case in point is a suggestion coming from one of the smartest, liveliest conservative commentators, Jennifer Rubin. In a recent entry, she notes that "A lot of time has been spent arguing over border security, legalization and employer sanctions. But perhaps it is time to start from the other direction: a robust guest worker program.

She further notes that "neither the left, which wants to hold out for more, nor the right, which has become as anti-immigration (or 'pro-restrictionist,' if you prefer) as organized labor, is enamored of a guest worker program." I'm surprised at her characterization of the "right" as "anti-immigrant." Here she seems to fall into the trap of branding everyone who raises legitimate questions about immigration policy as being against immigrants and immigration more generally. This is not the case, and Ms. Rubin is smart enough to know better.

Her chief point is taken from Daniel Griswold writing for CATO, who says that "If Mexican and Central American workers know they can enter the country legally to fill jobs, they will be far less likely to enter illegally."

This seems basically true, but let us state the policy logic directly: There will no longer be a problem with illegal immigration if only we increase the amount of immigration that is legally allowed so that no willing worker has to be "illegal."

One gets a more comprehensive feel for Griswold's perspective by examining what he said elsewhere in the same article that Rubin does not quote: "Enforcing a flawed immigration system has wasted tax dollars, frustrated the public, and created an underground labor force living in a legal twilight zone. The answer is comprehensive reform offering earned legalization to the millions of undocumented workers already here, temporary visas to new workers to meet our future labor needs, and sensible enforcement aimed at the remaining small minority that refuses to work within the new system."

He goes on, "A workable temporary-visa program would allow border agents to concentrate their efforts on intercepting real criminals and terrorists at the border. It would also reduce the temptation to hire illegal workers, in turn reducing the need to raid workplaces and impose national ID cards, employment verification systems, and other burdens on American citizens."

Of course "reducing the need" for employment verification systems would essentially create an inducement for illegal immigration since, short of completely open borders, there will always be more people who want to live and work in the United States than there will be visas to accommodate them.

This is one approach to "solving" the problem of illegal immigration – simply legalize the 10-12 million illegal immigrants now living here and increase the number of available visas until there is no one left who wants to live and work here but can't. Obviously, this "solution" carries enormous social, political, and economic costs for the United States, and reminds us that solving the illegal immigration problem by adding visas is no solution at all.

Adding "temporary workers," as both Ms. Rubin and Mr. Griswold recommend, may sound sensible, but only to those willing to make fantastic leaps of assumptions and logic.

Next: Foreign Workers and the Mismatch Theory