Immigration reform needs flexibility on work visas

The US system for work visas hasn't changed much since 1965, despite fluctuations in the economy and in demand for foreign workers. Immigration reform must include more flexibility. One way is to create an independent body that regularly advises Congress on visa limits.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/file
Sen. Marco Rubio, (R) of Florida, speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference Jan. 28 alongside a bipartisan group of leading senators. The senators have been working on an immigration reform package. Op-ed contributors Demetrios G. Papademetriou and Madeleine Sumption write that other countries have "experimented with ways to make their visa policies more selective and more responsive."

As Congress once again considers a fundamental overhaul of US immigration policies, one diagnosis is widely accepted: The immigration system is badly out of date. Nowhere is this clearer than in employment-based immigration – the part of the system that admits people to meet specific labor-market needs or otherwise contribute to the economy. The basic architecture of the work-visa system dates from 1965, and with the exception of one major amendment in 1990 and a couple of tweaks in 2000 and 2004, it has remained largely static. 

During this time, seismic shifts have taken place in both the United States and global economies. The growth of the high-tech and knowledge-based service industries has created new demands for skills that the US education system struggles to meet. Globalization has opened new markets for many US firms and industries, while putting others under much more competitive pressure than they previously faced. 

The demographic balance has shifted profoundly, with retiring baby boomers set to put public finances under strain and make a dynamic economy all the more important. At the same time, the growth of the middle classes in newly industrialized countries – such as China, India, and Brazil – and also major emerging players such as Mexico, Turkey, and Indonesia has dramatically diversified the global talent pool. 

In other words, the argument for using immigration as a strategic policy tool to boost American growth and living standards has never been stronger.

Major immigrant-receiving countries across the world have responded to this new environment by testing and adapting policies to attract, select, and retain the workers they need. 

Australia, Canada, and Britain, for example, have all fundamentally reengineered their immigration systems in the past few years. They’ve experimented with ways to make their visa policies more selective and more responsive to economic needs. Policy adjustments both large and small have been taking place across high-income countries, from Austria and Sweden to Japan and Singapore.

If there is one thing that the US should learn from the hive of activity overseas, it is the value of nimble and responsive policy. Flexibility is sorely lacking in the US immigration system, which changes so rarely that it cannot hope to reflect economic realities. This is particularly clear when it comes to numerical limits – the rigid system of visa caps – that dominate employment-based immigration. 

Despite dramatic shifts in demand for visas, from the economic boom of the mid-2000s to the crash at the end of the decade, allotments have remained almost unchanged; and when they have changed, it has been the result of ad hoc agreements rather than systematic review. 

Without effective tools to adjust its immigration policy and ensure a future flow of workers that complements the domestic workforce in real time, the US could seriously undermine the natural competitive advantage it has historically enjoyed in bringing in the best people from around the world. Even a major policy overhaul in 2013 will quickly become outdated if it does not create a framework for much more regular reviews and adjustments in the future.

What, then, can Congress do to make the immigration system more responsive? 

One proposal that has gained momentum is for an independent body housed within the executive branch of the US government. It would be tasked with making regular recommendations to Congress for adjusting immigration levels and also policies (such as fees, minimum salary requirements, and other eligibility criteria). 

This body, originally proposed by a Migration Policy Institute task force in 2006, would produce ongoing nonpartisan, rigorous analysis on the impacts of current immigration policies. It would suggest sensible adjustments that Congress should consider. Unlike with America’s most-strategic competitors abroad, such analytical capacity simply does not exist in the US.

In a positive development, several major immigration bills in the past six years have featured a proposal of this kind. So, too, does the recent agreement between the US Chamber of Commerce and labor groups that have been negotiating the details of employment-based visa reform for the bipartisan Senate immigration package. 

Of course, the details are crucial. For example, recommending numerical limits would be a major responsibility for the new entity. But since numerical limits are a relatively blunt instrument, an effective body must have a mandate to analyze the broader polices and regulations that accompany such limits, and to recommend adjustments according to market needs. 

At the same time, Congress must resist the temptation to micromanage the immigration system – for example, by expecting this entity to determine the exact allocation of visas across individual occupations and industries. 

If done right, the US could gain an authoritative and evidence-based voice in an otherwise politicized debate – a crucial step toward an immigration system that is flexible enough to truly serve the nation’s economic interests.

Demetrios G. Papademetriou is president of the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan research organization that analyzes US and international migration trends and policies. Madeleine Sumption is an MPI senior policy analyst.

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