Democrats Need an Immigration Policy
Published by Valley News, Friday, August 18, 2017
Two Republican Senators have proposed a radical shift in the nation’s immigration policy. The White House recently endorsed their proposal. The Democratic Party must treat this as a wake-up call. It needs a fresh immigration policy of its own.
The RAISE Act of Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue signals further that immigration could be the Trump administration’s political achievement with the most impact.
The administration is, indeed, changing public expectations, with implications for the myriad ways in which immigration in the U.S. operates. More than a set of complicated laws, immigration slowly moves wave-like through job markets, business creation, public school enrollment and many byways of life.
The act’s key features are not new, but similar to recommendations made by the last bipartisan commission on immigration created by President Clinton. These features are a radical shift from family-based immigration to skill-based immigration, including an English language proficiency test, and a 50 percent cut in permanent visas.
To this lifelong liberal, the response so far from the liberal media to the RAISE act relies on old nostrums, with a lack of imagination. The immigration system of today is an accumulation of historical accidents. By defending the status quo, we make ourselves hostage to those accidents.
There are several ingredients in a fresh, forward-looking vision of immigration.
One step is to look inward to our expectations for America’s native-born workers, who account for over 83 percent of our workforce (down from over 90 percent two decades ago). We need to set goals for skills of our native-born workers in an economy that rewards formal skills and punishes the lack of them. We should set the expectation that all native-born Americans should at least complete high school, and that those with only a high school degree should master a trade, which might include a certificate.
We need also to forecast, without fear, our workforce demands for the next several decades. As economists have pointed out, we have hourglass-shaped job growth. The relatively new job of data scientist grows by 50 percent or more annually. The jobs of personal care aide and construction laborer are among the few large-scale occupations growing at more than 1 percent per year, and these mostly do not require a lot of formal education, even a high school degree. Many middle-level jobs, such as the office worker, have been diminished by automation.
We need to agree that immigration policy should be largely a workforce policy that addresses both high and low ends of the hourglass. This brings us to a scary threshold that calls for political leadership. We must puncture some myths about immigration.
One myth is that when the foreigner comes to the United States, she or he expects to stay here permanently. But many circle back home. Another myth is that all immigrants should pass pretty much the same tests for entry. This myth is contradicted daily by the many convoluted side doors that special interests have written into immigration law and its administration. Sustaining these myths has led to widespread distrust of our immigration system.
The reality is that for more than a century, a huge transnational job market exists involving the United States, Mexico and Central America. This job market accounts for the great majority of unauthorized persons in the United States. It also is the labor foundation for agriculture, low-level construction and other jobs where formal education and English language proficiency are unnecessary.
The 1994 North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did not provide for long-term guest workers in the United States and Canada. Guest worker programs in the United States emit an odor of exploitation and discrimination against native-born workers with low formal education. We need to learn how to create large-scale guest worker programs that respect everyone’s rights.
With regard to refugees and asylum-seekers, the United States as a leading country must set an example of generous policies in an age when national governance and even the continued existence of countries are at risk.
Liberals should resist the temptation to set an overall numerical target for immigration and foreign workers. The number should be able to fluctuate according to a planning process.
And, a liberal vision for immigration needs to respect the concerns of many Americans about the number of unauthorized persons. This does not mean massive deportation. Also, we must respect fears about erosion of civic culture attributed to immigration. This second concern is real, even if misplaced. The concerns are most articulated in communities where the important demographic event in the past few decades is not arrival of low-wage immigrants but the continued collapse of job markets for young native-born Americans.
Liberals, unchain yourselves from the past.