Immigration Reform That Takes a Bottom-Line (Not First-in-Line) Approach
A Thorough and Unbiased Look at Today's Immigration Policies by Economists Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny

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Today, foreign-born workers make up nearly 16 percent of the U.S. workforce and account for almost half of the workforce growth over the last decade. At the same time, under current immigration laws, the United States gives 84 percent of permanent resident visas to family-based, diversity, and humanitarian immigrants. "No other OECD nation relegates such a peripheral role to employment-based migration, and the United States should not do so either," warn economists Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny in Beside the Golden Door: U.S. Immigration Reform in a New Era of Globalization (AEI Press, 2010).

In their thorough, detailed discussion of U.S. immigration policy options, Orrenius and Zavodny explain why recent immigration reforms have resulted in an inefficient, patchwork system that shortchanges high-skilled immigrants and poorly serves the American public. They propose a radical overhaul of current immigration policy to strengthen economic competitiveness and long-run growth.

Among their proposals:

  • Employers would bid at auction for permits to hire foreign workers; the auction fees would serve as a tax on foreign labor, which would both soften labor market impacts for natives and provide revenue for taxpayers to offset the fiscal costs of immigration.

  • Immigration policy reform should favor employment-based immigration over family reunification, making work-based visas the rule, not the exception. Specifically, the authors recommend that:

      • Immigration policy should favor the high-skilled workers most in demand by U.S. employers. It should also provide legal avenues for low-skilled workers who can fill in for the declining low-skilled U.S. workforce.

      • Family reunification should be limited to spouses and minor children. A flat fee for bringing dependents into the United States would defray the education and health-care costs borne by taxpayers. Limiting family-based immigration would also reduce chain migration and thus reduce immigration's adverse fiscal impacts on U.S. taxpayers.

      • Provisional visas should be the norm; the decision to work in the United States should be separate from the decision to reside permanently in the United States. Permanent resident status should be possible after five or ten years, and there should be no limits on green cards. Such a policy would restore some fluidity and circularity to migration.

      • Short-term migration makes sense in an era of globalization and should be encouraged. Allowing immigrant admissions to depend on demand--in other words, allowing U.S. employers to recruit foreign workers when labor markets tighten--would promote economic growth and smooth out swings in the business cycle.

"I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" So ends Emma Lazarus's famous poem inviting immigrants to enter a land of economic opportunity. To ensure that the United States remains that land of opportunity and is able compete in an increasingly global economy while protecting the interests of American citizens, Orrenius and Zavodny conclude that only a selective immigration policy focused on high-skilled and high-demand workers whose labor will make the United States more competitive can keep the American dream alive.

Pia M. Orrenius is senior economist and research officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Madeline Zavodny is professor of economics at Agnes Scott College.

INTERVIEW REQUESTS: For interview requests, please contact the authors directly. Pia M. Orrenius can be reached at [email protected] (214.922.5747). Madeline Zavodny can be reached at [email protected] (404.471.6377). For all other media inquiries, please contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected] (202.862.4871) or Sara Huneke at [email protected] (202.862.4870).


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