Skip to main content

Key to immigration reform: Worker visas

By Tamar Jacoby, Special to CNN
updated 12:27 PM EST, Mon January 28, 2013
At a rally outside the White House last November, immigrant rights organizations called for comprehensive immigration reform,
At a rally outside the White House last November, immigrant rights organizations called for comprehensive immigration reform,
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tamar Jacoby: Immigration reform in air, but focus tends to be on the undocumented
  • She says for real reform, discussion must be on providing unskilled worker visas
  • She says there's no way to "get in line" if no visas are available
  • Jacoby: In dynamic economy, entry will always outpace enforcement

Editor's note: Tamar Jacoby, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners in favor of immigration reform.

(CNN) -- Comprehensive immigration reform. Suddenly the phrase is on everyone's lips. From President Barack Obama to rising Republican star Sen. Marco Rubio to right-wing television hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. As if by magic, everybody's for it after six years of ducking and using reform as a political wedge issue -- everybody wants to get it done.

But what exactly is it? What kinds of changes will it entail, and what will they mean for America?

Tamar Jacoby
Tamar Jacoby

After more than 10 years of on-and-off debate in Washington, the most important piece of the puzzle is still rarely discussed and poorly understood. Obama often talks about reform without even mentioning it. It never came up on the campaign trail. It's not what brought Latinos out to vote in record numbers. And although it's likely to be included in the framework for reform expected to be released Monday by a bipartisan group of Senators, the concept gets very little attention from the media, English- or Spanish-language.

iReport: Under deportation, above fear

What's the most important piece of comprehensive immigration reform you never heard of? It's fixing the legal system so it works for the future -- for immigrants and the U.S. economy.

Many Americans think reform is about the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States. Many have been here for years and have put down roots. We're not going to deport them -- not even the harshest restrictionists think that's practical.

Nor are most likely to go "home" voluntarily, no matter how difficult we make their lives with tough enforcement. For the overwhelming majority, America is home by now. And they are sure to be the most contentious issue when the immigration debate resumes in months to come.

News: Possible compromise on immigration reform takes shape

But most contentious is not the same as most important.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



We all must ask: What created this problem in the first place? Exactly what is it about the broken immigration system that produced this vast underground world of workers and families -- a population the size of Ohio?

The root cause: For less-skilled foreigners who want to come to work legally in the United States, there is no "line" -- no available visas.

The two existing programs for low-skilled temporary workers are for seasonal labor only: farmhands, landscaping crews, summer and winter resort workers. And there are virtually no permanent visas to be had for unskilled workers. There simply is no avenue for an uneducated Mexican unless he has family members living legally in the U.S. who can sponsor him for a family visa.

Read: What's in Senate immigration plan?

Many, if not most, of the 11 million already here would have preferred to enter the country legally if that were possible. But they and others like them have no lawful option.

This wouldn't be a problem if we didn't need immigrant workers. But we do. And we're going to need them increasingly as the economy recovers.

This isn't because American workers are somehow lacking or inadequate. On the contrary, for the most part, it's because Americans are doing better than in decades past. We're becoming better educated and aspiring to the kinds of jobs for which our better educations prepare us.

News: GOP needs to back immigration overhaul, lawmakers say

Sen. Feinstein on immigration reform
The politics of immigration reform
Sen. Barrasso talks immigration reform

In 1960, half of the native-born men in the labor force were high school dropouts happy to do physically demanding, low-skilled work. Today, less than 10% of the native-born men in the labor force are high school dropouts. And meanwhile, far from shrinking, the demand for low-skilled labor is growing over time. In 1955, for example, 25 cents of every dollar spent on food was spent in a restaurant. Today, the figure is nearly 50 cents. And one of the fastest-growing occupations in America is home health aide.

But very few Americans with high school diplomas aspire to careers as busboys or home health aides. And they shouldn't -- their educations equip them to do more productive work, making better wages and contributing more to the economy.

No, we don't need as many immigrant workers in a down economy -- and far fewer want to come to the U.S. when jobs are scarce. But we still need some, and they need a legal way to get here. And whatever program we create needs to be flexible, growing in good times to accommodate rising labor needs and shrinking back in down times when demand subsides.

Don't get me wrong: The goal of reform is not to increase the overall number of unskilled immigrants entering the country.

Read: DREAMer's clout increases in immigration debate

What's needed is to end illegal immigration by creating ways for needed workers to come legally -- creating worker visas and establishing a system that allows employers who can't find enough willing and able Americans to connect easily and quickly with lawful immigrants.

This is not just an economic imperative. Without it, there can be no successful immigration law enforcement.

Even the best, most effective enforcement is no match for the dynamism of the U.S. economy. As long as there are jobs available, foreigners will want to come to work here. And if we want to prevent them from coming illegally, we need to create lawful alternatives.

Finding a solution for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the country addresses the mistakes of the past but fixes nothing going forward. Unless we create ways for the immigrants of the future to enter legally, we're going to find ourselves in exactly the same predicament a decade or two down the road -- wondering what to do about 10 or 20 million unauthorized immigrants living among us but beyond the rule of law.

The only way to prevent this: a legal immigration system that works.

Now if only Obama would mention it. Then we'd have some hope of getting somewhere as the debate resumes.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tamar Jacoby

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT