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 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT