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Brookings Report: The Product of Comprise, But Ultimately Not Practical

October 13, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

The Brookings Institute and Duke University recently published a report, Breaking the Immigration Stalemate: From Deep Disagreements to Constructive Proposals.  The report is the product of the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable, comprised primarily of academics from universities and think tanks who have long written about immigration and its impacts, and who come at the issue of immigration reform from very different perspectives.  The report tries to find common ground among the differing perspectives.  As noted in the introduction:


“We sought to create a new venue for serious and thoughtful debate across a wider spectrum of immigration views by assembling twenty individuals with divergent perspectives and orientations toward immigration policy.”


The product is thoughtful.  However, the compromises that result from agreements among the divergent views make some of the recommendations seem arbitrary, impractical, and perplexing.  Those recommendations would put us on a path to repeat some of the same mistakes of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)—they leave many immigrants ineligible for legalization, and they fail to account for a dynamic economy that requires flexibility in the admissions system.  Other recommendations would actually close legal avenues for immigration, thus increasing the pressure for illegal immigration.


The Roundtable recommendations include a legalization program.  However, applicants would have to prove they had resided continuously in the U.S. for at least five years.  A similar provision was a part of IRCA.  This time around, such a provision would leave a base of about 3 ½ million immigrants in the shadows, with all of the problems our larger undocumented immigrant population has now.  Instead of wiping the slate clean, the Brookings-Duke Roundtable would propose to make the slate somewhat less dirty.  From an operational standpoint, a five-year residency requirement will pretty much guarantee there will be more fraud than if there was a simpler requirement, as a new industry would spring up to provide the documents necessary to “prove” five years of residency.  The report does not give any explanation for leaving so many immigrants outside of the legalization program.


The Roundtable proposes to leave legal admissions at the level they are at today (about 1.1 million).  This was another big failure of IRCA—there was no mechanism to adjust admission levels so that when demand for immigrant workers and family unification increased, more immigrants would be allowed in legally.  While admissions were adjusted in 1990, they have not been since.  When the economy was hot in the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands more immigrants were coming to the U.S. to work than there were legal opportunities to do so.  Meanwhile, the demand for visas for family members could not be met by a ceiling set 20 years ago, and wait times for some categories have become several years long.


While the Roundtable proposes to keep the overall levels the same, they would shift numbers within the overall limit, proposing that more numbers be allocated to high-skilled immigrants.  There have been many reports issued in the past several years that warn of the damage to U.S. competitiveness due to unrealistically low numbers allocated to high-skilled immigrants.  (Some of those reports can be found linked here.) 


It is a common mistake, however, to ignore the need to supply a growing demand for low-skilled labor as well.  In 2006, the Department of Labor was projecting that between 2006 and 2016, occupations that require only short- or moderate-term on-the-job training would account for almost half of all jobs in that period.  In the late 1990s, the U.S. economy was absorbing several hundred thousand lower-skilled immigrant workers.  During that time, we provided 5,000 visas per year for legal entry.  Unless we acknowledge the need for low-skilled immigrants before the economy recovers from its current slump, it will be very difficult to stop those immigrants from coming to fill available jobs.


In the name of “numerical discipline,” the Roundtable proposes to compensate for an increase in skilled immigration by eliminating several categories of family immigration.  U.S. Citizens would no longer be able to petition for their siblings or adult children.  Legal Permanent Residents would no longer be able to bring in their adult unmarried children.  Not only that, but the Roundtable proposes to eliminate the majority of the backlog for family visas by simply telling most of those waiting in line that they are no longer eligible for visas.  All but 600,000 of the 5 million immigrants who are in line for visas would be deprived of a legal avenue for entry.  (Without apparent irony, the report notes that some of these immigrants would still qualify for visas in the legalization program.  In other words, if you broke the rules, you’re safe.) 


Again, closing legal avenues for entry for so many people will make any enforcement regime that much more difficult to successfully implement.


There are many elements in the report that are worth considering—a new emphasis on immigrant integration, a recognition that many temporary visa programs should be replaced by permanent visas are two examples.  The Roundtable’s proposal for restructuring the admissions system while keeping the number of legal visas constant, however, would practically guarantee continued high levels of illegal immigration.


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