Two Ingredients for Common-Sense Immigration Reform

By José Niño

The key to true immigration reform is a streamlined immigration process that allows immigrants and employers to freely interact in the marketplace, while incentivizing assimilation and social harmony among new arrivals to the United States.

Since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, immigration has become one of the most polarizing issues in American politics. Like any polemical political issue, immigration draws out strong emotions on both sides of the political aisle. Effective policymaking, however, must separate facts from emotions.

Mankind has been in search of greener pastures in foreign lands since time immemorial, irrespective of the legality of their actions. Countless immigrants have entered countries illegally to later become productive, law-abiding citizens.

In fact, imposing onerous regulations and prohibitions on normal activities has the potential to create black markets and destructive underground activity. The best way to curb illegal or under-the-table activities is to liberalize said activity and provide for legal avenues that can be openly tracked in the formal (white) market.

At the same time, there should be sensible policies that prevent immigrants from abusing public assistance and trying to game the system for political privileges.

To provide a pragmatic solution to this public policy question, the following points must be taken into consideration:

Let Immigrants Work

The best way for an immigrant to have a smooth process of assimilation into his new country of residence is to be allowed to interact with other native residents in the workforce. The success of the Bracero Program during World War II and other related work-visa programs in the 1950s and 1960s lies in their ability to create feasible legal avenues for immigrants to work. It was not heavy-handed enforcement, but rather liberalization and leniency in the visa-acquisition process that made legal immigration an attractive path to residency for many immigrants.

Less red tape will allow for prospective immigrants to take advantage of the legal immigration process. If the United States wants to show that she's serious about attaining legal immigrants that are ready to work, she must streamline her legal immigration process. To do so, policymakers should consider programs that make attaining work visas easier for immigrants.

This will enable immigrants to focus on honing their productive capacities, instead of asking for political rights and privileges from the state. As demonstrated in the European case, policies that emphasize social benefits over work engender destructive behavior among immigrants and make assimilation next to impossible. Labor-oriented immigration policy is key in this equation.

Descentralize Immigration

Even though immigration policy is clearly spelled out in the US Constitution as a task of the federal government, the framers never envisioned the following:

  • a United States comprised of 50 states across a vast geographic expanse;
  • a country part of a globalized economy where the mass movement of people would be the norm.

Given these realities, the federal government alone is not enough to establish a dynamic immigration policy that allows for the United States to capture the full benefits of immigration and at the same time, lightly monitor who comes in and out of the country. America’s federalist system exists for a reason: it not only allows states to be “Laboratories for Democracy,” it also allows for competition amongst states when it comes to policymaking.

This does not mean that the federal government’s role in immigration will be eliminated. To the contrary, the federal government could learn from the states and adapt their immigration norms.

All in all, policymakers would be wise to filter out the talking points and buzzwords that abound in immigration debates. The key to true immigration reform is a streamlined immigration process that allows immigrants and employers to freely interact in the marketplace, while incentivizing assimilation and social harmony among new arrivals to the United States.

Image: Grand Canyon National Park.

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