The outline for comprehensive immigration reform announced by Senate Democrats in late April included a proposal for the creation of a Commission on Employment-Based Immigration. Among other things, the proposed Commission would have the power to declare an immigration “emergency” and make recommendations to Congress for addressing it. According to the senators’ outline, an emergency occurs whenever the U.S. is permitting entry to either “substantially” too many immigrants (based on existing economic conditions) or too few.
The senators took a strong step in the right direction by calling for the creation of an employment-based immigration commission. But the Commission’s ability to make recommendations that require Congressional action should not be limited to emergencies. We have proposed a much more robust commission which would constantly evaluate flows of immigrant workers into and out of the United States and make recommendations for adjusting those flows based on labor market conditions. Such a mechanism is crucial to ensuring that future immigration flows are based on true labor market needs and benefit workers and employers alike.
Several bipartisan groups have agreed on the need for a commission. The Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, co-chaired by Lee Hamilton and Spencer Abraham; the Council on Foreign Relations’ Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, co-chaired by Jeb Bush and Thomas McLarty III; the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable; and the Migration Policy Institute have all called for an independent, standing commission on future immigration. Congressman Solomon Ortiz also proposed an independent commission with broad powers in the immigration reform bill he introduced last year.
The Foreign Worker Adjustment Commission we propose is modeled after the International Trade Commission, with five professional members, no more than three from the same political party, appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate. The commission would report to the president and Congress at least once a year. It makes no sense to make the Commission wait until wage depression or job displacement is an emergency. A well-informed commission could make adjustments before large surpluses or shortages of labor become a crisis. Congress could approve, reject, or amend the commission’s recommendations.
Specifically, the commission would fulfill five mandates.
First, it would provide much better data, research and advice on foreign worker matters to Congress, the president, and the public. We currently lack basic reliable and timely data and analyses on this important subject. Without this information, the admission of migrants could do as much harm as good. With it, foreign workers could eliminate labor shortages, increase productivity, improve the conditions of foreign and domestic workers, and benefit employers and the overall economy.
Second, the commission would recommend more rational and flexible flows of foreign workers. To change foreign worker quotas – some of which were established two decades ago – requires highly contentious and inflexible congressional action based on opaque political considerations. This process cannot meet the changing needs for foreign workers in dynamic labor markets.
Third, the commission would provide greater visibility and transparency for foreign worker flows, which (because of the aging of the U.S. population) will be the main source of future workforce growth. Visibility and transparency would greatly improve the management of foreign worker flows, including better coordination with labor market, economic and social policies. Experience in other countries demonstrates that objective data, analyses, and transparency inspire greater public acceptance of immigration, based on the perception that governments are effectively protecting and promoting national interests. Our broken and opaque immigration system, by contrast, undermines public confidence in American governmental institutions and makes immigration policy much more controversial
Fourth, the commission would assess – much more effectively than is now possible – the effects of proposed immigration reforms on future foreign worker flows. It would be extremely bad policy, for example, to launch a new temporary worker initiative before we fix the seriously flawed programs now in place, create a credible process to assess the labor market impact of pending immigration reforms, and develop effective processes to determine labor shortages. Given the strong probability of sustained high levels of recession-induced unemployment, now would be a particularly bad time to launch a new temporary worker program.
Fifth, the commission would elevate the status of immigration policy on the national agenda. Immigration has important implications for America’s future. Yet, unlike in other migrant-importing countries, managing immigration flows is not the key responsibility of any high-level government agency. For most economic and social policymaking bodies, immigration is an afterthought, not an important part of basic administrative and planning functions.
Employers often contend that they, not an appointed commission, are better suited to select foreign workers to meet their needs. We tend to agree; but broader decisions about immigration policy should not be delegated to employers, who cannot be relied upon to protect the best interests of workers or the nation. Proposals to determine visa levels based on the numbers of applications employers file serve only a single interest – that of employers.
Instead, the task of adjusting immigration flows is a sovereign responsibility best left to Congress. A professionally staffed, properly resourced Foreign Worker Adjustment Commission would enable Congress to meet this responsibility in a way that maximizes benefits for workers, employers, and the economy, while easing the divisiveness that has marked this issue for far too long.
Marshall, U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1977 to 1981, is professor emeritus at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Eisenbrey is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.