Creating a 21st-Century Immigration System

Director of Policy and Advocacy

September 29, 2016

In reforming our existing broken immigration system and addressing illegal immigration, policymakers must ensure that future labor needs are fulfilled by our legal immigration system, including increasing the number of visas when the economy requires it. Congress must avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which resolved the status of most undocumented immigrants but failed to provide for adequate future flows of legal immigrant labor. See our paper “Creating a 21st-Century Immigration System” describing more fully the key aspects that must be included in immigration reform.

With the number of permanent worker visas unchanged since 1990 and the number of temporary visas relatively static, comprehensive legislation must both address the failures of our legal immigration system and provide sufficient and efficient means for future immigrants to come to the United States legally. Failure to address future flows of immigration will only continue to incentivize going around the legal immigration system.

Principles for the Future Flow of Immigrants
For legislation to be truly comprehensive and minimize the chances that additional changes will be needed in the near future, it must address the future flow of immigrants and meet the following principles:

  • Improve the work visa system to respond to our workforce needs. Our current immigration system’s failure to provide a sufficient number of visas to fill employers’ demand for immigrant labor is a prime reason millions of undocumented immigrant workers currently reside in the U.S. Creating a legal immigration system in which the number of visas better reflects our country’s labor demands will undercut incentives for employers to unlawfully hire undocumented workers, which in turn lead immigrants seeking work to come to the United States unlawfully. Because visa quotas for immigrant workers are woefully out of date, many workers face the choice of waiting years to immigrate or accepting unauthorized work. A reformed employment-based visa system would address this reality, providing employers with a reliable supply of labor.

In reforming the employment-based visa system to better reflect workforce needs, the federal government must develop workable metrics for immigrant labor markets. Such metrics would allow for more visas when the labor market shows a need for additional immigrant workers.

  • Create a new visa program for workers in the agricultural, service and other industries. Employers and workers are unable to sponsor workers for non-temporary jobs in agriculture, service and other industries under the current system. A new visa program would be efficient for workers and employers, would ensure that U.S. workers would have the first chance to obtain available jobs and would protect the rights and wages of all workers in affected occupations. Such a system should include a temporary worker component that addresses persistent labor shortages in agricultural, service and other industries. If Congress continues to ignore this need, however, the inadequacies of the current employment visa system will continue to fuel the market for underground and undocumented labor.
  • Reform the visa system to allow foreign students educated at U.S. colleges and universities to stay. With its top-notch higher education system, the U.S. attracts and educates some of the best students in the world only to deny those students work visas after graduation and require them to leave. Simply put, the current immigration system puts up too many barriers for the world’s top talent to work for us, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The rules must be adjusted to make it easier for foreign students who attend U.S. colleges and universities to stay, work and contribute to our economic growth. Reform should ensure that foreign-born STEM graduates of American institutions of higher education are able to obtain visas to stay and work in the U.S. upon receiving a job offer.
  • Ensure the visa system honors family unity. The family is at the core of our immigration system, yet American families with loved ones abroad face a growing wait for the same number of annual family-related visas allotted a generation ago. Unreasonable bottlenecks and barriers to family reunification can keep families separated for years, if not decades. A functional system would promote family unity and reunification. Family members who have been waiting in line should have their admission expedited, and those admitted on work visas should be able to keep their families intact.

Additionally, Congress should reject proposals that would reduce family-based immigration in order to increase employment-based immigration. We need not choose between the economic needs of our country and our values that call for keeping families together. Both streams can and should continue to serve our nation’s economic needs and support our national values.