Business and Labor Agree: The U.S. Needs Better Data on Immigration

Niraj Chokshi

In announcing their principles for immigration reform this week, two of the nation’s largest lobbies revived an old idea: creating a federal bureau to study labor shortages.

The proposal for a commission or bureau to study economic and demographic data and advise Congress on immigration policy has been around since at least 2006, according to a Brookings Institution report. It’s an attempt to address a common criticism of the immigration system: Visa caps aren’t determined dynamically in response to changing population and business trends.

The idea was broached in one of the three principles of agreement released on Thursday by the Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses across the country, and the AFL-CIO labor federation. It was a significant announcement from two powerful groups that disagree on a number of issues. The immigration system is broken, they argue, and the government needs to use “real-world data about labor markets and demographics” to fix it.

“We agree that a professional bureau in a federal executive agency, with political independence analogous to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, should be established to inform Congress and the public about these issues,” the chamber and the labor group write.

The statement doesn’t identify how such a bureau would be structured, and the decision ultimately lies with Congress. But a handful of groups have advocated for some version of the idea—notably, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Migration Policy Institute, and the Economic Policy Institute. The chamber wouldn’t comment beyond what was in Thursday’s statement, but the AFL-CIO pointed to an EPI plan as an influence on its 2009 immigration-reform platform. Here’s what that would look like:

Under the EPI plan, a commission would hold a great deal of power over immigration policy. The Foreign Worker Adjustment Commission—proposed in 2009 by EPI’s Ray Marshall—would have the authority to set employment-based immigration levels, subject only to congressional disapproval. FWAC would study labor shortages by looking at regional, demographic, and educational trends to develop its policy suggestions. The top priority, Marshall writes, “is the preservation of U.S. labor standards.” (Brookings advocates for a similar commission, but with a narrower scope. It would provide annual recommendations to Congress and the president, but the recommendations could be ignored.)

The EPI proposal envisions the president wielding a great deal of power over the commission’s structure. FWAC would have nine members—a chair and four others appointed by the president, with the remaining four members chosen by the House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders. The secretaries of Labor, Homeland Security, State, Health and Human Services, the commissioner of Social Security and the attorney general would all be ex-officio members. Neutral experts would do the legwork of studying the data. When the commission issued a recommendation, Congress would have a year to act. Should Congress do nothing, the president would be authorized to implement the recommendation.