Why Immigration Reform Is So Hard

Niraj Chokshi

Here’s why immigration reform is so tough: It has to balance the conflicting needs and desires of a very diverse group. Pull too hard on any one thread, and the whole thing could unravel.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the talks between big business and big labor, which fell apart last week over a program for issuing temporary visas for low-skilled workers. Business wants to fill jobs they argue Americans can’t or won’t take. Labor unions want to make sure immigrants don’t drive down wages in the process or take jobs that Americans want.

The two notably agreed last month that a commission or bureau was needed to inform the public and Congress about labor shortages, but the talks hit a standstill last week over the wages they would offer.

“In any temporary-worker program, you’ve got to get that balance right—between opening up and filling labor markets that need labor versus depressing wages,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a Tuesday reporter roundtable hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “There’s a lot of ways you can do that.”

One approach, proposed by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in 2006 and modified by others, is to create a commission similar in concept to the one business and labor broadly agreed to. The basic idea is simple: It would be staffed with economists, demographers, and other social scientists, who would study and track immigration and labor data to help guide policy. If an industry starts having trouble finding workers or is predicted to have labor shortages, the commission would propose lifting the ceiling on visas.

In theory, it sounds like a great idea. In practice, it’s hard to get right. First, there’s the difficult question of whether employers are trying hard enough to fill the jobs with existing citizens. That lies at the heart of the business-labor dispute. Businesses want to pay low-skilled temporary workers slightly less than the median hourly wage, while labor unions want them to pay a wage just above the median, according to The New York Times.

To labor, low-skilled immigrants should be allowed only “if you see certain occupations increasing their wages to try to get people in and there’s no one responding,” said Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. But businesses argue that using wages alone isn't fair, Ruiz said.

The United Kingdom’s Migration Advisory Committee, for example, takes all sorts of factors into account to track which industries have labor shortages. Could the work be outsourced instead? What impact would the new immigrants have on innovation domestically or the U.K.'s global competitiveness?

The committee's recommendations are well respected, but they can still be subjective, argues MPI senior policy analyst Madeleine Sumption.

“Measuring shortages in the United Kingdom is not simply a statistical exercise driven by quantitative data, but also requires substantial qualitative judgments,” she wrote in a 2011 paper

And such analyses can miss key information, Sumption says. All computer programmers aren’t the same, for example. And labor shortages can vary by region. “It’s really difficult to accurately identify the level of data that people want,” she says.

Even if all the details are worked out, another question remains: What sort of powers would such a commission have? It could be given wide leeway to determine how many visas should be issued, allowing it to respond quickly to shifts in the labor market. Or it could propose changes that lawmakers would have to approve—a slower process in which changes could get held up over politics.

Either way, foreign work visas are expected to be a part of the reform bill from the “Gang of Eight” senators. But, as with reform broadly, its viability will depend on a delicate balance of conflicting interests.