Tuesday, May 23, 2006

We should take immigration policy out of the politician's hands

On the eve of a possible vote in the Senate to finalize an immigration reform bill, perhaps it's time to reevaluate the wisdom of having career politicians, and by default their corporate sponsors, making the decisions on the nut and bolts of US immigration policy. Anyone who has watched the negotiations going on in the Senate is painfully aware that the Senators have played politics, "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours", and traded apples for oranges all in the name of coalition and compromise. In the end they have managed to produce a bill that pleases neither those looking for true comprehensive reform, nor those looking for strict enforcement.

With it's odd mix of concessions to those at polar opposite ends of the political spectrum regarding this issue, this Senate bill represents not a failure of the spirit of cooperation, but rather demonstrates that on some issues, with subtle and intricate components, the Senate chambers my not be the best place to work out policy. We still must deal with the next step after this bill passes Senate muster, moving on to even more negotiations and compromises with a hostile House.

Perhaps there is a better way to formulate such important and complicated policy. Perhaps we need some sort of independent "immigration policy board" that is free of elected officials, made up of experts in immigration, economists, labor and immigrants right advocates, that could be charged with the responsibility of formulating certain aspects of immigration policy.

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For those on all sides of the issue perhaps the most crucial aspect of this debate going forward is how to determine what a reasonable level of immigration for the future is to look like. For some, it is unlimited, for others it's next to none. I would argue that the true number exists somewhere in the middle.

Herein lays the key to the whole problem of immigration reform. If in fact we had an immigration policy that better reflected the true levels of immigration that could be reasonably absorbed, both economically and socially, it would go a long way to alleviating the concerns on both sides of this issue. It would allow for more legal immigration, while at the same time reassuring those honestly concerned about job loss or economic impact issues that the level of immigration had no detrimental effects.

Our current policies simply do not meet those criteria.

  • They allow for FAR to little legal immigration, hence you end up with "illegal" immigration.

  • They are driven by forces that are FAR too political and beholden to business interests.

  • They are essentially unjust and to some extent racist and favor the wealthy.

  • They in no why reflect our nations realistic need for workers, particularly unskilled workers.

Of course there are many other considerations, but the bottom line is if we were to set a reasonable, humane, practical, and realistic level for immigration going forward we could in fact solve a lot of this problem.

The question is how we set that level.

At present it's basically a decision made by politicians. As we've seen in the negotiations going on in the Senate, they seem to pull numbers out of thin air, check with "business" leaders, take some foreign policy considerations, think about sound bites, spin and firing up the base, then put it all in a big bowl and mix it up and serve it to the American people as policy.

This is politics as usual, but it doesn't have to be.

What if there could be something set up independent of elected government, something similar to the way the Federal Reserve is set up, and sets interest rates? An independent "immigration policy board", charged with setting the immigration levels and working out policy. They could be the ones to determine how many of each visa class to issue each year, or how many green cards etc. rather than our elected officials.

This seems to be a logical alterative to the current system. We do not allow elected officials to set the Fed interest rates because they lack the neccesary expertise to do so and we know they'd set them at 0% in election years, and 30% in off years. The same should be true with immigration policy. Between of pressure from big business, the natural tendency for politicians to pander for votes, and other political calculations, perhaps elected officials are not the best choice for formulating immigration policy.

This immigration policy board could be comprised of; 2 or 3 economists, a representative or two from business, one or two from labor, maybe someone from an immigrants right/humanitarian group, a couple of people from the judiciary, maybe a sociologist or other social scientist, someone with expertise in foreign and global affairs, etc. Simply put; people with relevant expertise.

They should be appointed for LONG periods of time so they face no political pressure, and they answer to no one. Similar to the Fed Chairman.

Their mission would be to gather information, listen to testimony, call in experts, listen to lobbyists, immigrants advocates, etc., then make their recommendations for the following years "quotas". Each year they would then adjust them according to economic conditions, world events, the previous years successes and/or failures, unemployment rates, etc.

This way the whole affair is taken out of the hands of both the politicians and the business interests that control them. If Bill Gates wanted to lobby for more H1b visas... he would present his case before the panel. The same would be true for Tyson or other big businesses. If there's a Civil War in Guatemala, or an earthquake in Chile, this body would take that into account and adjusts immigration levels accordingly.

Right now we admit approximately 2 million immigrants a year both legally and "illegally". As long as the economy can continue absorb them, unemployment remains low and there is job growth there is no reason to change that significantly. This body would be the ones to decide the who, how and why of immigration. If they determine more of a certain category of immigrants could easily find employment and be absorbed by society - they would be allowed to enter legally... If they determine that we were allowing too many in different category they could adjust the levels downward for a year or two. The same would be the case with humanitarian situations. If due to natural disaster, war, economic collapse etc. there needed to be adjustments made to immigration policy, the panel could do it quickly and effectively.

Once we determined levels of immigration that are practical, and all immigrants could enter the country legally at reasonable rates, the flow of "illegal" immigration would slowed to a trickle, if even that.

The difference with having an independent agency working out policy is that immigration would be controlled, not by politicians and businessmen making decisions behind closed doors, but by a panel of experts whose sole purpose is to regulate the flow of immigration to best serve not only the best interests of the American people, but also the immigrants trying to find a better life.

Although such a plan far from solves all the problems of our current immigration system it would go a long way towards letting those from both sides of the debate meet on some kind of neutral middle ground. By allowing policy to be set by experts, rather than at the whim of political forces, we would surely have a more fair and equitable system for all concerned.

[this post expands on the ideas first explored in What comprehensive immigration reform should look like. from 5/16]

1 comment:

janinsanfran said...

You know, you may have something here. And after another round of this with all its nasty human consquences, they might be willing to go there, because it seems very likely that most pols are going to come out of the present round without gains.

I don't trust such a board to be any more sensitive to the human consequences of its actions that the Fed -- after all, Paul Volcker pretty much created US homelessness with his inflation fighting in the early 80s and we've never recovered.

But like the base-closing commission, it might make some sense of an impossible situation.