Monday, December 13, 2010

An Independent Commission on Immigration and Labor: What is it?

I attended a day-long conference last week at the Economic Policy Institute called Labor shortages and immigration reform: promises and pitfalls of an independent commission. A number of economists, immigration experts and labor representatives got together to discuss the idea of a commission that would figure out how immigrant workers would fit into the U.S. economy. Two representatives from Britain's Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) were also there, to talk about their experience with a similar commission in the United Kingdom.

The panelists agreed the U.S. should set up an independent professional commission to research labor shortages and make recommendations to the government about how many workers the U.S. should invite in, based on current data. Its main purpose would be to make sure that occupations are filled primarily by native-born workers, and foreign workers are invited in to take jobs when there is a labor shortage and native-born workers are not taking jobs in a given occupation. In times like these, when so many people who are already legally in the U.S. and without work, a commission like this would probably recommend few, if any work-based visas.

Doris Meissner, the Former Commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, pointed out that the legal immigration system at the moment so inflexible that it can’t keep up with social changes and economic changes in the U.S. A better way to write policy, she argues, is to create a process that sets annual “quotas” that can be changed as circumstances change. The policy for recruiting immigrant workers should be flexible, not locked in. The independent commission should focus on just this one question: what kind of labor shortages are U.S. employers facing and how many immigrant workers should be invited in to meet that need.

The British commission on immigration and labor consists of economists and experts on immigration and [labor?] policy. The government asks it to research specific questions such as researching labor shortages in a specific occupation that could be filled by foreign workers. In addition to broad national research, the commission engages in meetings and visits with employers to provide "bottom up" evidence as well. The MAC then publishes reports and recommends changes in immigration policy to the government, whichmay or may not be passed.

A main theme over the course of the day was the question, "what is essential to making a commission like this work?" Panelists agreed that the commission must be independent, and non-partisan; [labor and?] immigration [are?] intensely political issues, and the facts are not easily separated from the political arguments that usually occupy the center of the debate. Martin Ruhs, a member of the MAC, said that the commission's non-partisan research has contributed to the quality of the debate on immigration. Secondly, members that are experts in policy, labor, immigration, and economics will ensure that the commission is professional. The research process and data need to be transparent in order for the commission to be accepted and seen as credible by lawmakers and the public.

Immigration commissions are a long part of our U.S. history. Panelist Susan Martin, from the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, explained that over centuries, commissions have informed immigration law in the U.S. The earliest was the 1775 Industrial Commission, to the Dillingham Commission whose recommendations led to the restrictionist laws in the Immigration Act of 1924 that established strict quotas based on nationality (Check out this blog post for more information on that era). A labor commission like the one being discussed here would focus exclusively on the need for foreign labor for jobs that aren't being filled by American workers and not on the nationality of the workers.

An independent commission fits into the comprehensive immigration reform puzzle by being part of the solution to control future immigration. Research-based empirical evidence can yield realistic and fair quotas to match up with the labor needs of the country, which can change more quickly than legislators can keep up with. The challenges are numerous, such as

  • developing reliable and valid data gathering and evaluation tools (i.e. does the research accurately reflect the needs it identifies? Are the recommendations adequately supported?),
  • the sheer number of issues that urgently need to be addressed, and
  • the risk of politicization of those results on the floor of the House and Senate after publication.

The most recent CIR bill introduced by Senators Menendez (NJ) and Leahy (VT) includes a Standing Commission on Immigration, Labor Rights, and the National Interest designed to establish employment-based immigration policy, implement a policy-focused research agenda, and make recommendations to Congress and the President on quotas for employment-based visa categories. The purpose of the commission also includes "promot[ing] America's economic growth and competitiveness while minimizing job displacement, wage depression, unauthorized employment" (To see bill text, click here). By enforcing labor laws for employers and all workers, the commission would prevent further undercutting of U.S. employment. To see FCNL's summary of the Menendez CIR bill, click here, and read the post just below this on It's Our Community!

The keyword of the day was "sensible." Accurate research that shows where we need foreign workers can lead to sensible quotas that allow workers to come and work legally in occupations that need them. Laura Reiff from the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition made the point that there are millions of visas too few for low-skill workers (ie. workers for low-skilled jobs in agriculture, construction and the service industry), which is why we have such a high number of undocumented workers. Is an independent commission the right answer? Let us know what you think.