Major components of an immigration reform agreement are emerging: strengthened border security, a path to citizenship for those already here and, lastly, a guest worker program. Developing a viable guest worker program should be the first item on the agenda, however, not the last. By flipping the current immigration reform priorities on their head, we can achieve a realistic and equitable solution.
The primary reason millions of people come to the United States illegally is to find work. Most are hard-working individuals who seek a better life by earning significantly more than they can earn in their own countries.
Moreover, the United States needs workers — both in lower-income arenas, such as agriculture, construction and the service sector, and highly skilled workers such as engineers and software developers. The unemployment rate in the technology sector is between 3 percent and 4 percent. Thousands of jobs remain unfilled, which has a negative impact on the already struggling economic recovery.
Creating a two-pronged guest worker program is the best initial step in developing an effective reform. First, we create a bridge category, a path to legality, for those who are already here. These individuals can stay and work in the United States without being rewarded with the full benefits of citizenship, a reasonable penalty for having come here illegally in the first place.
Additionally, we create a separate guest worker program, which would cut down on the need for border patrol and fulfill the labor-demand side, too.
While prioritizing border security first may gain some political points, it makes the job of actually securing the border more difficult, because it does nothing about the supply and demand for labor. Fix that problem, and the border security problem is much more achievable.
By creating a guest worker program that meets the needs of workers and employers, we may be able to avoid spending even more on our quickly growing border security efforts.
Federal border patrol appropriations have been at least $3.5 billion each year since 2009, according to the Congressional Research Service
, more than twice what they were in 2005. There were 21,500 border patrol agents in 2011, nearly a 10-fold increase from 1980. Yet the Government Accountability Office
reports that the U.S. Border Patrol intercepted only about 61 percent of the illegal immigrants trying to sneak across the U.S.-Mexican border.
With a viable guest worker problem, the vast majority of foreigners would simply go through the legal process to get work. Those still trying to slip across the border unnoticed could reasonably be assumed to have something to hide.
What would such a two-pronged program look like? For those already in the country illegally, there would be a one-year window to claim the path to legalization that would allow them to stay in the country, but not become U.S. citizens or entitled to citizens’ benefits. They would also have to pay a fee for this status. Alternatively, they could choose to return to their home country and apply for the new guest worker program, which could at some point include citizenship benefits.
Those applying for the new program would get a temporary pass, perhaps for five years, in which they could come to the United States and work. They should be allowed to return home and then come back as often as they wanted, which would create less pressure to bring their families to the United States. After the 5-year work period, they could reapply.
An organization, preferably a private one, would handle the registration and processing for a fee. Workers in both cases would have to pay all taxes, including the Medicare and Social Security payroll (FICA) tax, but they would not be eligible for either senior program unless they were to become full U.S. citizens and meet the standard qualifications.
Workers could also be required to pay a small additional tax to offset any costs that they might impose on the government. They could even be required to have at least limited health coverage—especially since citizens are going to have to.
How many workers would we allow? The free market answer is as many as want to apply. That may not be sellable politically, however. Yet the more Congress reduces the number allowed in the guest worker program, the more likely workers are to try to enter the country illegally to work.
While there is no perfect reform, creating a guest worker program with a path to legalization should be the primary focus. Work is the draw for immigrants—and it is also the solution. Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation. Carol Roth is host of “The Noon Show” and bestselling author of “The Entrepreneur Equation” (BenBella Books, 2012).