Immigration and the Reality of the Labor Market

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The root of the current crisis of undocumented immigration is a fundamental disconnect between today's economic and labor market realities and an outdated system of legal immigration.

Undocumented immigration is driven in large part by a U.S. labor market that is creating a higher demand for less-skilled workers than is being met by the native-born labor force or by the current legal limits on immigration.

As the past decade and a half of failed federal border-enforcement efforts make clear, immigration policies that ignore these larger economic forces merely drive migration underground rather than effectively regulate it.

In short, there is an unsustainable contradiction between U.S. economic and immigration policy, with economics winning. The problem is a broken immigration system that sends the dual messages "Keep Out" and "Help Wanted" to foreign workers.

The U.S. economy continues to create large numbers of less-skilled jobs even as native-born workers grow older and better educated and are increasingly unavailable to fill such jobs.

Yet the federal government continues to impose outdated numerical caps and other restrictions on immigration that bear little relationship to the economic realities of our time.

As a result, enforcement resources are devoted in large part to trying to stem the labor migration the U.S. economy attracts and which is an outcome of globalization. Despite the critical role immigrants play in filling less-skilled jobs, America offers few opportunities under the current immigration system for them to come to the U.S. legally.

There is a similar bottleneck for low-skilled workers who seek temporary, employment-based visas. Of the 16 different types of temporary immigrant visas available for employment and training in the United States, only two -; H2A and H2B -; are available to workers with little or no formal training. Moreover, the total number of H2B visas that can be awarded in a year is capped at 66,000.

Only a truly comprehensive approach will work, one that includes a process by which undocumented immigrants already living and working in the United States can apply for legal status, as well as the creation of a temporary worker program with stringent protections for both temporary workers themselves and native-born workers.

Lawmakers must tackle the issue of undocumented immigration with less rhetoric and more realism. Continuing the status quo by trying to enforce immigration policies that are at war with the U.S. and global economies will do nothing to address the underlying problem. Nor is it feasible to wall off the United States from the rest of the world.

The most practical option is to bring U.S. immigration policy in line with the realities of the U.S. labor market and an increasingly transnational economy.

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