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Immigration is key to U.S. competitiveness

Posted on July 4, 2011
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Demetrios G. Papademetriou is President and Co-Founder of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank dedicated exclusively to the study of international migration. He also serves as Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration.

Substantive immigration reform continues to elude America. Politicians are mired in disagreement over the future of the nation’s unauthorized immigrant population.

This is not surprising. The United States has the largest unauthorized immigrant population of any industrialized economy – by far.

But while the reform debate remains stalled, the competitive forces shaping global economies continue to operate. In recent years, the United States has watched other countries fashion more nimble immigration policies allowing them to fill gaps in their workforces.

In many ways, the policy questions regarding future immigrant flows will prove more crucial – and harder to resolve – than the illegal immigration conundrum.

How much immigration do we need? Which of the would-be immigrants should get priority? How can employment-based immigration be more responsive to changing economic realities?

These questions are important and they do not have simple answers.

If the United States is to retain its competitive advantage, its universities, firms and industries will continue to need a healthy flow of talent from abroad – especially at a time when other countries are rapidly expanding their capacity to attract and retain qualified immigrants.

A definitive “solution” to the question of future flows of immigrants cannot spring out of one piece of legislation, however wide-ranging. But steps can be undertaken to improve the nation’s posture on immigration.

First, policymakers must devote sustained attention to immigration. We need to collect rigorous evidence and data about how the nation’s immigration system is currently working in order to improve it in the future.

Second, the system needs flexibility to respond to a changing economic and global environment.

Currently, we have an immigration apparatus that is neither flexible nor evidence-based. It has been essentially unchanged for decades.

To help collect rigorous evidence about immigration and provide flexibility, we propose the creation of a Standing Commission on Labor Markets, Economic Competitiveness and Immigration.

This permanent, independent, non-partisan expert body would gather information and provide timely, evidence-based advice to Congress and the President on the employment-based immigration levels that would be optimal for the U.S. economy.

Staffed with career professional economists, demographers and other social scientists, the Standing Commission would inject realism into a conversation all too often fraught with opinion disguised as facts.

The Commission would be on hand to answer specific questions about the impact of proposed policies.

For example, the Commission could address how increased enforcement directed at employers affect the economy. Georgia is currently grappling with this question having enacted a tough new immigration law that has raised sharp concerns for the state’s agribusiness interests.

Another question might be: What would happen if we changed the terms and conditions of the H-1B visa?

The Standing Commission would facilitate regular reviews of immigration policy by bringing new information and analysis to the debate.

Of course, immigration is not just about economics. The core decisions remain political, and Congress is the right place to hash them out. But legislating on immigration is particularly difficult because decision-makers often cannot agree on the facts. This is why they need an objective and non-partisan, expert body to answer questions.

Elsewhere in the policy world, expert bodies of this kind are considered a no-brainer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides in-depth analysis of employment data. The International Trade Commission examines the impact of changes in trade regulations. The U.S. Sentencing Commission assists Congress and the executive branch in the development of effective crime policy.

Meanwhile, governments around the world now look to expert bodies for answers on the tricky economic questions in immigration policy. For example, the United Kingdom has the Migration Advisory Committee.

In the unforgiving global economy of the 21st century, employment-based immigration represents a strategic resource. If managed well, immigration can actively support economic growth and competitiveness while protecting U.S. workers’ wages and working conditions.

But this is hard to do without reliable, ongoing and detailed analysis of how the system is working, how our immigrants fare and what role they are playing in the labor market.

A Standing Commission would help lawmakers to meet this challenge. More crucially, it would allow the United States greater nimbleness as a player in a global marketplace. This is a marketplace that is becoming evermore competitive as countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and others routinely adjust their immigration policies to attract the human capital they need to compete in this dynamic world.

01 July 2011       Demetrios G.Papademetriou

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