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Immigration reform after COVID-19

President Trump has essentially closed the immigration system in response to the COVID-19 crisis with few exceptions for some guest workers. However, many people in the administration and some Republicans in Congress want to close off even those few exceptions because of the coronarecession. The president will not reopen the rest of the immigration system until the threat from the virus has subsided. When that occurs, reopening immigration will provide a good opportunity for needed reform – but new ideas are needed.

The Cato Institute has just released a new white paper called “12 New Immigration Ideas for the 21st Century” on how to improve the legal immigration system. Many of the ideas are wonky and written by experts in immigration policy while some are written by knowledgeable outsiders thinking way outside of the box.

We need new innovative immigration reform ideas because Congress has tried to reform immigration for decades using the same playbook that has failed repeatedly. Immigration reform bills in the past seek to improve enforcement, legalize illegal immigrants, and increases lawful immigration. The last of those is the most important and the focus of the Cato white paper. Without a well-functioning legal system that is open and fair, the cornerstones of a legitimate system, improved enforcement and legalization won’t work.

We’ve tried legalization and enforcement before in the 1986 Reagan amnesty and illegal immigration shot up afterwards because there was no improvement to the legal system that allowed more lawful immigration. Creating better and more open legal immigration pathways is the only way to reduce illegal immigration substantially and create a sense of fairness and predictability in our complex immigration system that is “second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity,” according to Rutgers law professor Elizabeth Hull.

Reopening immigration after COVID-19 diminishes is a golden opportunity to try some of these new ideas.

Most of these ideas are just common sense. Daniel Griswold of the Mercatus Center proposes tying the growth of employment‐ based visas to growth in the most relevant sectors of the U.S. labor force to assure that the annual number of visas available more closely matches the demands of the U.S. economy as it changes. The H-1B visas numbers, with a few years’ exception around the time of the tech bubble bursting, has had the same small numerical cap as when the internet was a weird curiosity rather than an everyday tool for billions of people. Griswold’s proposal would solve this problem by automating visa adjustments.

Stuart Anderson, the former associate commissioner for policy and planning and counselor to the commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, recommends a maximum wait time for green cards. Currently, wait times for some highly-skilled immigrants seeking the coveted employment-based green card can stretch into decades or even longer. Nobody thinks such insanely-long wait times are fair. Anderson would replace that system with a maximum wait time of five years for employment-based green cards and 10 years for family-sponsored green cards. This is a fair and common-sense way to give American employers, immigrants and their American family members some certainly and predictability.

Griswold’s and Anderson’s ideas are important tweaks that would improve the current immigration system, but the white paper also improves bigger and more far reaching proposals. Economist Michael Clemens from the Center for Global Development proposes a bilateral temporary worker agreement with Mexico—something that hasn’t been attempted in over half a century. Michelangelo Landgrave, a political science doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside, proposes a similar arrangement with Canada. He finds that support for immigration rises substantially when Americans get the opportunity to work in Canada and vice versa.

My Cato colleague David Bier proposes creating a state-based visa that allowed states to design temporary worker systems to suit their needs, a policy favored by politicians in red and blue states. Jack Graham and Rebekah Smith propose a more micro-version of state-based visas focusing on local community sponsorship. George Mason political scientist Justin Gest proposes using big data to create a “money ball” visa that selected the best immigrants on their economic potential and cultural compatibility and entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Kuhn proposes selling temporary work permits.

We even included some more ambitious proposals that would fundamentally change how the United States government manages immigration. Nathan Smith, a PhD economist working in Arkansas, proposes a scheme where immigrants can come here and work so long as they pay much higher taxes. Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, proposes that each member of Congress should be allowed to handout 100 green cards a year to whomever they like if they pass the security, criminal and health checks. Norquist’s idea is very similar to how congressmen currently nominate constituents for admission to U.S. military academies.

George Mason economist Robin Hanson proposes two more radical ideas. His first is to use the power of prediction markets, where people bet on certain outcomes, to select immigrants. His second is to allow Americans to trade residency status or citizenship with foreigners. Many Americans want to work and live overseas for a short period of time, so why not let them rent their residency status and work authorization to interested foreigners who will then take their place here? Both sides would win.

Some of the ideas above are moderate adjustments to the current system. Many would create new visa categories entirely. Still others are a more radical rethinking of how the immigration system can be redesigned to benefit Americans. Some of these ideas will undoubtedly make policy makers consider new options and others will make them recoil, but putting new ideas out there for discussion and debate is an important goal of Cato’s new white paper. Regardless, Congress should take up some of these ideas and use the post-COVID reopening of the immigration system to reform it.

Alex Nowrasteh is the senior immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

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