The White House on Sunday unveiled a set of immigration priorities that it wants incorporated into any congressional deal to protect the roughly 700,000 "Dreamers" who could be affected by the president's decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Unfortunately, the president's proposals — which include stepped-up border enforcement, increased deportations, and a crackdown on employers who hire illegal aliens – will only exacerbate the real problem underlying our immigration debates: The economy's demand for labor exceeds the current supply of legal migrants. An enforcement regime that reduces the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. without also expanding the number of guest workers will almost certainly lead to falling production and rising prices in agriculture, construction, landscaping, and other industries that depend on such workers.
According to recent studies, illegal aliens account for over half of all hired workers in U.S. agriculture, 15 percent of construction workers, and 9 percent of jobs in both manufacturing and services. In many cases, the undocumented workers fill jobs that U.S. citizens simply will not take, particularly in the current low-unemployment environment.
If an agreement on DACA materializes, Washington leaders should seize the rare moment of bipartisanship to combine border enforcement with a new guest worker program that allows each state to sponsor migrants needed by local industries. America's current guest worker visa programs, such as the H2A for agricultural workers and the H2B for non-agricultural seasonal workers, are woefully inadequate. Both programs are saddled with cumbersome procedures and long lead times that deter employers who cannot predict their labor needs far enough in advance to commit to sponsoring the visas.
Moreover, the H2B program is capped at 66,000 visas a year. Although the administration authorized an additional 15,000 visas in July of this year, that still was not sufficient to keep up with demand. Roughly 120,000 visas had been requested. Congressional action on immigration is consistently stymied by the inability of legislators to agree on the "right" number of migrants for the nation.
But why should there be a national target? Why not let each state decide how many temporary workers, if any, are needed? There's no question that many states desire the flexibility to tailor guest worker programs within their borders. In recent years, thirteen states have considered, and in some cases enacted, guest worker programs designed to address specific economic needs, according to research by the Niskanen Center. But those proposals have all foundered for lack of federal cooperation, which, as a practical matter, is needed.
Earlier this year, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., introduced legislation that would create a federal framework for state-sponsored visa programs. Under the State Sponsored Visa Pilot Program Act, individual states could sponsor visas for workers and other economic migrants for up to three years. The workers would only be permitted to work in the sponsoring state and would not be eligible for means-tested welfare benefits. Crucially, states would be eligible for the visas only if they enact legislation to opt into the program. No state would be forced to accept additional migrants.
Imagine a less divisive approach to immigration. If, say, California wants more farmhands or Alaska wants more seafood processors, they can opt in. If Arizona doesn't want additional migrants, its leaders simply do nothing and the state will not receive additional visas. The legislation includes multiple incentives to keep visa recipients from crossing over to other states.
Both Canada and Australia have regional immigration programs that have proven highly successful. The Canadian program, first established in 1998, allows provinces to sponsor economic immigrants according to criteria set at the provincial level. Even in the U.S., state involvement in immigration policy is not unprecedented. State health departments, for example, can sponsor doctors to work in medically underserved areas under the federal physician visa program. State universities directly sponsor students and professors.
A federalist approach to immigration reform offers a valuable tool for states to boost economic growth without imposing costs on their neighbors. Under the Johnson bill, states are free to experiment with temporary visas for any category of migrant who promises to "contribute to the economic development agenda of the State." States can use the visas to address localized labor shortages or to engage in a healthy competition to entice entrepreneurs and investors. States that succeed will be copied; those that don't can quickly change course.
If increased border security is the price of protecting the Dreamers, then the deal must also include a viable guest worker program. But instead of the usual Washington gridlock, why not let states lead the way?
Adam Freedman's most recent book is A Less Perfect Union: The Case for States' Rights.
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