Showdown on the Arizona Border

April 26, 2010

I agree with at least part of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s statement on Friday  — our broken immigration policy is a problem her state “did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.”  Arizona could have filled that leadership vacuum with a bill that had a prayer of addressing the issue.  Instead, local policymakers drummed up cynical, punitive measures that are likely to further bankrupt the state and achieve limited upside besides a false sense of progress.

Maybe it was worth it in an election year.  Brewer may get to keep her job, but Arizona is likely to find itself in even more trouble if the bill actually succeeds in reducing the number of migrants to the state.  Immigrants played a key role in driving Arizona’s economic growth over the last decade or so, a case the American Immigration Council lays out in a recent press release.

I agree with Obama’s characterization of the bill as “irresponsible,” but policymakers who are ready to roll up their sleeves on immigration shouldn’t simply dismiss what happened on the Arizona border.  Voters made it clear that it’s the illegal part of illegal immigration that’s most troubling to people.  Most Americans don’t want to lock the doors.  Most want to be strong enough to strike an honest deal with the world’s tired and poor – and smart enough to keep our preferential access to the global talent pool.  But the failure of policymakers to design a system that works has turned this into a fight about rule of law.

If I know my people well enough, and I like to think I do on most days, we’ve got a very healthy appetite for law and order.  We see it as the backbone of our freedom, the foundation on which we build our do-it-yourself dreams.  12 million human beings with ambiguous legal status has rattled our sense of order, particularly in border states like Arizona.  This has made it difficult to have an honest conversation about the real social and economic tradeoffs of immigration.

I feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but this is one of those fights where basic truths are easily lost.  Here’s how I see it.  Rather than do the politically difficult work of creaking open the country’s front door a bit more, policymakers just shamefully left the back door unlocked.  Arizona revealed the cost of that short-term calculus.  It’s now hard to move forward on immigration policy until a sheriff rides into town.


Immigration Reform — Where Are the Business Leaders?

April 16, 2010

Solving our immigration problem feels like a classic public sector challenge – the issues at stake are things like border enforcement and protecting vulnerable populations (lower-skilled native workers, illegal migrants).  This is a job for pundits and policymakers.  Capitalists have companies to build.

It’s critical that business leaders jump into this fight.  The reform process has big implications for American competitiveness, and the public debate is filled with basic misinformation.  In many cases, the data to inform a more honest debate is locked up in the experience of companies and managers on the front lines of rebuilding our economy.

One place where we need a reality check is on the merits of expanding our guest worker programs. Our economy needs temporary workers to grow and compete, and many migrants are eager to work on temporary contracts. But both the right and the left are united against these programs, claiming that it’s impossible to control or protect the workers we let in temporarily.  My colleague and co-conspirator, Edward Schumacher-Matos, challenges these assumptions in his column on immigration for the Washington Post.

A real guest worker program is a good idea that’s been executed badly.  As Schumacher-Matos suggests, we can fix the execution problems. Designed well, these programs can strengthen our economy while helping migrants escape poverty without sacrificing their safety and dignity along the way.  All without picking a high-profile political fight over who is worthy of citizenship.

Critics claim that these programs are impossible to enforce, at least without turning into Singapore, but other liberal democracies are now experimenting with creative solutions that don’t rely on draconian enforcement measures. As Eleanor Brown, (George Washington University), has documented, Canada is quietly innovating with norms-based compliance strategies that rely on community pressure and a truly bilateral partnership with sending countries.  The results are an unambiguous improvement in compliance rates.

Scholars studying the features of good program design emphasize longer and more flexible contracts for migrants, options for re-entry that don’t create incentives to disappear, and visas that aren’t exclusively tied to one employer. Programs built on these principles can be consistent with our values as a nation.  It’s our obligation to protect anyone working within our borders from abuse, but that doesn’t have to mean unrestricted access to all the privileges of citizenship.  We have to weigh the moral tradeoff of denying guest workers some rights against giving our neighbors the only chance they may have to work for a living wage.  Poverty is its own crime against humanity.

But policymakers need political cover in order to take up this issue. Business leaders need to help them make the case to the American public for why programs like these — and immigration, in general — are good for the growth and prosperity of the country.  Bob Hildreth, a successful financial services entrepreneur and founder of the Foundation for an Open America, is one of the few private sector voices fighting for a more informed discussion about the true economics of  immigration.  He is now funding academic research at Harvard’s Center for International Development on the economic upside of immigration, and he’s working to promote these benefits himself by championing immigrant education and legal protections in the U.S.

We hope that more business builders follow Bob’s lead.