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.