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Reforming Immigration Reform
Five ways to fix the Gang of Eight’s legislation

Sen. Marco Rubio take questions at a press conference April 18. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Yuval Levin

In an op-ed in the May 3 Wall Street Journal, Senator Marco Rubio explained that the Gang of Eight immigration bill will be amended as it goes through the Senate in the coming weeks, and that (perhaps unlike some others in the gang) he welcomes this process. He wrote:

Since my colleagues and I introduced immigration legislation, intense public scrutiny has helped identify shortcomings and unintended consequences that need to be addressed. Many concerned citizens have gone a step further and offered specific ideas to improve it. This kind of constructive criticism is a positive force that should always be welcomed in the political process. 

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In this spirit of constructive criticism, below are some suggestions for the sorts of amendments that might make the bill more palatable to some of its critics, without at the same time making it thoroughly unpalatable to its champions.

It is worth noting that, compared with some other conservative critics (including some of NR’s editors), my starting point on this subject is significantly friendlier to the sort of approach Rubio seems to have in mind. This is in part because I probably have a different view of the law-and-order element of the question of illegal immigrants (a view more like the one Peter Skerry outlines here), and in part because I am probably more concerned than they tend to be about the degree to which our economy is held back by a shortage of high-skill (and especially the highest of high-skill) workers — a serious problem with no real precedent in the postwar era for America; and I therefore have a greater sense of urgency about legal-immigration reform.

That is not to say, however, that this bill is how I would reform our immigration system. My ideal approach to reform, roughly outlined here last year, would look very different from the Gang of Eight bill and indeed would not be a single comprehensive bill at all. But I think there are ways to improve the Gang of Eight bill that would allow it to do more good than harm and be worthwhile.

I would propose five kinds of amendments:

1. Rebalance labor-based immigration. The worst aspect of the Gang of Eight bill is its approach to the lower-skill end of America’s labor market; the best is its approach to the higher-skill end. The basic trouble is that the bill treats both segments the same way — as though there is a shortage of workers in both, and if only we addressed that shortage with immigrant workers, it would also help everyone involved and the country as a whole. This is true for high-skill workers, but it is decidedly untrue for low-skill workers.

The April unemployment report, for instance, showed that the unemployment rate among people with bachelor’s degrees or higher was 3.6 percent. Among those with less than a high-school diploma, it was 11.4 percent.

The first number indicates something of a labor shortage while the second indicates that supply far outstrips demand. This disparity is nothing new, of course, though it has actually gotten much worse since the last round of the immigration wars, in 2007. Here is what the unemployment rate has looked like for people with bachelor’s degrees or more (what high-skill immigrants tend to be) and for those with less than a high-school diploma (as low-skill immigrants tend to be) over the past ten years, using data for people 25 and older to be able to compare apples to apples:

 

 

 

For workers on the lower end of our skill and wage spectrum, these are extremely difficult times, both economically and culturally, and not just since the last recession. For decades now, they have been facing the brunt of both globalization and the collapse of the family and marriage culture, and in both cases there is just not all that much that public policy can do to help. But surely there are ways to avoid making things worse, and one of those would be avoiding the concerted importation of competitors for low-wage jobs and the artificial inflation of the size of the American population subject to these pressures.



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