A pro-growth fix for immigration?

Iowa’s unemployment rate — the percentage of people looking for work who don’t have jobs — is currently 2.4 percent. 

Greene County’s jobless rate is even lower, at 2.2 percent.

In real-world terms, that’s full employment, since not everyone who wants a job is eligible to be hired, due to inability to pass a drug test or for other reasons. So how does an employer looking for help cope with that problem?

An organization called the American Action Forum (AAF) has an answer to that question: additional legal immigration, through identifying productive workers either by their education and skills or by their proven work histories. 

AAF explained its proposal at a recent forum in Des Moines.

AAF advocates creating a point system to find potential immigrant workers. They could gain permanent visas through their education (five to 25 points), English proficiency (20 points), work experience (five to 25 points), and age (with up to 15 points added for those in the range of 29 to 64 years). 

Bonus points would be added for successfully completing a temporary work visa (30 points), entrepreneurship potential (20 points), a U.S. degree (15 points), or because of a high-demand occupation, local economic preference or family relationships (10 points each).

An accumulated total of 70 points or more would earn an individual eligibility for permanent legal status.

Individuals who don’t meet the points threshold — for instance because of lower education levels — could be eligible through a temporary worker program. They could then earn permanent visa status after six years of labor market success.

AAF calls its proposal “a pro-growth legal immigration system.” 

The policy could “advance entrepreneurship, augment productivity gains, fill skills gaps and combat demographically driven labor force declines,” according to an AAF news release.

The organization does not advocate an explicit cap on legal immigration. Instead, immigration levels should reflect the number of qualified applicants and the demand for them by American employers. 

In other words, supply and demand for qualified workers would determine the numbers. Agriculture, technology and construction should particularly benefit, AAF believes.

It’s easy to see that individuals who hold advanced degrees, speak English and have previous work experience would easily gain permanent status. Those who possess no formal higher education but with needed skills could also do so by completing the temporary worker program and learning English.

Where the AAF proposal falls short, it seems to me, is its implied emphasis on reducing the number of legal immigrants who come here on the basis of family reunification. 

Of the 1.1 million green cards awarded in 2017, two-thirds were to family members of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Only 12 percent were for strictly economic reasons.

But adoption of AAF’s “pro-growth” system would increase the number of legal immigrants who come based on point accumulation without necessarily changing the family-based system. That in turn would mathematically increase the percentage of economically-purposed immigrants.

The AAF proposal, of course, is designed for legal immigration. It has nothing to do with illegal border crossings, or those who overstay their temporary visas. 

It’s hard to understand the insistence by anti-immigration Americans that current levels of legal immigration should remain as they are, or even be reduced. Few Iowa employers would agree with that position. 

So long as legal immigrants are not exploited through low pay and/or benefits, they won’t deprive American citizens of a job.

There’s plenty of work to go around.

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