Rational Middle Podcast Makes the Case for Updating Employment-Based Immigration System

A recent Rational Middle Podcast highlighted the need for updating the employment-based immigration system as a solution to economic problems associated with the rapidly aging US population and the uprecedented labor shortage and 11 million open jobs in the US. Podcast Host Chris Lyon and Julia Gelatt, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, discussed how immigration plays a critical role in supporting the US economy and recommended policy solutions to help improve the US workforce.  

Gelatt explained that the US population is aging largely because American fertility rates are decreasing. On the other hand, immigrants contribute to the working age US population and workforce at a significant rate.

“Americans are having fewer babies per person than in the past. Because of that, our population isn’t growing at the speed it used to grow. In fact, our working age population today is only growing because immigrants are coming to the US and because of the children of prior waves of immigrants. If it weren’t for them, our working age population would be shrinking,” said Gelatt, noting that the Census Bureau projects that by 2034 there will be more seniors in the US than children.

With baby boomers aging into retirement, Gelatt explained that the US economy will need more workers in order to keep growing and also fiscally support social programs that benefit seniors.

“Having a growing labor force supports our economy and innovation. It also helps pay for the cost of supporting an aging population. We know the Social Security system is headed towards a crisis if something doesn’t change. We give seniors a lot of benefits like Medicare, but those are expensive programs. To support those programs we tax working people, and if there are a lot of seniors drawing benefits and fewer workers, each of those workers has to pay more, or funding has to be cut,” said Gelatt.

Speakers explained that because US immigration laws are so outdated, they’re not serving our national interests in the way they could be.

“We’re working with immigration laws that were set in 1990 and are built on an infrastructure from 1952. Since that time we have different jobs that people are working, we have a different age structure, and we have different relationships with countries around the world, and yet our immigration laws are frozen in time. This means our immigration laws are no longer aligned with push and pull factors of immigration, nor the needs of our economy,” said Gelatt.

A key problem with the current immigration system that speakers highlighted is that it does not allow for the legal entry of enough workers. They pointed out that the employment-based immigration system allows just 140,000 people to migrate per year, including the spouses and minor children of those sponsored workers. This is a signifact pull factor for illegal immigration. As a solution, Gelatt recommended that The US not only increase the number of visas devoted to employment-based immigration, but also expand access to legal pathway of immigration for immigrants across the skill spectrum.

“We need to revamp our legal immigration policy. One way to do that would be to increase the level of employment based immigration so that we’re bringing workers in at the level that really is happening anyway, but we’re doing it in a more systematic and controlled way where we can set policies that align with our interests. Another change that we need is to allow immigrant workers in across the skill spectrum. Right now our employment-based green card system favors college educated and higher workers. We have some temporary visas for lower skilled workers but those are really only for agriculture, temporary, and seasonal jobs. For all kind of jobs in hotels, restaurants, the dairy industry, meat processing plants, and many industries, we are very reliant on immigrant labor. However we don’t have any visa pathways that allow employers to sponsor workers to come in and fill those jobs,” said Gelatt.    

Gelatt also pointed out that there is a mismatch a lack of employment based green-cards and large backlogs prevent many immigrants with temporary visas from being allowed to adjust to permanent status. She proposed the creation of a “bridge” visa that would provide a temporary to permanent pathway were employers could sponsor workers at all skill levels.

“They could come for three years, and if they’re a good match with the economy and have a steady work record they could renew for another three years, and if they stay employed they could self sponsor for a greencard. It would be a testing ground of immigrant workers. We would have a path to bring people in as long as they’re a good fit and follow all other laws. It would also provide a circular pathway for workers who want to come and work but don’t want to stay forever,” she said.

Additionally, Gelatt explained that expanding legal pathways to allow for immigrants to come and work some of the open jobs in the US economy would help to alleviate pressure at the border.

“This would greatly reduce the pressure for illegal immigration. A lot of the people coming to the border today would just like the chance to be able to live and work in the US, and there’s a lot of employers who would love to hire those people at the border for the jobs for which they can’t find US workers. If our immigration laws are well aligned with employer needs, that will create legal pathways that are preferable to illegal entry. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t need border enforcement. We need to make sure that people with ill intent are not sneaking into the country, we need to make sure that we have control over our borders, but there would be a lot less pressure,” she said.

“For example, we saw that illegal immigration from Mexico decreased as use of H2-A farm worker visa for Mexican workers increased. If you provide legal pathways, people will choose those legal pathways over violating immigration laws,” she added.  

Gelatt also called for a solution to address unauthorized immigrants living in the US.

“We can’t really move forward without dealing with our current problem which is that we have 11 million people in the US who don’t have full membership in society, don’t have full rights in the workplace, and have a lot of challenges in supporting their families. That is something we need to do to clear the table and be ready for a future system that can work,” she said.

To learn more on these issues, listen to the Rational Middle Podcast Episode 104: America's Changing Demographics with Julia Gelatt. Also check out the free Rational Middle of Immigration Video Docuseries that examines more issues associated with the US immigration system.  



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