January 22, 2019

Five Bold Immigration Reform Ideas for the 116th Congress



The U.S. immigration system has changed dramatically in the last two years under the Trump administration. As another Congress comes into power, lawmakers are undoubtedly going to debate and discuss various immigration issues. While funding the wall and the fate of Dreamers loom largest, narrower reform items also deserve attention, such as reforming the H-2B temporary-laborer program or the per-country caps on visas.

However, in the face of constant litigation and a deluge of new regulations, it’s also a useful exercise to take a step back and examine ideas that are less polished, less popular, and less pressing. Here are five big reform ideas that aren’t ready for prime time but warrant engagement in the coming years as our immigration system continues evolving.

#1: Create a New Development Visa

A lot has been written in the last decade about the link between migration and international development: reducing poverty, increasing self-reliance, and improving well-being (see the excellent work from our friends at the Migration Policy Institute and Center for Global Development). Creating a visa exchange program that recruits workers from developing countries to facilitate remittance flows, expand skill sets and offer work experience, and build international networks could achieve better results than simply providing foreign aid.

But more policy work needs to be done to develop programs and policies that build upon the tremendous welfare gains from flexible labor mobility. While some visa programs indirectly capture the power of remittances for economic development, the United States has not yet embraced the potential for a development visa that explicitly seeks to accomplish that goal.

#2: Improve, Expand, and Relaunch the Central American Minors (CAM) Program

The ongoing stream of asylum seekers looking for protection suggests that more needs to be done in Central America. The United States should improve, expand, and relaunch the now-defunct Central American Minors program, an administrative initiative that sought to channel some of the dangerous migration of eligible Central American minors into an orderly, legal pathway.

Issues and concerns surrounding the flows of asylum seekers are becoming more intertwined and more complex. A solution should focus on the in-country conditions that are the drivers of the outflow of individuals from Central American countries; how to increase the safety of those making the long journey to our southern border; how to ensure their health and safety once they arrive in America; and how to expeditiously and effectively determine the validity of asylum claims.  

Working in conjunction with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and regional partners, the United States should launch an improved CAM program and channel qualified asylum seekers towards orderly routes over the irregular, dangerous migration that is currently the norm — especially for youngsters.

#3: Allow Private Sponsorship of Refugees in Conjunction with Federal Support

Across the globe, governments are looking to better leverage private-sector resources to resettle refugees. The United States is lagging, despite a vibrant philanthropic community that is looking for ways to help.

By launching programs that allow charities, volunteers, churches, businesses, and universities to sponsor additional refugees and meet their needs, we can improve integration outcomes and increase fiscal efficiency.

Canada has led the world on this issue, but Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, the U.K, and others are engaging civil society more directly to enhance their resettlement apparatuses; the United States should build on the lessons learned from those programs.

#4: Scale EB-5 to Fund Infrastructure

Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed interest in funding a large infrastructure package to rebuild American roads, bridges, tunnels, ports, and more. Pairing these necessary improvements with immigration reform is simple and attractive. The EB-5 program, which allows wealthy foreign nationals to invest money in U.S. businesses in exchange for green cards, could be expanded and improved to provide major funding streams for a national infrastructure package.

The program is currently capped at 10,000 visas, although demand is much higher. Congress could exempt EB-5 visas from the annual cap if the investors funnel money to infrastructure projects designated as national priorities, thus not only financing necessary improvements across the country, but providing tens of thousands of jobs for Americans.

#5: Improve Access to Health Care Across Rural America

As our population continues to age and the working population retires, the shortage of healthcare workers — doctors, nurses, and elder care workers — will be worsen. Foreign workers can provide a dynamic surge of physicians and health care professionals to rural America, which is particularly strapped for providers.

Incentivizing foreign doctors and health care professionals to settle and remain in rural America not only helps plug the dramatic shortage of American workers in these fields, but also provides necessary variety and increased access to individuals looking for health care options. The current visa regime is inadequate (see my colleague Kristie De Pena’s policy brief here).  

A new health care visa would modernize the current process, better recruit foreign providers, and retain them in areas of need: low-income neighborhoods, rural communities, and other places with underserved populations.

Conclusion:

The time is now to introduce new ideas into the policy bloodstream. By thinking big and daring to consider dynamic solutions to our immigration problems, we can invigorate a conversation about what a 21st century U.S. immigration system could and should look like.

The policy process is long and — increasingly often — frustrating, but we look forward to working with Congress and the policy community on deepening the dialogue around these key issues this year and beyond.