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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Aligning Immigration Policies with Countries’ Economic Needs

By | Published on 02/24/2014

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In my last column, I shared my notes on a lecture by Stanford Law School professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar. His topic for a Stanford event in Pasadena was the role of migration given the interconnected world of trade, information and capital. I found myself pondering how to meld his viewpoint into the reality of this political hot potato.

Cuellar followed up his review of immigration facts with observations about alternatives. He suggested focusing on the economics of migration: that is, the production, distribution and consumption of labor across political boundaries. Immigration exists because of an alignment of the needs of U.S. business with foreign workers. A system based on these common needs and wants would naturally address issues with an eye to efficiency and feasibility, such as phasing in new citizenship rules slowly so as not to create a permanent underclass.

A practical system would have more flexibility in applying immigration limits, according to Cuellar. The current system, which awards only 14 percent of visas to work-related applicants, results in rejections of some top candidates.

Cuellar notes that any new laws should take into account the situation as it exists. The current law, which requires employers to accept any of 24 pieces of identity documentation, but not verify them, is “built to fail.” Electronic employment verification should be the norm.

Lant Pritchett, a Harvard development economist and “practiced iconoclast,” proposes a different and more challenging alternative to the status quo. Throughout history, people suffering economic hardship have responded by emigrating, he writes, such as from Ireland in the 1850s, Italy in the 1880s and Oklahoma in the 1930s. Currently, 12 percent of Nepal’s GDP comes from Nepalese working abroad. The country’s per capita annual income is a mere $270.

Pritchett advocates a comprehensive guest-worker program where millions of the world’s poorest could work in rich country economies. “If goods and money can travel, why can’t workers follow? What’s so special about borders?” he asks.

On the surface, his idea may not appeal to either the right or left, but he says the key to breaking the political deadlock is to ensure that the migrants go home. For this reason, he emphasizes temporary workers (though personally he would let them stay).

Considering Pritchett’s proposal, Cuellar thinks it is “intriguing and interesting to think about how countries can align immigration policies with development goals.” Opportunities for guest workers would likely be part of an answer, Cuellar agrees, but countries have to consider how big a population of working non-citizens they would tolerate. Foreign workers make up 91 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ population, he says.

What is the implication for the UAE and its political system? “Harmonizing development goals and concepts of citizenship can be a challenge,” he concludes.

If we stick with the economic issue of matching job providers to job needs, Pritchett’s idea makes practical sense while ameliorating a chronic world problem. It may fall short as temporary workers’ visas expire, if workers’ lack of will to return home is coupled with a lack of political will to expel them. Cuellar’s observations fit a larger work-plus-humanitarian context beyond the economic question.

If our political leaders can take care to define the problem carefully, they may be able to thread a path that will bring needed labor to U.S. businesses and needed work to unemployed workers of the world.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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