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Immigration reform needs consensus on flow of foreign labor

The US must adjust the future flow of immigrants – low-skilled guest workers and educated foreigners alike. Immigration reform must include incentives for legal immigration, recognize the employment needs of US citizens, and create a flexible system that can adjust over time.

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Josue Benavides, originally from El Salvador, poses between his cousins, Jonathan and Christopher Benavides, at the 'Rally for Citizenship' calling for immigration reform on Capitol Hill April 10. Op-ed contributor Harry Holzer writes: 'Getting the future flows of immigrants right....is a critical piece of the immigration puzzle, if Congress is to generate reform that helps the economy and survives politically over time.'

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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In the debate over US immigration reform, the media and public have focused on controversial issues such as citizenship for those who are here now illegally, and enforcement efforts on the US-Mexican border and in American workplaces.

But another issue is also critically important. The United States must get the future flow of immigrants right, whether these be low-skilled guest workers or educated foreigners for the tech sector.

These flows must be managed to ensure that immigrants come legally, and in the numbers and categories that Americans agree fit their vision for a better society. If we get this part of immigration reform wrong, then our current effort at comprehensive reform is doomed to fail – just as other efforts have failed in the past.

The latest example is the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. This law generated an amnesty for those here illegally at the time, as well as new procedures and penalties to prevent employers from hiring newly arriving illegal workers. But it did little to address the future flows of legal immigrant labor.

That missing piece in the reform became a glaring hole during the economic boom of the 1990s, when foreign workers poured into the US illegally to take plentiful jobs at low wages. Limited enforcement to restrict illegal flows also posed few effective constraints on the workers and employers who were interested in these arrangements.

This huge flow of illegal immigrants created a need for reform. If the issue of future immigrant labor is again avoided, then another flow of illegal immigrants over time might lead the US back to the same situation as today, and yet another major fight over reform in a decade or two.

But coming up with a consensus on how to regulate the influx of guest workers and other legal foreign labor is difficult – that’s why an immigration reform effort in Congress collapsed in 2007. Labor and industry couldn’t agree. Unions generally fear that too many guest workers undercut jobs and wages for Americans, while industry complains it can’t stay in business without this influx.

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