All posts by Alex Nowrasteh

Alex Nowrasteh is immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute. See also:

Cato Institute page listing Nowrasteh’s work
Page about Alex Nowrasteh on Open Borders
All blog posts by Alex Nowrasteh

Don’t Confuse Immigration “Style” with “Substance”

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Some are making a lot of hay over Senator Rubio’s (R-FL) supposed flip-flop on immigration reform whereby he now supports a House strategy of piece-meal bills as opposed to one large comprehensive package that he helped push through the Senate. Rubio has even stated that he opposed going to conference with his Senate immigration reform bill and any individual bill passed by the House.

Rubio’s statement is not a flip-flop—it is a public acceptance of the way immigration reform will work in the House and not a repudiation of immigration reform. For a long time the word “comprehensive” has been a dirty word among Republicans and this is just a loud public statement by a pro-reform Senator—arguably the leader of immigration reform this year—moving against that word and the strategy it represents. Piece meal bills were going to be the strategy in the House—as has been known for months. There is no surprise here.    

But his change is purely strategic, and not very substantive. As a spokesman for Senator Rubio stated:

The point is that at this time, the only approach that has a realistic chance of success is to focus on those aspects of reform on which there is consensus through a series of individual bills … Otherwise, this latest effort to make progress on immigration will meet the same fate as previous efforts: failure.

The positive interpretation is that Rubio so wants some kind of reform to happen that he’s willing scuttle the unpopular parts of his own bill— behavior that reform proponents should see as the lesser of two evils. The negative and unrealistic hope on the part of immigration restrictionists is that they have somehow convinced a pro-reform Republican to give up. They haven’t. The anti-reform side is winning due to luck—Syria, shutdown, calendar problems, etc.—not convincing arguments or political acumen.   

There is too much attachment to, and discussion of, the legislative style of reforming immigration and not enough attention paid to the policy substance. The legislative style of immigration reform is irrelevant. It does not matter if immigration reform is in one bill or a hundred bills—so long as the policy outcome is an improvement and it becomes law constitutionally. What does matter is the substance of how legal immigration will be reformed and how unauthorized immigrants will be legalized. 

Many opponents of immigration reform harp on how long the Senate Gang of 8 immigration reform bill was, comparing it to the disastrous Affordable Care Act (ACA). But the ACA was bad policy and would have remained bad if it was chopped up into several separate bills. The substance of immigration reform is better policy and will remain so regardless of the particular legislative style of its passage.    

Allow Renewals for Guest Worker Visas

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Reforming low-skilled guest worker visas is a vitally important part of immigration reform. It will substantially reduce unauthorized immigration by providing a lawful pathway to enter and reenter the U.S. To that specific end, an effective guest worker visa has to be designed to address how migrant and guest workers actually behave. Allowing a guest worker visa to be renewed multiple times for each worker, assuming the worker follows the law when in the U.S., will decrease the incentives to migrate unlawfully. For each theory of migrant movement, allowing a guest worker visa to be renewed multiple times is compatible with migrant actions and will decrease unauthorized immigration. Here are the theories:

Target Income Theory

Under the target income theory, migrants come to the U.S. to meet a specific monetary or life goal, like starting a business or buying a house back home, that they would be unable to meet in their home country. Upon reaching the monetary threshold for that goal, they return home. According to this theory, a recession in the U.S. would cause migrants to stay longer until they meet their targeted goal, while higher migrant wages or an economic boom would make them return sooner.

If a migrant behaves according to this theory, he will work until the goal is met. Let’s say a guest worker visa allows a migrant to work in the U.S. for 10 years but no longer. If, at the end of that period, the migrant requires 2 more years of work to reach his income goal, the migrant will be tempted to overstay and work illegally until the goal is met. In this case, allowing the guest worker to legally stay longer and meet his goal will decrease the incentive to overstay on the visa. If the target income theory explains migrant behavior, allowing many visa renewals will help decrease unauthorized immigration. Renewable visas will allow immigrants to satisfy their income goal and return home.

Disappointment Theory

According to this theory, migrants return home if the economic conditions in the U.S. are less favorable than they imagined, or if the economic conditions in their home country improve. Migrants would prefer to return when conditions improve, at least temporarily, but many stay in the U.S. longer because it is difficult for them to reenter should they ever want to. The depth of migrant social networks in their home and destination countries greatly influence this effect.

Guest worker visas that could be renewed multiple times will incentivize migrants to return home when conditions there improve because they will not fear being stuck there if they deteriorate.

Circular Migration Theory

To distinguish circular migration from the disappointment theory above, migrants come to the U.S. for seasonal or yearly work but move back and forth as labor demand for their occupations changes. Beginning in 1986, this circular movement between Mexico and the U.S. was interrupted with expanded border security that increased the length of time that unauthorized migrants stayed here, which in turn increased the likelihood that they would settle permanently. Because migrants suddenly faced the possibility of being stuck in Mexico if they ever left, they decided to stay and work.

If those migrants had a lawful way to cross the border, many would have returned to Mexico just as they did when the Bracero Program offered a visa to do just that. Renewable guest worker visas will allow some legal migrants to move back and forth for seasonal labor, lessening the incentive to illegally stay once here.

Conclusion

Migrants come for different reasons. Migrant actions might exhibit some or all of these theories, or enter the U.S. with one in mind and then switch to another during their stay. No matter which theory provides a better explanation of why migrants come, making the visa renewable as many times as possible will substantially decrease the incentive to migrate illegally or overstay a visa.

Creating a guest worker visa that can be renewed multiple times will allow migrants to legally work in the U.S., leave while preserving the possibility of legal return, and thus reduce unlawful entry and visa overstays. A flexible and numerically large guest worker visa program will substantially reduce the supply of unauthorized immigrants by channeling them into the legal market. The more times that such a visa can be renewed, the more effective it will be at decreasing unauthorized immigration.

America Can Aid Syrians Without Military Intervention

FINANCIAL INTEREST DISCLOSURE: Nowrasteh has a paid job as immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute (since April 15, 2012), and formerly had a similar role at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post website here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

The Syrian civil war has killed over 100,000 people and displaced as many as seven million — about one-third of Syria’s population. Russia’s offer to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control may stop American military involvement, but the humanitarian crisis remains. The good news is military involvement isn’t necessary to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Instead, we can allow Syrian emigration to the U.S.

The number of refugees grows daily. Non-Muslim Syrians, who make up 13-to-15 percent of the population, are at particular risk. Christians, Druzes, and the non-religious face attacks from many rebel groups who are motivated by a violent interpretation of Sunni Islam. For instance, rebels from the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group recently conquered the Aramaic speaking Christian town of Maaloula — forcing most of the population to flee with only a handful of nuns and orphans left behind.

But Muslim Syrians are in grave danger as well. A mere 13 percent of Syrians — including President Bashar Assad and his government — are Shiites, compared to 74 percent who are Sunnis. Sunnis form the core of the rebellion, while Shiites generally support the government. Warring factions drawn along sectarian lines will extend and deepen the violence, killing non-combatants of all faiths in the cross-fire.

These conditions prompted a mass exodus from Syria, and it’s likely to continue. As the director-general of Sweden’s Migration Board, Anders Danielsson, has said: “The conflict in Syria has heated up, to put it mildly… we can assume that it’s not going to be resolved in the foreseeable future.”

Of the seven million displaced Syrians, two million have left the country altogether. So far, neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have taken in more than 1.7 million of the refugees. Sweden has announced that it will grant permanent residency to the 14,700 Syrian refugees already there, as well as some subsequent arrivals. Germany has also decided to take in 5,000 Syrian refugees.

In contrast, in 2011 and 2012, the U.S. allowed just 374 Syrians to gain asylum status, while only 60 refugees were approved. The Obama Administration has announced plans to let in 2,000 refugees — but those are only promises. Syrians already in the U.S. are allowed to stay and work under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — as are many Haitians, Somalis, and others whose home countries are devastated, but that doesn’t help those trying to flee their war-torn country.

The United States used to be the world’s safety net for refugees, especially religious ones. The Pilgrims fled the Netherlands, Irish Catholics escaped English oppression, Jews from Eastern Europe escaped pogroms, and Armenians fled genocide and war to settle in California. But then America changed its immigration laws in 1921, and the government shamefully turned away German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Chinese fleeing the Japanese invasion.

The United States could help avoid an even worse humanitarian crisis in Syria by guaranteeing TPS status to all peaceful Syrians who make it to the U.S. It’s important to note that TPS is not a green card and cannot lead toward citizenship. Furthermore, any war criminals or individuals affiliated with criminal or terrorist activity would be excluded. TPS status could be a game-changer for Syrians and it could be done just by changing a few words in the U.S. code.

This sounds simple, but there will undoubtedly be questions about the results of such a move. How will the Syrians fare once they are in the United States? The answer: pretty well.

Syrian refugees would not burden the welfare state, since they would only have access to public education for their children and Emergency Medical Assistance. In fact, they’d likely find work, which is the best vehicle toward cultural and economic integration. According to a government report in 2010, 58 percent of recent adult refugees were employed — a rate higher than the U.S. born population. In Sweden, by contrast, only 30 percent of all immigrants are working even after they’ve been in the country several years.

Syrians in particular have proven successful in the U.S. Americans of Syrian descent have an average income of $56,000 and 66 percent of Syrian adults are in the workforce – higher than the 63 percent for U.S.-born Americans.

Allowing Syrians to get TPS upon landing in America is a cheap and effective way for Congress to limit the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Syria. President Obama and Congress’ interest in Syria is likely fleeting and focused primarily on WMDs, but the violence isn’t. TPS is already keeping some Syrians out of harm’s way. It’s time that Congress allows TPS to save more lives.

Open Borders note: See also Paul Crider’s blog post Taking our humanitarian impulses seriously.

The photograph of Syrian refugee children in Jordan that appears above this post was taken by Russell Watkins, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Path to Citizenship vs. Legalization: Let the Immigrants Choose

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Representative Goodlatte (R-VA) is working toward a compromise on legalization and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.  This issue is the current bottleneck in the immigration reform debate.  Many Republican, Goodlatte included, are skeptical of a path to citizenship for current unauthorized immigrants.  Many Democrats, however, will not support immigration reform unless some unauthorized immigrants are allowed to become citizens eventually.  Could this impasse make immigration reform impossible this year?

Goodlatte’s proposal, as far as we know, would be to grant unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status.  They would then be legally allowed to work and live here but only eligible for a green card or citizenship if they use the existing immigration system.  This proposal would shrink the number of unauthorized immigration who could eventually earn a green card or gain citizenship.

I suggest a third proposal: create two paths toward legal status.

The first path should lead to permanent legal status on a work permit that cannot be used to earn a green card unless the person marries an American or serves in the military (other categories should be considered too).  This path could be relatively easy and cheap, preferably a few hundred dollars to pay for the paperwork processing fee as well as criminal, national security, and health checks.

The second path should be toward a green card and eventual citizenship.  It should probably be similar to the Senate plan, take many years, and cost more money.  This should be the more difficult legalization process but it should not be any more difficult than what is included in the Senate bill.

Creating two paths will allow the unauthorized immigrants themselves to choose the type of legal status they wish to have in the United States.  This also addresses some of the concerns of immigration reform skeptics while actually allowing a path to citizenship that, theoretically, most unauthorized immigrants could follow.  Furthermore, this plan is probably more politically feasible than a one sized fits all path to legal status.  The sooner a reform is passes, the sooner the deportations can stop.

Currently every interest group involved in immigration reform is trying to choose which legal status unauthorized immigrants should have.  The unauthorized immigrant should instead be able to choose for themselves.  Ever more complex legalization and path to citizenship plans of the type Goodlatte will propose will not accommodate most of the 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants here.  Several paths toward legal status should be created and the unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to choose for themselves.

Immigration Reform Is Not Amnesty

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Many opponents of immigration reform have labeled any type of legalization for unauthorized immigrants “amnesty.” In common terminology, an amnesty is a general forgiveness for past offenses. Calling immigration reform amnesty brands it with a scarlet letter in the minds of many who are skeptical of reform. A recent video made by the Cato Institute explains just some of the many steps an unauthorized immigrant will have to go through to become legalized if the Senate’s immigration reform becomes law:

Here are some of the steps (this is not an exhaustive list) an unauthorized immigrant must follow to earn the initial registered provisional immigration (RPI) status:

  • In the country prior to 2012
  • Pays any and all outstanding tax bills (not back taxes)
  • Goes through national security and background checks
  • $1,000 fine
  • $500 fee
  • Then the unauthorized immigrant will receive a work permit valid for six years

After six years, the immigrant will need to apply for another RPI permit:

  • Proves that she’s been employed for virtually the entire six year period
  • Be at no less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level
  • $500 fee

After four years, the immigrant can apply for a green card if she:

  • Proves she can speak English
  • Proves she hasn’t been on welfare
  • Passes another round of background and security checks
  • Pays all of the normal fees associated with a green card
  • The federal government meets most of its immigration enforcement goals

That doesn’t seem like amnesty to me.