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What Really Matters: Immigration and National Interest
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP Amoco Corporation. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP Amoco Corporation in any way.

Biography When the French philosopher Auguste Comte observed that demography was destiny, he did not have US immigration policy in mind. Yet, the truth is that the central rationale for more employment-based immigration is not, as some would suggest, the paucity of skilled workers but, rather, the absence of workers. Moreover, the concept of essential skills must be redefined to focus more on basic jobs outside the high technology corridor. While our national future clearly seems to be driven by the revolution in information technology, at present, we live and work in an economy that needs, but is not getting, anywhere near the supply of low-tech labor that it must have to sustain itself. The INS and DOL do not understand these realities and cannot be expected to solve them.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that, by 2008, America will have more jobs than workers to fill them. Experts predict that 57% of the anticipated job growth will take place in occupational categories that do not require any education or training beyond high school. The worker shortages over the coming decades will not be prevented or remedied by intensified worker training, which is DOL's mantra to counter any immigration initiative. Independent economists anticipate a particularly severe shortfall in so-called semi-skilled and unskilled jobs with special impact in the service sector. Leading economists have repeatedly told Congress that the worker crunch is a serious drag on future business growth. If there are not enough hands to do the work that must be done, planned expansion will have to be postponed or abandoned and existing services must be cut back.

Elevated levels of immigration are the only realistic way to maintain the possibility of continued economic growth. It is not an accident that the 1990's saw a rising tide of immigration and the longest running period of prosperity in American history. As the Immigration Act of 1990 began to take hold, we saw the lowest unemployment rate since the 1960's; the lowest poverty rate in two decades and the lowest interest rates since the Second World War. While immigrants flooded into our cities and towns making cultural diversity a national phenomenon no longer confined to only the largest urban areas, the American economic miracle created more jobs since 1980 than Europe and Japan combined. Immigration alleviated labor shortages, expanded job opportunities, created new businesses and became the US Government's only successful urban renewal strategy.

It is virtually impossible to overestimate the resulting economic stimulus. Immigrants raise the income of native workers by some $10 billion per year. A single immigrant worker pays $80,000 more in taxes than they get back in benefits or social services over a lifetime. In 1998 alone, for example, immigrants kicked in $133 billion federal, state and local taxes and immigrant-owned businesses padded the public covers by an additional $100 billion. There is another point of equal economic importance. More than 75% of immigrants are in the very prime of their working years. This translates into about 17.5 million new workers that America neither raised nor educated. This is more potent than any job-training program that the DOL could ever put forward. Between 1988 and 2002, immigrants will have contributed an estimated $500 billion to the Social Security Trust Fund; by 2072, this contribution will soar to nearly $2 trillion. As the baby boomers retire and birth rates continue to fall or remain flat, only immigration prevents the nation from going bankrupt or confronting a social disruption of cataclysmic proportions.

These are the facts and facts are stubborn things. What conclusions can we draw from? Consider some of the following points:

1. The DOL is neither intellectually nor programmatically equipped to help because it relies on more training programs to solve the worker shortage. As the record shows, a lack of people, not skills, is the true issue. Moreover, it is undeniable that the most effective kind of training is always informal, personal, and unplanned. People, not programs, train other people. Beyond that, most of what DOL does is a duplication of what private industry and the educational sector already are doing or have on the drawing board. At a time when companies are reaching down into the high schools for talent and virtual universities are increasingly popular, even to the point of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology putting all of its courses on the Internet, the model of large and unwieldy government-run programs is increasingly obsolete. It is yesterday's approach to tomorrow's challenges.

2. If this is so, the DOL can no longer justify the imposition of immigration-related user fees as a necessary way to fund US worker training. Such fees are to be resisted not only for lack of both relevance and efficiency, but in addition indirect because they are redundant taxation. Such taxation has the unhealthy effect of making the DOL, and the INS for that matter, more fiscally self-sufficient and thus less susceptible to Congressional control and, ultimately, popular will. While Presidents and Congress come and go, the bureaucracy goes on unscathed by events as a kind of permanent government for whom elections have no real meaning. Moreover, indirect taxation hides the true cost of immigration from Congress, and the very legislators who make immigration policy are never forced to face the consequences of their actions.

3. If Congress lacks the political will to expand the "Other Worker" category beyond the present 10,000 limit, then tinker with the current system to produce the same effect. Only count principal visa applicants, not family members, in this category. Authorize visa applicants to borrow unused visa numbers from other employment-based categories such as the largely dormant investor visa program. Abolish the Diversity Visa Lottery and shift over all these visas to the Other Worker Category. Allow current visa applicants in these times of high demand to borrow against future visa allotments when demand may be less. Permit essential workers to stay in the United States while they wait for their priority dates to become current and freeze the ages of their children as of the time when the immigrant-visa petitions are approved to prevent them from aging-out.

4. Until now, employment-based immigration has operated on the premise that private business is the only proper petitioner. This should no longer be the case. It is now time for states and localities to play a more active role in sponsoring employment-based immigrants for both temporary and permanent visas. This is particularly essential for those rust-belt states with low birth rates and aging populations where the promise of revival is blunted by the dearth of new workers. Businesses in these states can then register with state authorities in a manner most appropriate for local needs. Perhaps the Conrad 20 program whereby states can sponsor international medical graduates for waivers of the two-year foreign residence requirement can serve as a model. Recent initiatives by Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa to encourage immigration to his state reflect the fact that direct involvement by states and cities in the immigration system must and will continue to grow.

This is the home where all of the Diversity Lottery visas can go when this ill-fated experiment meets it deserved fate. Each of the states can get up to 1,000 visas with another 5,000 being held in reserve for emergency situations. Alternatively, if certain states have a greater need than others, or experience more difficulty in attracting new workers, the distribution of visas can be done on the basis of such factors or even be influenced by population statistics. The concept of a lottery is fine but it should be conducted not to encourage ethnic diversity, but rather as a recruitment strategy to help those states and regions who stand in dire need of such assistance. Employment-based immigration is too important to be left to individual employers; government has a rightful role to play as the patron of last resort

This is what really counts. Comments anyone?

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