January 7, 2015

Congress and Obama’s Executive Order: Allow Firms to Invite Guest Workers

Many Americans are upset by the decision of President Obama to issue an executive order to reform immigration policy. The executive order effectively grants undocumented immigrants the legal right to remain in the United States if they have been here five years and are parents, children, or spouses of citizens or of legal residents. The president says that he did this because Congress has not passed an immigration reform bill.

Obama’s impatience with Congress on immigration reform is understandable. Government has allowed millions of immigrants to remain in the United States even though they are violating the law by being here. Since it costs about $23,000 to deport an undocumented immigrant, it would be fiscally irresponsible to try to deport a significant percentage of them. Thus, we need to reform immigration policy so that we have a law that we can afford to enforce. Although Obama may have gone beyond his authority as president, his action serves to highlight the urgency of Congress acting to reform immigration policy.

Opponents of the president’s executive order are concerned that it effectively grants amnesty to immigrants who have violated immigration law, thereby undermining the rule of law. A more fundamental problem is that it reflects the contradictions of existing law. Many companies need more workers and would like to hire immigrants, but most immigrants do not have the legal right to work in the United States.

This order adds another element of legal risk to the decisions of firms. It opens the door to almost five million illegal immigrants gaining work permits. If any of these immigrants apply for jobs, firms that refuse to hire them based on their immigration status could be violating anti-discrimination law, but firms that do hire them could be breaking the law if the courts decide the president’s executive order is not legitimate.

Another problem with President Obama’s executive order is that undocumented immigrants who are granted work permits can use those permits to get drivers’ licenses in most states, and according to the “Motor Voter” law, they are to be encouraged to register to vote while getting a license. Thus, it is possible that millions of illegal immigrants will be voting in elections beginning in 2015.

It is doubtful whether very many of the immigrants who qualify to get work permits will actually apply for them. Those who register now to get a work permit may face a greater risk of deportation in the future if the executive order is overturned by the courts or reversed by the next president. Nevertheless, Republicans in Congress should do more than they have done so far in response to the president’s action. Rather than continuing to dodge the immigration issue as they appear to have done during the last year, the Republicans, now that they have a majority in both chambers, should work on reforming our seriously flawed immigration system.

Something is fundamentally wrong when one federal law makes it illegal to hire undocumented immigrants while other laws prohibit firms from considering an applicant’s nationality, citizenship, or immigration status in hiring decisions. If employers are not supposed to discriminate they should be permitted to hire any and all immigrant workers who otherwise satisfy their hiring criteria. Although some native workers may not like having to compete for jobs against immigrant workers, the number of jobs is not fixed. More workers means more goods and services would be produced and the additional income from doing so would result in a comparable-sized increase in the demand for goods and services and for labor.

Businesses should have the freedom to hire any immigrant worker so long as the immigrant does not violate the property rights of other Americans. Being able to reside and work in the United States is not the same as citizenship; immigration policy needs to set and maintain high standards in terms of who qualifies for citizenship and government-funded benefits, including public education.

In reforming immigration, Congress needs to acknowledge the reality that most immigrants are here to stay. Although talking tough on immigration may win some conservative votes, deporting any substantial number of those here illegally is not a viable alternative. Letting immigrants come or stay if firms are willing to hire them as guest workers could contribute to economic growth, increased tax revenue, and a reduction in government debt.

The most important drawback to welcoming immigrants is the cost of government services that some of them use. The opportunity to work need not be connected to the right to government benefits and if it is, immigrants could be required to pay a fee to reside in the United States. Requiring payment of an additional fee to account for their prior undocumented status might be a good way to provide a path to citizenship or permanent residence for those who are already here.

Then America could again become the land of opportunity that it once was.

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