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This is a joint post with Joel Meister.

Efforts in the U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform kicked off last Thursday with a hearing convened by Senator Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. Though conventional wisdom may hold that prospects for reform would only dim in times of economic decline, the hearing, entitled, "Comprehensive Immigration Reform in 2009, Can We Do It and How?”, brought together eight panel witnesses offering diverse perspectives but an underlying consensus that Congress should act on immigration this year. And with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s testimony yesterday before the full Senate Judiciary Committee, the stage is being set for President Obama to address the issue of comprehensive reform later this month.

Here are some observations from the last week’s proceedings:

1. A common recommendation from witnesses was to establish an independent commission “to analyze the labor market impacts of immigration and propose adjustment in immigration levels that promote America’s economic growth… while maintaining low unemployment and preventing wage depression.” See the testimony of Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute for a general outline of what such a commission would look like.

The broad principle is a great idea. Visa caps for low and high skilled workers during good years are way oversubscribed. For instance, in 2007, the USCIS received three times as many applications for high skilled workers as there were slots. The presence of an institution that allows visa caps to be more flexible during some years can maximize the benefits to the temporary workers as well as to their employers.

But an important question remains: with what data and methodology will the commission base its recommendations? At present there is scarce information out there on the comings and goings of foreign workers. Statistics on authorized immigration are highly aggregated, statistics on unauthorized immigration are difficult to rely on, statistics on temporary migrants make it hard to distinguish three arrivals by one person from the arrival of three different people, and the U.S. basically does not track emigration. How will the commission accurately project the optimal inflow of foreign workers if data is not even available in a timely fashion?

2. From the testimonies, a common theme emerged that immigrants are part of America’s strength. Noteworthy among them was the testimony of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on the economic impact. “It is no doubt,” he said, “that unauthorized, that is, illegal immigration has made a significant contribution to our economy.” He further quoted Bill Gates on the need to facilitate the inflow of highly skilled workers: “America will find it infinitely more difficult to maintain its technological leadership if it shuts out the very people who are most able to help us compete.” He advocated for a temporary worker program to be crafted and for caps on H-1B visas to be increased.

Of course, this echoes Michael Clemens here at CGD who has long argued that immigrants are an engine of our prosperity and that quotas should significantly be increased (see his chapter in White House and the World).

Ideally, more discussion on the development impacts of immigration should be in order; that is, not only the benefit of immigration to the U.S., but the benefit of immigration to migrants themselves. A recent CGD study shows that a Nigerian earns six times more just by moving, even by conservative estimates; a Mexican earns triple what he earns just by moving across the border. Our national conversation on a truly comprehensive reform package in 2009 should certainly take this into account. It is in everyone’s best interest. But with much more work to be done in the coming months, the Judiciary committee should be commended for bucking the conventional wisdom and taking on this issue now.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.