Any immigration reform proposal serious about reducing unauthorized immigration must focus on creating tools for U.S. business, not chains for U.S. business. Past attempts at addressing future flows have been chains instead of tools. Today's H-2A visa for seasonal agricultural work is a good example. It is so cumbersome and expensive to use that the vast majority of American farmers—who depend critically on migrant labor—refuse to use it. The program doesn't help farmers get the labor they need, doesn't help connect them to workers by facilitating recruitment; it exclusively puts up costly barriers for farmers to fight through in order to access legal migrant labor.
If you're concerned about the phenomenon of unauthorized immigration or the plight of unauthorized immigrants, pay less attention to the path-to-citizenship. Keep one question foremost in your mind as you read the forthcoming details of the Senators' and president's proposals: What are they offering U.S. farmers to get the labor they need without going under? What are they offering U.S. parents to get the childcare they need without breaking the bank? These are the provisions that will shape unauthorized immigration for tomorrow's America.
That's from Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development, which is about the most interesting organization covering issues of migration, economics, and prosperity. Drawing on the work of economists Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, Clemens points out that illegal immigrants (he prefers unauthorized) come mostly for work opportunities, with citizenship being a secondary issue at best. So if you want to decrease the number of people defying immigration laws, you need to figure out a way to make them legal. That needn't involve citizenship because they aren't coming for that. They're coming to work, so let them work openly. Here's a chart and commentary from Orrenius and Zavodny:
"These experiences show the importance of enacting a legalization program only in the context of comprehensive immigration reform designed to reduce future unauthorized inflows as much as possible. Flows increased following IRCA [late 1980s' comprehensive reform] because the amnesty did little to reduce the demand for unauthorized workers […]"
As Clemens notes, in 1986 Ronald Reagan signed off on a plan that gave most the country's illegal popluation (about 3 million at the time) a path to citizenship. By 1990, "You couldn't even tell that anything had happened." All the immigration-reform proposals bandied about so far talk a good game about increasing the number of work permits available to low-skilled workers and their employers, but Congress has never delivered on that in the past. And if they don't this time, history will repeat itself when it comes to the number of illegal/unauthorized folks in the U.S. of A. Because (as the chart also shows), the only way to keep immigrants from coming is by tanking the economy.
Read about President Obama's record-setting attacks on employers of immigrants here.