A Pro-Growth Reform: The GOP House should improve S.744 immigration bill, not kill it.

By WSJ, Editorial

Any legislation that runs 1,200 pages is almost by definition flawed, and the immigration reform that passed the Senate late last week is no exception. The bill would nonetheless improve America’s ability to legally attract more of the world’s human talent, and the Republican-run House now has a chance to make it better.

This is not our preferred reform, which would focus entirely on easing the way for more people to come legally. Immigrants flock to the U.S. mainly for economic opportunity, and that incentive can’t be stopped by a border fence or more harassment of businesses. The Senate’s enforcement provisions are an example of wretched excess, a case of the Republican Party letting its blood-and-soil wing trump its supposedly free-market principles.

Even if the border is militarized to the point that no Mexican can get through, immigrants will find other ways to enter. An estimated 40% of current illegals are here because they overstayed their legal visas, and that share is bound to rise as the Border Patrol doubles to 38,400 under the Senate bill.

The Senate’s answer is to mandate an E-Verify program for all employers to vet new workers, and to further criminalize employers who hire illegals. Employers are willing to go along with this because the status quo of ICE raids and worker shortages is often worse.

But it’s certainly a spectacle to see Republicans who claim to be champions of business insisting that the act of hiring a willing worker who turns out to be illegal ought to be punished like a felony. Like every government program, E-Verify has also had a flawed rollout with many false IDs. The bill would be better without all of this enforcement overkill.

The good news is that this waste is offset by the new and expanded avenues the bill creates for legal entry into the U.S. These include an uncapped number of green cards for graduates of U.S. schools in science, engineering and technology who have a job offer. So if you are a Stanford biologist with an offer from Genentech, you don’t have to return to Bangalore or London and start your own company there. This will help keep the U.S. at the leading edge of technology and world competitiveness.

The Senate bill also moves the U.S. somewhat toward a more skills-based immigration system than the current focus on family reunification. Siblings of U.S. citizens will no longer get legal preference and neither will married children above age 30. Country quotas that failed to account for population or education are also lifted.

Instead the bill creates more guest-worker visas to fill shortages in the U.S. economy. The new farm-worker program is a particular improvement over the current mess, allowing a largely bureaucratic-free process up to 112,333 visas a year with a cap for the first five years of 337,000. That annual quota is still far too low given the extensive needs of U.S. growers, but this is where the House could make the bill better.

The status quo without reform will mean more labor shortages that force American farmers to stop growing some crops or move even more production overseas. The same Republicans and union Democrats who cry “sovereignty” to oppose immigration don’t seem to mind if their policies result in more imported food.

The annual visa quota for skilled H-1B workers increases to 120,000 at first (and as much as 180,000) from 65,000, though here again the limit is still too low and too encumbered by Department of Labor discretion. The same goes for the new guest-worker program for unskilled, nonfarm workers, which starts at a ridiculous 20,000 visas, rising to 75,000 after four years to a cap of 200,000. The nationwide quota for construction is 15,000 and can’t grow.

Raising these visa quotas, and stripping away the Labor Department’s increased power to set wages and complicate business hiring are areas where the House GOP could improve reform. This would also be the best immigration enforcement policy because more legal ways to enter the U.S. and work means less incentive to come illegally. It’s a lot cheaper for taxpayers than spending $40 billion to militarize the border.

Which brings us to the “path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million illegal residents already living in the U.S. Conservatives are again calling this “amnesty,” though the bill requires that illegal residents pay fines of $2,000 and wait at least 13 years before they can become citizens, and bars them from welfare or ObamaCare as they wait.

The question restrictionists don’t like to answer is what is their alternative? As Florida Republican Marco Rubio says, current law is itself a form of amnesty because no one thinks those already here will leave or be deported.

Some on the right continue to indulge the Mitt Romney fantasy that if the government raids enough businesses, illegals will “self-deport” for lack of opportunity. But if those workers haven’t gone home during the last five years of recession and slow growth, they aren’t likely to in the future. Meanwhile, legalization would make it easier for those workers to change jobs and thus help the economy by better matching skills with opportunities.

The House GOP plans to take up the elements of the Senate effort as separate bills, which is fair enough. Pessimists say it won’t pass, and we’ll take up the political objections another day. But the reason to support immigration reform is less about political advantage than because it is good for the country. It is by far the most pro-growth policy of the Obama era, and especially in this Presidency a growth opportunity is a terrible thing to waste.

A version of this article appeared  of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Pro-Growth Reform.

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