Use the Immigration 'Pause' to Boost Economy

Use the Immigration 'Pause' to Boost Economy
(Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times via AP, File)/The Seattle Times v
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On Monday, April 20th, President Trump tweeted that he would “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” By the middle of the week, the executive order he issued had suspended many forms of immigration for 60 days.


In some ways, this was merely pro forma. It is simply the latest in a string of policy actions taken in response to the pandemic and economic shutdown. Immigration court proceedings are on hold, visa processing is suspended, non-essential travel from abroad has been banned. These are unfortunate but understandable.


Almost immediately, Trump was accused of politically exploiting the pandemic to further his restrictionist immigration agenda. Neither Trump’s actions nor the criticisms are surprising — he is, after all, a politician and this is basically the definition of what they do. Besides, some urban liberals are doing the same thing.


One of the president’s stated reasons for his executive order is to “protect” Americans jobs in the midst of rising unemployment. In many parts of the country, the economic doldrums are expected to last into 2021.


This may sound paradoxical but, in contrast to the president’s erroneous “lump of labor” thinking — and in contrast to pre-crisis Democratic calls to throw open the borders — some modestly expanded immigration channels can help with economic recovery.


There are at least three areas where some loosening of immigration policy could kickstart the rebound — and perhaps generate bipartisan agreement.


First, create a startup visa. The United States needs new job creation, and new job creation comes from new businesses. A disproportionate share of new businesses — especially in technology-based industries — are started by immigrants. The Trump administration has talked encouragingly about entrepreneurship in general but rolled back President Obama’s International Entrepreneur rule that created a pathway for immigrant entrepreneurs.


The easiest way to do this right now is to create a startup visa for foreign workers who are already here: H-1B visa holders, foreign students, and those working on Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorizations. Most of the individuals in these three categories are working or studying in science and technology. Their expertise and skills are needed immediately.


The federal government could send a strong message: we need your entrepreneurial skills now and will allow you to start new companies. Those who receive a startup visa would have expedited green card processes kick in as soon as the immigration system is up and running.


Second, create a place-based visa. A version of this, the Heartland Visa, has been proposed by the Economic Innovation Group. Canada has something similar through its Provincial Nominee Program, attuned to geographic variations in economic need. We already know that the COVID-19 recession is hitting some parts of the country harder than others, exacerbating geographic inequalities that existed before the crisis. Targeting the economic energy of immigrants toward specific places will help ensure that the recovery is broadly shared.


A new place-based visa could, like a startup visa, draw on the temporary “nonimmigrants” who are already here on H-1Bs or in school. The point is that we have a large reservoir of talent that is essentially locked up. Releasing it will speed recovery without adding to an influx of new immigrant arrivals from overseas. The skills gaps that plagued the economy pre-crisis can also be addressed this way.


Lastly, clear out the employment-based green card backlogs. Trump’s executive order appears to apply only to green card applicants who are “new arrivals” from abroad. Every year, however, around 80 percent of employment-based green cards issued are “adjustments of status.” Many are already in the country. Once the crisis abates and visa processing restarts, the administrative crush will be overwhelming.


Doing this shouldn’t add to “lump of labor” fears. For one thing, many of those awaiting green cards are already working. In past years, about six in 10 of those issued employment-based green cards have been employed. (Surprisingly, employment rates among refugees and asylees are the highest among those receiving green cards.) Resistance to this could also be met by adding a job-search component. A few other countries have “job search visas” that allow certain immigrants, especially the high-skilled, to remain in the country while they look for a job.


Immigration is now mostly on “pause” until at least mid-summer. This should be approached by Republicans and Democrats as an opportunity to forge some modest areas of agreement that will also bring economic benefits.  


Dane Stangler is Director of Policy Innovations at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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