Published on People Move

Towards better governance for U.S. labor migration

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Perhaps the toughest challenge faced by developed and developing countries alike is the governance of international labor migration. Some countries have developed useful mechanisms that foster economic growth and migrant integration into host societies. But in the United States, a well-informed, high level debate about how to improve employment-based migration management is conspicuously absent from the public discourse. Discussion in the media and debates in Congress typically focus narrowly on the concerns of employers who argue, for example, in favor of raising the numerical limits on two or three temporary visa categories, or those pushing for increased enforcement measures for irregular migrants.

The Economic Policy Institute’s new book, Value-Added Immigration: Lessons for the United States from Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, uses a comparative methodology to help fill this gap in the policy debate on labor migration in the United States. Authored by Ray Marshall, the U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Carter, it suggests how the United States could improve its own system based upon the best practices found in Australia, Canada, and the U.K. These three countries – while far from perfect – have evolved and adapted their migration governance to further a value-added strategy, i.e., one that seeks to improve productivity and innovation and fill labor shortages. They also do a better job of protecting the labor rights of foreign and native workers.

Canada’s points-based system functions well in selecting the migrant workers most likely to have the appropriate skills to succeed in the economy and to integrate socially. The positive impact of this on social cohesion is evident: A much lower percentage of Canadians believe that migrants take jobs from natives or depress wages than do Americans. The United Kingdom has a group of apolitical experts– the Migration Advisory Committee – to determine the occupational employment needs of the U.K. economy that can sensibly be filled by migrant workers. This allows Parliament to make informed, data-supported decisions about optimal targets for employment-based migration.

Compare this to the United States, which lacks a single federal agency with primary responsibility for immigration or even an expert body to compile and interpret data on immigration and the labor market – which results in policy-making and outcomes that are far from ideal. Members of Congress are left to make decisions about immigration law and policy based on lobbying from employers and interest groups instead of facts and data, and permanent and temporary migration levels have been almost entirely set in stone for 20 years, despite wildly varying labor market needs and conditions.

The Canadian and U.K. examples above help ensure that new migrant workers entering the host society are complementary to the domestic workforce and add value, instead of substituting for and competing with native workers. When migrant workers are complementary, productivity and wages will rise for all workers, leading to improved social and economic outcomes for both native and migrant workers. In Value-Added Immigration, there are numerous examples cited from abroad – that if adopted – will help the United States propel its employment-based migration governance in that direction.


Daniel Costa

Immigration Policy Analyst, Economic Policy Institute

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