Today the Washington Post reported that Senate Democrats are working on a plan to create an immigration commission to help determine future levels of employment-based immigration as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. While some disagree as to how future immigration flows should be regulated, immigration advocates agree that planning for future flows of legal immigration is among the most critical elements that comprehensive immigration reform must include.

One of the greatest challenges in immigration reform is the need to realistically assess future employment-based immigration needs. Many people agree that the current legal immigration flow is drastically out of sync with America’s labor needs and the global realities of the 21st century. Given the current weakened economy and high unemployment rates, it is difficult to estimate the U.S.’s future labor needs. However, the economy will eventually improve, and a reasonable, flexible legal immigration system must be put into place to fill our future labor needs. Failing to do so would only repeat the errors of IRCA and create the likelihood that unauthorized immigration will continue.

But how do we determine how many workers are needed? In order to address this, some have called for the creation of an independent immigration commission that would analyze U.S. labor needs and recommend levels for employment-based immigration. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) proposed a Standing Commission on Labor Markets, Economic Competitiveness, and Immigration. In their 2009 Independent Task Force Report, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) echoed the need for a streamlined immigration system and offered their public support for MPI’s Standing Commission. Former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, together with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the AFL-CIO presented another proposal for such a commission. These ideas have already been integrated into legislation. For example, House Bill 4321, better known as the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP), includes provisions for an immigration commission. In April 2010, Senate leaders presented a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform that also included an employment-based immigration commission.

But not everyone agrees that an independent commission is the way to go. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has come out against the idea of an employment based immigration commission. In a June 2009 press release the U.S. Chamber’s Vice President of Labor, Immigration and Employee Benefits stated that “The free market is by far the best tool for setting immigration quotas and picking immigrants” and insisted that “Employers need and will continue to fight for a market-based immigration system.” The American Council on International Personnel argues that one commission would never be able to understand the actual, real-time needs of thousands of employers, regardless of the quality of data available. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has also taken a position against a commission.

IPC has put forward several principles for future flow. The following two principles reflect the need to create a more flexible system based on economic realities:

Create a more flexible visa system that more accurately adjusts to the economy and labor market conditions. The current number of permanent employment-based visas available each year was set by Congress in 1990 and has not been adjusted since. The number of temporary visas has been adjusted infrequently. This current system does not have the flexibility to nimbly adjust the number of visas available to align with changing economic conditions. A reformed visa system would enable the U.S. to better manage our legal immigration system by allowing immigration flows to rise and fall during periods of prosperity or job scarcity in order to maximize the economic benefits of immigration. Some have proposed a standing commission to examine labor market conditions and make recommendations to Congress on a more regular basis. Others suggest that employers should play a larger role in determining the legitimate demand for foreign labor. Whether by a commission or some other mechanism, comprehensive immigration reform must include a more flexible decision-making process.

Conduct research and gather and analyze data about worker shortages, labor market trends, and other critical factors in order to aid decision making. Under the current system, Congress sets visa numbers with little regard for actual labor market conditions and needs. A system should be created so that experts have access to reliable data about future projections of labor needs. Congress should identify and require government agencies to track and produce accurate data on key factors including national and regional needs, industry-specific trends and needs, unemployment rates, and wages, working conditions, and recruitment of U.S. workers.

Whether policy-makers are for or against the idea of an independent commission, addressing the future flow of immigration must be hammered out in any immigration reform bill.

Photo by jolien_vallins.