Ideaspace-Cornell Collaboration No. 1


January 15, 2024
By DW Gibson

Overcrowding of families observed by the Office of the Inspector General
on June 10, 2019, at Border Patrol’s McAllen, TX, Station

Cornell Law School’s Immigration Law and Policy Program recently released a white paper entitled Immigration Reform: A Path Forward. The authors open the paper with an admission that the intense partisanship of the current political environment doesn’t allow for sweeping immigration legislation. So, they suggest, policymakers should pivot to a small number of more achievable — and urgently needed — reforms focused on three policy areas: border management and asylum reform, worker programs, and DREAMers. Ideaspace believes the white paper proposals are fair and well-conceived and has therefore entered into a collaboration with the Cornell team to describe and promote the proposals and the thinking behind them. This summary is the first step in this collaboration.  


Gaining orderly management of the southern border begins with going after smugglers and criminal cartels that foster illegal entry to make billions of dollars. This must be a top priority. These organizations are one of the greatest drivers of traffic to the border, providing misinformation and guides (colloquially “coyotes”) that encourage migrants to embark on the dangerous journey. These organizations also bring the majority of the country’s illegal drug supply across the southern border. However, drug trafficking and migrants seeking asylum are two very separate issues that require their own solutions.

As for drug smuggling, the paper’s authors propose funding for enhanced screening equipment and personnel at ports of entry, where the vast majority of crime interdictions — particularly drug seizures — take place. Improved collaboration with law enforcement in Mexico will also be required. 

As for the asylum system, the primary goal of reform should be changing the dynamics so that border arrivals once again become the last resort for those seeking protection, not the first option for those seeking to immigrate. Lowering the number of people who cross the border to claim asylum can be accomplished in several ways, including improving legal access to the U.S. under a revitalized work visa system and building a more legible and coherent refugee resettlement program. Establishing more refugee settlement processing centers outside of the U.S. could cut the number of people who journey to the border to seek asylum.

A more robust worker visa system would redirect potential asylum-seekers to programs that address the economic needs of both the U.S. and the migrants contemplating a trek to our border. To the detriment of the country’s economic growth, there are unfilled jobs in the U.S. across several sectors and geographies that could be filled by immigrants. Three possible reforms could address this: 

  1. Build on existing proposals for “essential workers” such as S.744 (introduced in 2013) and HR 3734 (in the current Congress), both of which focus on creating more — but still capped — work visas in industries and locations where the need for labor is particularly acute. Increased visa availability for specified “essential workers” would focus on nonseasonal, nonfarm occupations that do not require a college degree. Employers would be required to meet qualifying criteria and use E-Verify to screen applicants for work authorization. 
  2. Establish an immigrant worker program for the healthcare services industry, modeled on the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Targeting the healthcare industry makes substantive and political sense: there are many health service “deserts” where services are sparse or not available in both “red” and “blue” states where all Americans understand the life-threatening issues that these shortages create. 
  3. Institute immigration programs that would grant states the power to issue certain visas. These state-based programs are politically viable because they address known labor
    shortages, create new avenues for legal immigration, and strengthen states’ rights. 

Making more work visas available will reduce the number of people showing up at the southern border out of economic desperation. This broadens the pathways for legal entry for much-needed workers while reducing the number of asylum claims that are doomed (economic desperation is not a designated asylum category). Every claim that is equitably avoided is one less case added to our country’s backlog of over 2 million pending asylum cases.

In addition to creating these worker visa programs, the federal government should create a new “conditional residence status” for DREAMers, the estimated 3.9 million immigrants in the U.S. who entered without authorization as children or whose visa status expired while they were minors. Legislative proposals to protect DREAMers from deportation are widely popular, but a solution has remained elusive, largely because of the allied issue of whether to create a pathway to citizenship. A “conditional residence status” would provide work authorization, the right to travel abroad, and protection from deportation, but it would not provide a pathway to
citizenship. The conditional status envisioned under such a DREAMer measure would only be available to those who meet certain educational or work requirements and have not been
convicted of a serious crime. The status would bar petitioning on behalf of relatives or gaining access to certain public benefits limited to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. 

Effective implementation of these politically attainable bipartisan proposals could be buttressed with a bold move: the establishment of a new “Office of Migration Policy” in the
Executive Office of the President. The white paper advocates for statutory authority for such an office. However, if congressional action proves beyond reach, creation by executive action may be an essential first step. There is good reason to believe creation of such an office would be politically popular and strategically effective: it asserts the stark need to coordinate and streamline the immigration work done by an array of huge, high-autonomy federal agencies spread across four cabinet departments (DHS, Justice, State, and HHS). Absent such a strategic move, the country’s response to our new border realities will almost certainly continue to be disjointed and ineffective.

A Bipartisan Policy Center podcast on the white paper can be found here.

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