AILA Past President and current Board of Governors member, Deb Notkin, posts on the idea of “Immigration Commission.”

It sounds like a reasonable idea: Create an expert “commission” of immigration to determine labor market needs and adjust flows accordingly. But looking deeper calls into question both the agenda behind this idea and the need for it.

For example, one of the pro-commission studies denies the existence of labor shortages even during the height of prosperity, when whole industries including hospitality and landscaping businesses, large and small, were prevented from fully recognizing their full production capacities due to a shortage of workers. What is clear is that the 66,000 H-2b cap numbers for seasonable workers have proven totally inadequate to fill this need during a prosperous economy. As the past 23 years have demonstrated, static caps on work visas devoid of market considerations do not work. And there is no temporary visa program to allow for non-professional workers to fill chronic, non-seasonal jobs that go begging.

So instead of static caps or a commission, we can only wonder why we can’t let the market decide the employer’s need for foreign visas. Just look at what is happening this year, where for the first time in a long time, we have yet to use all the new H-1B cap numbers for Fiscal Year 2010 for professional positions. A similar drop in activity is occurring with the H-2B numbers.
The concept of the “Commission” being put forward does not make sense because there is an absence of measurement techniques to assess our true labor-market needs. And what data we have, is updated by our government only every two years. It is backward looking and not a reasonable indicator to assess the current and present needs for foreign workers. A commission cannot predict in which sectors booms will erupt – it takes a combination of innovative entrepreneurship, consumer demand and available labor and capital. And politics will inevitably intrude on the commission process since the available hard data is not available. For a more in depth analysis of the negatives of a commission, check out the website of ImmigrationWorks USA, , one of the business coalitions engaged in this issue.

But the worst thing about a commission is that it could derail immigration reform. Among the many proponents of immigration reform, business is an important player and realistic future labor needs must be a part of any successful reform package for business to support it.
Failing to provide for market-based temporary and permanent visas will also repeat the mistakes of 1986. In a prosperous economy, we need work visas for needed immigrants to come to the US in a safe, legal and orderly manner. Otherwise, we will have the same problems we have now and had in 1986 – a large number of foreign workers devoid of legal status.
A market-based immigration system is the best tool for using work-based visas to benefit our economy. A system that allows employers to target their personnel needs, gives them a chance to demonstrate the absence of available U.S. workers and safeguards the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers by prohibiting lesser wages and conditions for foreign workers is the way to go.

We can build a system with safeguards that work in a recession as well as in prosperity. Rather than trashing our entire current system, we can build on its successes and fix its failures. With more legal channels for workers, we can focus law enforcement on legitimate abuses rather than catching and deporting workers. But most importantly, we can make immigration reform a reality.