Once every few decades, the stars align for major immigration legislation. According to political analysts, the United States may be at such a juncture now. Barack Obama’s re-election as President has concentrated politicians’ attention on the growing importance of the Hispanic vote. Meanwhile people from across the political spectrum remain dissatisfied with current immigration policies. The call has gone out for “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR) supports this call. Too often immigration policy is made reactively, or with the excessive involvement of special interests out of sight of public scrutiny. Too often immigration policy is made piecemeal, with a failure to consider those policies’ full impacts, including their economic, ecological and social impacts.

At this point, the meaning of “comprehensive immigration reform” is up for grabs. PFIR believes that Congress and the Obama administration should avoid pandering to special interests and instead take this opportunity to rethink and refashion immigration policy so as to best further the common good. In this spirit, we provide the following proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, grounded in progressive political principles.

Guiding Principles

PFIR believes America’s immigration policy should further five core principles: justice, sustainability, fairness, legality, and a focus on furthering the national interest.

By justice we mean evenhanded and equitable treatment for all those involved. This means immigrants and would-be immigrants, who deserve to be treated humanely and with respect. It also includes American workers, who can reasonably demand that their government enact policies in their economic interest. And crucially, it includes future generations of Americans, who deserve to inherit a society with at least as much opportunity, stability and ecological health as we have inherited from our forebears.

By sustainability we mean conserving sufficient natural resources for future human generations to live good lives, and not forcing them to live on polluted, degraded, overcrowded, or otherwise diminished landscapes. Ecological sustainability thus conceived is no mere amenity, but essential for human health, safety and security. Sustainability also means preserving flourishing populations of all of America’s remaining native species, along with opportunities for our children and grandchildren to experience and appreciate them.

By fairness we mean economic fairness: a more equitable distribution of income, wealth and opportunities. Current levels of economic inequality, which have been growing now for five decades in the United States, are unacceptable. It is past time to reverse this trend that is undermining both our democracy and the well-being of our citizens. Particular attention should be paid to the economic status of low-income Americans, who have garnered little of the fruits of economic growth in recent decades, and young people entering the job market for the first time, who suffer disproportionately from unemployment and economic insecurity.

By legality, we mean a commitment to the enforcement of labor and immigration laws. Creating a fair and equitable immigration system is not possible without a willingness to set and enforce rules regarding who is allowed to immigrate into the U.S. and who is allowed to join the labor force. The past four decades of lax enforcement and repeated amnesties have demonstrated that making immigration policy without such a commitment is an exercise in futility. As the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (i.e., the Jordan Commission) noted, a credible immigration policy depends on enforcing immigration laws. [1]

By furthering the national interest, we mean that immigration policy needs to be made with the interests of all Americans in mind—particularly those with less wealth or power, who tend to get overlooked. Not just the wealthy few or the big corporations, who have had great success driving down wages and lowering incomes for American workers in recent decades, and who do not need any more help in this endeavor from politicians.

The right immigration policies for the United States in the 21st century will foster ecological sustainability, economic fairness, and a culture of legality. They will promote justice for all and further the common good. Done right, “comprehensive immigration reform” can rejuvenate our democracy, and further social and political progress both at home and abroad.

Policy Proposals

With our key progressive political principles in mind, we offer the following four policy proposals.

#1. Reduce annual immigration into the United States from its current 1.2 million to between 300,000 and 550,000 people.

300,000 is the number implied by the policy proposals of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1996. 550,000 is the number proposed by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1997.

The case for 300,000. Currently the U.S. population stands at 315 million. If present immigration levels continue, America’s population will nearly double by 2100, reaching 560 million people with no end to growth in sight. Such population growth will render all efforts to create a sustainable society futile. According to the most recent projections, reducing immigration to 300,000 annually would allow us to gradually (over several decades) stabilize our population at from 360 to 380 million people (see graph below). [2] Stabilizing our population is essential to ecological sustainability, and sustainability is essential if we hope to create a decent future to our children and grandchildren.

This proposal is solidly within the mainstream of the best thinking on sustainability. As the President’s Council on Sustainable Development put it: “Managing population growth, resources, and wastes is essential to ensuring that the total impact of these factors is within the bounds of sustainability. Stabilizing the population without changing consumption and waste production patterns would not be enough, but it would make an immensely challenging task more manageable. In the United States, each is necessary; neither alone is sufficient.” One of the Council’s ten major suggestions for creating a sustainable society was: “Move toward stabilization of U.S. population.” [3] With immigration now the main driver of U.S. population growth, reducing immigration is essential to stabilizing our population.

The case for 550,000. The Commission on Immigration Reform’s recommendation of 550,000 a year did not consider the impact of continued population growth on ecological sustainability. Instead, it reflected accommodation to then-current immigration levels and to the basic goals of the nation’s post-1965 immigration policies: family reunification, meeting identifiable labor shortages, and humanitarian asylum. Current immigration policies bring in a preponderance of less-skilled, less-educated workers, who compete directly with low-income Americans, increasing unemployment, fueling economic insecurity and driving down wages for those who can least afford it. As the Jordan Commission noted, it makes little economic sense to add to an already overlarge low-skilled labor pool, while a commitment to equity requires that “a higher level of job protections should be made available to the most vulnerable in our society.” [4]

Accordingly, with respect to legal immigration, the Jordan Commission advocated “a significant redefinition” of admission priorities and a reduction in admission numbers. The Commission concluded that the present legal admission system be “shifted away from the extended family and toward the nuclear family and away from the unskilled and toward the higher-skilled immigrant.” It also proposed steps to reduce illegal immigration through enhanced enforcement along the border and at work sites. [5]

Significantly reducing immigration would open up jobs for Americans, who need them during this time of high unemployment and slow job growth. It would increase the incentive for American companies to hire recent college graduates, who are justifiably nervous about their career prospects in the current economy, and to retrain and hire older and disabled workers, who often have a hard time finding work. Reducing immigration among low-skilled and poorly educated immigrants would improve the economic prospects of less-skilled, less-well-educated Americans: a matter of justice and fair treatment for them, and a crucial tool to reduce economic inequality in the United States as a whole.

Whether policymakers settle on a lower number or a higher one, PFIR believes that the total number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. annually must come down substantially, in order to create a more just and a truly sustainable society. In order to significantly decrease immigration numbers while maintaining our commitment to fairness, we suggest that all immigration slots be reserved for three groups: legitimate political refugees and asylum seekers, immediate family members of citizens and legal immigrants, and a select group of priority workers (i.e., “workers of exceptional ability”). Chain migration of the adult relatives of new U.S. citizens should be discontinued. New job vacancies should be filled primarily by training U.S. citizens, or by bidding up wages and salaries and ensuring that working conditions are reasonable and safe, so that citizens will apply for them—not by importing workers from other countries. [6]

#2. Rework trade and foreign aid policies to improve conditions for people in our major immigration sender countries.

By helping other countries address some of the “push factors” driving emigration, we can reduce the need for people to emigrate: a win-win solution for everyone involved. While improving conditions in other countries is primarily the responsibility of those countries, there are many things our government can do to help, along with a number of counterproductive policies we can end that will also improve matters.

In the first place, the United States could negotiate new trade agreements and rework old ones so that they improve economic conditions for poor workers in our trading partners’ countries, even when this means slowing rather than increasing the growth of trade. Too often, U.S. trade agreements have sought to maximize the volume of trade regardless of all other considerations. Exhibit A is NAFTA, which threw several million Mexican farmers off their lands, thousands of whom wound up emigrating to the United States.

Second, we could increase and better target development aid to help poor people around the world live better lives in their own countries. Although the United States ranks first in total foreign aid disbursed, we consistently rank last among the major donor nations in foreign aid as a percentage of gross national income. We should replace most military aid, which does little to improve people’s lives, with aid for family planning, education and other social welfare programs, which can do a lot.

Third, U.S. foreign policy should also be refocused on encouraging other countries to uphold human rights, with a special emphasis on the rights of women and girls. Increasing women’s educational and economic opportunities improves their lives and significantly reduces fertility rates: once again, a win-win situation for all. In these ways, the United States can help create a better world: one where fewer people will find it necessary to go into exile in order to live decent lives.

#3. Mandate the use of E-verify for all new hires and enforce serious penalties on employers who hire workers illegally.

No matter how many immigrants we choose to allow into the United States, all sides should be able to agree that we need to safely and fairly enforce our immigration laws and reduce illegal immigration. Doing so need not involve racial profiling. Instead, we need to dry up the key resource bringing most illegal immigrants to America: access to jobs. This can be done, provided we take the necessary steps.

First, mandate use of a national employment verification database for all new hires, where employers can quickly and easily verify U.S. citizenship or certification to work. Over the past ten years, the federal government has spent several hundred million dollars to create the computerized E-Verify database to check work eligibility. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, over 400,000 employers across the United States currently use E-Verify to check the employment eligibility of potential workers. [7] Accurate and easy to use, it appears ready to deploy as a mandatory national system. Running all new hires through the system, regardless of what a person looks like or how they speak, would go far toward eliminating racial profiling from immigration enforcement.

Second, we should strictly enforce existing civil and criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers, meting out penalties sufficient to deter greedy owners or unscrupulous managers who break the law. The potential penalties for employers who hire illegal workers include fines that can total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and jail time for company executives who encourage immigration fraud. However, in their sporadic efforts at workplace enforcement, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to seek jail time for employers who have repeatedly and systematically broken the law, while the fines meted out have represented a small fraction of the profits their businesses have “earned” by breaking the law. All this could change quickly, should an administration develop a real commitment to deterring illegal immigration.

In addition, the nation should enhance border enforcement efforts. This is a critical component of any serious effort to reduce the nation’s ongoing problem of illegal immigration. To this end, PFIR supports the conclusions of the Jordan Commission that called for more financial and human resources to be devoted to stricter management of the country’s borders as an essential element of any strategy to address this critical issue.

#4. Avoid any expansion of “guest worker” programs.
Prior experience has demonstrated that guest worker programs depress wages, stigmatize certain low-skilled occupations, are difficult to administer and hard to stop, and disrupt local community services. [8] As the Jordan Commission noted: “Historically, guestworker programs have depressed the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. Of particular concern is competition with unskilled American workers, including recent immigrants who may have originally entered to perform the needed labor but who can be displaced by newly entering guestworkers. Foreign guestworkers often are more exploitable than lawful U.S. workers, particularly when an employer threatens deportation if the workers complain about wages or working conditions.” [9]

In addition, guest worker programs tend to increase illegal immigration. Again according to the Jordan Commission: “Despite the claims of their supporters, guestworker programs also fail to reduce unauthorized migration. To the contrary, research consistently shows that they tend to encourage and exacerbate illegal movements by setting up labor recruitment and family networks that persist long after the guestworker programs end. Moreover, guestworkers themselves often remain permanently and illegally in the country in violation of the conditions of their admission.” [10]

“Guest worker” is a euphemism for second-class citizenship at best and for indentured servitude at worst. Such programs have made it easier for Americans to accept the permanent impoverishment of agricultural workers in the United States. They should be phased out where they exist, not extended to new sectors of the economy.


Taken together, enacting these four policy proposals would go a long way toward creating a progressive, fair and sustainable immigration policy for the United States in the 21st century. Doing so would be good for America and good for our immigrant sender countries, which need to improve conditions and create more opportunities for their own citizens. Above all, our proposals acknowledge the need to reduce immigration into the U.S. for environmental, economic and ethical reasons.

Contact us to tell us you think about PFIR’s comprehensive immigration reform proposal, or to learn what you can do to help implement it.


[1] U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Becoming an American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy (Washington, DC: U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, 1997) [Final Report to Congress], p.59.

[2] Stephen Tordella, Steven Camarota, Tom Godfrey and Nancy Rosene, “Evaluating the Role of Immigration in U.S. Population Projections” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2012) (unpublished essay).

[3] President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future. (Washington, D.C.: 1996).

[4] U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Legal Immigration: Setting Priorities (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, 1995), p.8.

[5] U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (1997), pp. xvii, xix. Quoted in Vernon Briggs, “The Report of the Commission on Immigration Reform (i.e., the Jordan Commission): A Beacon for Real Immigration Reform” (Washington, D.C.: Progressives for Immigration Reform, 2009).

[6] Regarding employment-based admissions, the Jordan Commission recommended “the elimination of the admission category of unskilled workers” because the country already has a vast surplus of unskilled workers. In the same vein, the Commission also recommended the elimination of the 50,000 annual person diversity admission lottery. Ibid.

[7] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “What is E-verify?” Accessed at www.uscis.gov, November 12, 2012 (figures last updated November 1, 2012).

[8] Vernon Briggs, “Guestworker Programs for Low-Skilled Workers: Lessons from the Past and Warnings for the Future” Public testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, February 12, 2004.

[9] U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (1997), pp.94-95.

[10] Ibid., p.95.

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