Forget amnesty; job reform can solve our immigration problem

Immigration reform is back in the headlines, with the CEOs of major companies like McDonald's and Coca-Cola alerting Congress to their need for more low and unskilled workers, to House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, losing his primary in some part, due to the schism between his stance on immigration reform and that of the Republican Party at large.

Foreigners flock to the U.S. because of opportunity — aka a better life, aka a better job. Given the state of our own labor market, this may seem a bit ironic, but it's entirely true. However, as the debate over immigration ebbs and flows, rarely are jobs acknowledged as the centerpiece of the immigration issue — or as the key to the solution. There's plenty of banter over amnesty, border security, benefits and more, but what it boils down to is that those who come to America — legally or illegally — are looking for a J.O.B. more often than citizenship.

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A file photo of Mexican agricultural workers on a farm in Holtville, Calif.
Getty Images
A file photo of Mexican agricultural workers on a farm in Holtville, Calif.

Both sides of the political aisle could achieve much of what they want if they focused on creating a better job program for non-U.S. workers. Here's how it could work:

For undocumented workers who are currently in the U.S., work is a path to legality, not citizenship.

My great grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, so I appreciate our country being one that opens its doors to productive people worldwide. That being said, we currently have a legal process (albeit a broken one) and those who didn't follow the rules shouldn't be fully rewarded either.

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The compromise is a new robust jobs program for non-U.S. citizens. If you are here illegally, you would have a limited amount of time, perhaps a year, to apply as a non-U.S. worker in this bridge program. Doing so would require an administrative fee and allow them to stay in the country and work. They would not become U.S. citizens, be on any path to citizenship or be entitled to any citizens' benefits.

As a non-citizen worker in this program, they would pay taxes, including those for Social Security, Medicare, etc., but they would not be eligible for benefits until a time, if and when they ever went through the current established citizenship path to become legal U.S. citizens. This program would also have an extra fee or tax associated with it to defray any incremental costs and there would of course be requirements that they have to fulfill, like having the same health care required of U.S. citizens.

For foreigners who want to come to the U.S., create a robust, new non-citizen worker program.

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In parallel with the above program, scrap the current visa system and install a revised program that non-citizens need to re-apply for every three or five years, that lets them work in the U.S. with only the most basic requirements for approval (for example, obviously not letting those with a criminal record into the program).

Again, they would have to pay fees and taxes to be part of the program, but not receive citizenship benefits. They could apply for citizenship should they desire through the current U.S. program.

This new program would also allow the guest workers in the program to return home freely and often, which could lessen the pressure for many who work here temporarily to bring their families to the U.S.

So, how does the U.S. benefit?

By focusing on job program reform and opening up jobs to more guest workers, it does the following:

It takes amnesty off of the table. Those who have come to the U.S. don't get rewarded with citizenship and benefits for skirting the rules and breaking the law, but it creates a reasonable solution to deal with the more than 11 million undocumented workers who are already here;

It reduces border-patrol costs. The reason we have people sneaking over the borders is to find jobs. Creating an open jobs program cuts down those trying to sneak across any border to just the unsavory few, making their intentions clearer and border security more focused, but less expensive;

It creates a long-lasting solution. It solves the problem permanently, so we don't need to waste resources on debating it each year;

It generates extra revenue that benefits U.S. citizens. It allows for more people paying into the federal tax system;

It stops redistributing U.S. citizen tax dollars to non-U.S. citizens. It clarifies that those who don't follow the legal path to citizenship don't get U.S. citizen tax-sponsored benefits; and,

It creates a more robust work force. It brings in needed skilled and unskilled workers in areas where there's a mismatch.

While our focus should, of course, be on jobs for U.S. citizens, the reality is any caps on workers in a new guest worker program will have the trade-off of more workers trying to enter the country illegally. Not to mention that, as noted above, there are more than 11 million working here illegally already. Let the free market allow for organic supply and demand to be sorted out. Then, we can see to what areas skill retraining efforts need to be directed for our citizen labor force.

Jobs are the lure for potential immigrants. Jobs are also the centerpiece of solving our immigration issues in a way that is permanent, cost effective and reasonable. Any politician who ignores this will end up putting politics over progress and common sense, once again.

Commentary by Carol Roth, a "recovering" investment banker (corporate finance), entrepreneur/small-business owner, investor and author of "The Entrepreneur Equation." Follow her on Twitter @CarolJSRoth.