Rethinking the Revolving Door for Immigration

Jeffrey D. Manns and Neil Ruiz
Neil Ruiz Senior Policy Analyst and Associate Fellow - The Brookings Institution

April 23, 2007

The STRIVE Act is the latest incarnation of a temporary workers’ scheme to hit Capitol Hill. Congressmen Jeff Flake and Luis Gutierrez have recognized that the existing system for temporary workers is broken as was underscored by the fact that a year’s worth of H1 visas for skilled workers was exhausted in a single day. The problem is that they, like most Americans, fall into the trap of viewing immigration as a one-way flow of people beating down the door to get into the US, rather than passing through a revolving door with the intention of ultimately returning home. The missing link in their proposal is a failure to reinforce existing incentives for workers to return home in order to create a truly temporary workers program.

For a temporary workers’ initiative to succeed it requires a new foundation grounded in a world of global mobility rather than traditional understandings of permanent immigration. The congressmen’s bill nominally creates three-year temporary worker visas which are good in theory. However, their program paradoxically creates incentives for migrants to “strive” for permanent assimilation by allowing workers to convert temporary visas into permanent residence. Instead of building bridges for permanent immigration, they need recognize that most workers are here for the short-term to help their families and communities back home. The US is already struggling with intractable problems surrounding the many back doors to America, and this fact means that we have all the more reason to create a revolving door of opportunities for migrant workers to enter and leave the US in lawful ways.

The heart of the problem with the traditional approach to temporary workers is that politicians have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of both the challenge and opportunity that a temporary workers program presents for the US and our neighbors. They have assumed that migrants universally come to the US to stay. But as a 2005 Pew Hispanic Center survey of Mexican migrants noted, 71% of them would prefer to participate in a temporary worker program that would allow them to cross the border lawfully on the condition that they eventually return to Mexico. This is strong evidence for policymakers to create a revolving door system that does not treat workers as servants or supplicants, but rather as guests whose time here is designed to equip them to go back and lift up their communities.

The American mindset has been to see guest workers as inputs to serve us at best or as parasites who take away American jobs, but we need a new framework for understanding the mobility of people. We need to bear in mind that while the remittances immigrants send home may serve as a life-line for their families, their ability to go back and forth between the US and their homes may have an even greater impact. For this reason we need to design a revolving door system that recognizes that Americans are part of a global web of interconnected relationships.

Over the past generation, we have built revolving doors that manage the global flow of capital and goods, but we always seem to be short-sighted when it comes to addressing the flow of people. On one side of the door, nations have been providing the US with hardworking people who are willing to work for far less than most Americans. But on our side, we have focused on closing the door by forcing them to assimilate or engaged in demagoguery about building bigger walls or closing enforcement loopholes. Good neighbors should look out for one another rather than build hate fences. By treating migrants as guests, in the short run we are providing their home countries with remittances for survival. In the long run we need both to provide these workers with incentives to go home and to equip them to contribute to the development of their societies upon their return. The cornerstone for reinforcing incentives for migrants to go home should be a requirement that ten to fifteen percent of their compensation be automatically withheld as tax-deferred savings. These funds should only be given to them upon their return to their home country, so that this money can serve to finance their education at home or as seed capital for building small businesses. A temporary program can be good for both the US and our neighbors since it can empower the migrants to become incubators of prosperity at home. This approach would make the revolving door a temporary means towards a lasting end of deepening ties with our neighbors and strengthening developing economies.