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Iowa Compact: A Way Forward on Immigration?

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With the national spotlight on the Republican Iowa caucuses, a group of prominent Iowans are also entering the immigration fray. On Tuesday they produced the Iowa Compact, a proposal that calls for federal immigration reform that increases legal immigration and refocuses law enforcement on security threats--and away from trying to keep out farm workers.

The Legal Arizona Workers Act and SB 1070 made immigration a state level issue in the 21st century. Since then, numerous states--Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and others--have passed restrictionist laws modeled on SB 1070. Frustrated with the federal government's inability to enforce its own unworkable laws, these states moved further restrict immigration by penalizing businesses, forcing everyone to comply with E-Verify, and other coercive actions.

Unfortunately, federal lawmakers seem willing to only consider restrictionist policies and President Obama is more concerned with enforcing existing bad laws than with changing them. As a result, state policy makers opposed to SB 1070-style laws have had to come up with their own approaches. Iowa is the latest state to do so.

The Iowa Compact would shift undocumented immigration from the black market into the legal market by creating legal alternatives through increasing work visas and green cards. Today, the vast majority of potential immigrants are not legally able to come to the U.S. The law, quite simply, doesn't let them. The Iowa Compact wants to eliminate unauthorized immigration by authorizing it.

These Iowans have made a good start in coming to terms with this contentious issue. The fury over immigration--both legal and undocumented--is out of all proportion to the supposed costs. There is no immigrant crime wave, no across-the-board decrease in wages, and no underclass of undocumented immigrants on welfare. Some conservatives are realizing this and changing their tune.

The Iowa Compact took its inspiration from a similar proposal in Utah. In November 2010, former Republican Governor Olene Walker, members from the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, Republican legislators, Democratic legislators, and myriad others signed the Utah Compact, which became the model for Iowa's version.

In early 2011 Utah took the unprecedented step of passing a milder version of SB 1070 with many of the most onerous parts exempted but also added a state-level guest worker pilot program. The program would allow Mexicans from the state of Nuevo Leon to temporarily work for Utah businesses with state-issued identity paperwork.

Providing a legal and comprehensive guest worker program would diminish undocumented immigration greatly. Many undocumented immigrants do not come legally because there is no legal avenue to do so. Utah is trying to eliminate the black market by allowing a legal one to exist.

Another state level group making an impact is Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform (AZEIR), a non-partisan group that holds conferences around the state. Todd Landfried of AZEIR has testified in Texas, Kansas, and other states in opposition to SB 1070-style laws. Landfried regularly invites conservatives, Republicans, and libertarians (like myself) to speak at AZEIR events and discuss SB 1070-style laws from different perspectives.

In California, some prominent conservatives are supporting a proposal strikingly similar to the Utah and Iowa compacts. Robert Loewen, the president of the Orange County Lincoln Club, recently said, "[I]mproving the flow of legal immigration based on businesses' demand would ease the flow of illegal immigration considerably, making border security easier and cheaper to manage." He went on, "[W]e do believe that conservatives have a unique opportunity to lead on this issue by making market forces work for us, instead of trying to stifle them."

Indeed, immigration restrictions were largely supported by anti-capitalist progressives, Democrats, and labor unions in the early 20th century, and, as Loewen says, "[A]ll too often, Republicans have fallen into their trap by either remaining silent about real solutions and/or adopting harsh rhetoric and aggressive measures to enforce flawed immigration laws that were enacted by Democrats in the first place."

While these state-level efforts are developing spontaneously, there long has been a steady and consistent intellectual voice influencing many of the conservative efforts: that of Helen Krieble, founder and president of the pro-free market Vernon E. Krieble Foundation. Her Red Card Solution would create a fast and secure guest worker program, partly run by private employment agencies, that would direct temporary workers to American firms and employers who need their labor. The system would be an updated version of the Bracero Program, which successfully eliminated undocumented immigration during the 1950s and early 1960s. (Disclosure: CEI has received some contributions in past years from the Vernon E. Krieble Foundation for our work on immigration.)

Krieble, a consistent and principled conservative, pushed this reform idea after dealing with the monstrous federal immigration bureaucracy while hiring legal guest workers. She was once delayed in the process of hiring guest workers because the bureaucrat folded the form incorrectly. Like a true conservative, she realized the government's rules and regulations were the problem and privatization was the solution. Her speeches have influenced the Orange County Lincoln Club, California conservatives, Newt Gingrich, and many others on the state and local level who are coming around on immigration.

In reaction to increasing restrictions at the state level, many state level organizations are rising to push for more legal immigration and a solution that doesn't double down on a failed enforcement-only strategy. Federal lawmakers appear paralyzed on immigration reform--all they seem to do is to put more resources toward enforcement. The push for restrictions is on the state level, so the push for a better system has to come there too. With the intellectual weight of Helen Krieble's ideas, a nationwide, pro-immigration movement with conservatives involvement is gaining strength in the states.