07/18/2013 12:08 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Immigration Reform Should Address Why People Leave

In June, the Senate approved the most far-reaching reforms to U.S. immigration policy in 50 years. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act passed on a vote of 68-32. It now faces a more daunting challenge in the House of Representatives. The 1,000+ page bill includes an earned legalization process for 11 million unauthorized immigrants, increased enforcement both at the border and at home, and a revamped guest worker program for both high- and low-skilled jobs.

But even as policymakers attempt to fix what everyone agrees is a broken immigration system, the proposed legislative solutions overlook one of the system's most important moving parts -- the economic hardship in immigrants' home countries that drives them to seek work in the United States. Thus, the U.S. development community can play a new and important role in helping to integrate economic development and poverty reduction into U.S. immigration policy.

Evidence shows that poverty abroad and unauthorized immigration to the United States are connected. A May 2013 national survey found that 78 percent of unauthorized immigrants came to the United States either for "better jobs and economic opportunities" or "to create a better life for [their] family." Unauthorized immigration is almost certain to continue as long as would-be immigrants continue to face grim economic prospects in their home countries.

Mexico and Central America are logical places to focus on integrating U.S. immigration and development policies, since more than 70 percent of all unauthorized immigrants to the United States come from this region.

U.S. assistance to Mexico almost completely ignores the types of economic development that could create alternatives to unauthorized immigration. Even though Mexico is the source of about 60 percent of all unauthorized immigrants, only a tiny percentage of U.S. assistance to Mexico is directed toward development. In 2009, about 96 percent of the assistance was channeled to security.

In Central America, the United States provides more development assistance programs aimed at reducing poverty, programs that could potentially make finding work in one's hometown a viable alternative to immigration. In 2011, the United States invested $97 million in development funding for El Salvador, $92 million for Guatemala, and $54 million for Honduras. These countries -- the three largest sources of unauthorized immigration after Mexico -- also host major U.S development initiatives, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Feed the Future, and the Partnership for Growth.

Despite working with communities and populations prone to unauthorized immigration, such as smallholder farmers, none of these programs track and measure their impact on immigration. For example, in November 2006 the United States approved a five-year, $461 million MCC compact with El Salvador, which is the second-largest source of unauthorized immigration to the United States. But within the compact's evaluation plans there was no measure of the impact on immigration.

Those people engaged in development or immigration policy could work together more effectively to achieve their central goals, which are reducing poverty overseas and reducing unauthorized immigration. During his visit to Mexico in May, President Barack Obama said, "I also believe that the long-term solution to the challenge of illegal immigration -- so we're not dealing with this, decade after decade -- is a growing, prosperous Mexico that creates more jobs and opportunity for young people right here."

But awareness among leaders and analysts has not yet translated into practical policy changes. Here are three recommended improvements that would begin to integrate U.S. development and immigration policies:

• U.S. development programs in nations and regions that supply large numbers of immigrants should include evaluation indicators to measure the impact of their programs on immigration.

• The U.S. government should conduct a baseline assessment of the major factors driving unauthorized immigration from Latin America to the United States. The findings of the assessment should inform a multi-agency strategy to take action on these major contributing factors.

• A revised guest worker program that matches low-skilled workers overseas with U.S. labor market needs could be central to transforming unauthorized immigration into legal immigration. These programs should include opportunities for home communities to participate in recruiting and training the workers. They can then use some of the fees charged for those services to develop their local economies.

Andrew Wainer is senior immigration policy analyst of Bread for the World Institute, which provides policy analysis on hunger and strategies to end it.