08/02/2010 05:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The (Un)Sexy Side of Immigration Reform

With all of the talk about whether comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) will happen this year, or even next; with all the rhetoric around Arizona's tough new immigration law, SB1070, and the federal court's intervention to stay its most offensive provisions, I am amazed at how much of the current debate still centers around only two things: border security and earned legalization. By focusing on these two issues alone, we are missing one of the most important, and most overlooked, facets of reform: We must fix the visa system.

According to the Border Patrol, apprehensions are down, deportations are up,and the border is more secure than ever. On the other side of the coin, well-meaning legislation like the DREAM Act, which would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to earn legal status through education and military service have been held hostage to the drive for comprehensive reform. So I'll say it again: As unsexy as it sounds, the biggest issue in immigration policy today is the availability of immigration visas.

Every year the U.S. grants only 140,000 permanent visas (green cards) to workers who want to come here. The vast majority of these visas go to the most highly skilled and professional workers, while only 5,000 are given to low-skilled workers. On paper, having a system weighted toward the highly skilled and professional sounds great -- why shouldn't the U.S. admit only the best and brightest? And, with an unemployment rate of 9.6%, wouldn't low-skilled workers take American jobs?

The reality is quite different. Earlier this year, the United Farm Workers (UFW) started the "Take Our Jobs" campaign, to encourage Americans to find employment in the agricultural sector. According the UFW, three-quarters of all crop-workers in the U.S. were born abroad and at least half are unauthorized immigrants. So with unemployment so high, how many people have signed up to "take their jobs"? According to President Arturo Rodriquez of the UFW, only four people have, one of them being Stephen Colbert.

Furthermore, according to the Migration Policy Institute, there are already 8.3 million undocumented immigrants working in the country. MPI estimates that between permanent and temporary work visas for the low-skilled (roughly 150,000 for both categories together,) the U.S. each year gives out visas (and thus legal status) to less than 1% of the number of undocumented immigrants working in the country.

So to recap: the U.S. has the highest unemployment rate in years, but no Americans willing to take the agricultural jobs that feed its population. The U.S. has over 8 million immigrants already in the country, but with no possibility of obtaining a legal visa. (According to the most recent State Department visa bulletin, the waiting time for the 3rd labor preference category for "skilled, professional, and other" workers is no less than 8 years, and so over-subscribed as to be completely unavailable for applicants from Mexico. Since low-skilled workers are only a portion of this 3rd preference, in reality the delays are much longer.)

So when pundits talk about undocumented immigrants having to "get to the back of the line," before than can gain legal status, we need to understand that there is no line to get in -- there are simply nowhere near enough visas given to handle the demand for immigrant labor. If we were to do the impossible and seal the border today, we would still have the same disconnect between the number of people working here, and the number of visas available. If we were to legalize everyone inside of the nation, but do nothing about visa reform, within a few years we'd be right back where we started. Enduring reform must include visa reform.

Thankfully a tentative first step has been taken toward solving the problem, in the form of the AgJOBS bill. According to Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), a co-sponsors of the legislation, the bill would allow many of the undocumented workers already in the country to receive legal status to continue to work at their jobs and make the temporary work visa for agriculture (H-2A) better suited to America's labor needs. Sadly AgJOBS has been held up in the fight for CIR.

No matter when or in what shape immigration reform occurs, I hope that changes to the visa system are part of it.