Photo credit: Seng Chen, ColorLines.

With a national debate on the impact of foreign workers on jobs and the economy heating up for 2010, it’s time to brush up on some relevant policy jargon. Two words in particular – “complementarity” and “circularity” – seem to have caught the attention of experts, as legislators prepare to consider a new immigration reform bill introduced by Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill.

“Complementarity” refers to an immigrant workforce that fills niches and roles that complements rather than competes with what U.S.-born workers are offering. For immigration advocates, it’s a fancy way of saying that, even in economic hard times, immigrant workers perform jobs that Americans prefer not to do.

Another piece of specialist vocabulary, “circularity,” refers to the ability of immigrants to travel back and forth between nations. Former Mexican foreign minister and New York University professor Jorge Castañeda has centered his prominent critiques of U.S. immigration enforcement on how border crackdowns and raids have severely curtailed circular migration in the last two decades. The counterintuitive result, he maintains, is more Mexicans settling illegally north of the border.

Circularity is a contested concept. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that wants lower immigration levels, has written that the circularity argument is “so comically absurd it deserves a place in “The Onion”.

Undocumented immigrants decide to stay in the United States for a variety of reasons, not just to avoid tougher border enforcement upon their return, he wrote.

But it’s the notion of complementarity that has become particularly important in the current socioeconomic context, which combines a fragile recovery and widespread unemployment (above 10 percent nationally, and over 14 percent in Michigan) with deep unease about where future jobs growth will come from.

Advocates of an immigration reform that would legalize undocumented workers and create more flexible pathways for entry into the United States for foreign workers cite complementarity as one reason why it makes sense to revamp immigration policy even with a weak economy.

“There is complementarity between the foreign-born and native-born workforce,” said Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

“Immigration reform and economic recovery go hand in hand,” he added.

Regelbrugge used the word “complementarity” several times in a conference call with reporters in late December as he described the interdependence of U.S.-born and immigrant workers in agriculture. In fact, immigrant labor on farms creates thousands of jobs for U.S.-born agricultural workers, Regelbrugge said.

In Wisconsin, the prototype dairy state, immigrant laborers are some 40 percent of the dairy workforce and fill the “least desirable” roles such as night shift work, Regelbrugge said. He also cited the case of a Colorado dairy farm that had lost experienced hands after an immigration audit and had afterward seen calves’ mortality double.

But complementarity is hardly a settled issue. There is evidence that workers lacking a high school diploma do compete directly with immigrant laborers, and some economists dispute the overall notion of a mutually beneficial dovetailing of the native and immigrant workforces. On his blog last year, George Borjas, a Harvard University economist, said this about an oft-cited academic study supporting complementarity: “Things that seem too good to be true usually aren’t.”

However contested, both concepts will most likely help frame the debate set to swirl around the new immigration bill introduced by Rep. Gutierrez.

The proposed legislation, HR 4321, would allow undocumented immigrants, estimated at 12 million in number, to apply for legal status and it would also significantly expand legal work opportunities for foreign workers—agricultural laborers in particular.

Gutierrez’s bill gives a nod to those promoting circularity by opening the channels through which laborers can enter and exit the system. Whether that would be enough to significantly curtail the problem of illegal immigration will only be known if the bill, or something similar to it, is passed.

And the entire bill’s shot through with the concept of complementarity, transforming the immigration system into a funnel through which foreign workers are brought in to fill jobs in areas of the economy where they’re needed.

It gives significant concessions to the agricultural industry in the form of a broad agricultural worker program. To protect American workers it also establishes a commission to render decisions on which parts of the economy are in need of foreign labor to shore up the workforce, and which aren’t.

It creates a program called “American Worker Recruit and Match,” a kind of Internet jobs site where employers post job opportunities in fields that have traditionally relied on unauthorized labor and American workers can apply for jobs traditionally filled by undocumented immigrants.

Critics of the bill see it as an economically ruinous and misguided amnesty for those who choose to enter the country illegally and promise to fight it tooth and claw.

“The Democratic amnesty bill is almost like something I’d write as a parody,” wrote Krikorian.

Parody or not, it’s the opening shot in next year’s immigration debate, the “You Lie!” shout by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., during President Obama’s health care speech notwithstanding.

In any case, if the immigration debate captures the public’s attention next year, “circularity” and “complementarity” may very well be pieces of wonk speech that briefly enjoy their day in the sun.

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