Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia interviews Helen Krieble, founder and president of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation and author of the Red Card Solution, about her plan to alleviate illegal immigration by granting more work permits to immigrants.

Reason: What is the red card solution and how will it work?

Krieble: The red card divides low-skilled immigrants into two groups and creates a separate program for each. One program is run by the federal government and offers a path towards citizenship. That is similar to the current “green card” system and is very clearly the work of the federal government. Prospective immigrants on this path would have to follow the same rules as anybody else applying for citizenship.

The other program – the “red card” part – involves handing out work permits without any promise of green cards or citizenship. The red card would be a legal permit that allows you to work in America, just as an American worker works here, and go back and forth to your home country. You get paid the same wages, same workman’s compensation. There would be no quotas on the number of these work permits every year. But you’re a guest and there aren’t green cards or citizenship.

The red card program would be implemented by the private sector or employment agencies licensed by the federal government. These agencies would put employers and workers together for a fee and there would be no taxpayer dollars involved.

Employment agencies would share information with workers and employers through an online database. American employers who want foreign workers could post the jobs they want filled, the requirements for the job, the salary they’re going to pay. Likewise, any foreign worker who would like to have a job in the U.S. would post their qualifications, what they need in the way of salaries and where they want to work. When a match is made, both sides would pay a fee. So the employment agencies would be incentivized to make a match without waste of time for the profit motive.

This is in contrast to people in the government who have no incentive to respond to employer need. Also, under the red card, employers would have an incentive to do it right because they could get a worker in a week at the most. It would solve the illegal immigration problem and improve border security.

Reason: How would it solve the illegal immigration problem?

Krieble: It would let foreign workers who are here already illegally become legal very quickly. Instead of shutting the borders tightly, as is the case now, immigrants would come and go depending on the availability of jobs. But now they are scared. They feel, gee, I just can’t risk leaving this country to go home. So then they want their families to be here and they start making permanent lives here even though that isn’t what they wanted. But we made it impossible for them to go back and forth. A work permit where people can go back and forth across the border legally would go a long way toward diminishing the illegal population.

Reason: How would it improve border security?

Krieble: If people can come through the gates in the proper way and it’s not very expensive and it’s safe, the only people who’d come any other way would be those with some kind of nefarious motive. Our border agents can capture 50,000 or a 100,000 people a year without any trouble at all. And if they no longer have to catch people who are coming here for jobs – which is the vast majority – they would have enough resources to catch the bad guys.

Also, the red card would have a chip embedded in it – just like those access cards used by companies with security concerns. The microchip has a biometric ID in it – matching either your fingerprints or your iris. It is easy to scan. It would cost $5. You can produce it in 48 hours, so there’s no huge wait line and it’s absolutely 100% secure. It’ll make it easy to track the foreign workers when they enter and exit.

Reason: The standard criticism that you get is that this will flood America with foreign workers and undercut American wages and take away American jobs, so how do you think this will help America?

Krieble: If an American is qualified to do the job and wants the job, all they have to do is look at the database. You probably pay a small fee to have access to the database and there it is. And how many American employers really prefer somebody who speaks good English, is native, who understands the culture? Well, everybody would.

But the real danger of our current system is tyranny – letting the government decide which employers get workers, under what conditions. Now the government completely controls the foreign labor market and, in many ways, the American labor market. We lose another huge segment of our lives to federal government control, to central planning. And if you think about how that’s worked out in Russia and China and Cuba and communist countries, it didn’t work out very well.

Reason: Can you give an example of other countries where such a guest worker program has been this tried and how it has worked out?

Helen Krieble: Here’s one from my experience. My husband was a guest worker in Japan from 1973-78. We went originally for one year. But we kept getting our stay extended for two and three and four and five years. It was terribly easy to renew with the same conditions that our red card would have: You must prove that you’ve never committed a crime and you must have a self-supporting job. You must be filling a job that needs to be filled. Our family was allowed to join, but got no free services. We didn’t get public education, even. We didn’t get medical services. What we did was paid our taxes for roads, clean water, police and fire protection. But we were guests and there was no question in anybody’s mind that we’d get the privileges of citizens.

We’ve done several polls and more than 70% of the Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, said they did not believe our borders would be secure without a good guest worker program. But they also understood that if you have a guest in your house, you don’t immediately put them on your health plan. You don’t give them the keys to your car. They’re guests and they are not the same as the family that owns the house, so there has to be an understood difference between a guest in our country and a citizen. And that’s important because there’s this misunderstanding amongst a lot of people, particularly liberals, that a guest has the same privileges as a citizen.

Reason: Who have you approached in Congress with this idea? What kind of response have you gotten from folks in Congress?

Krieble: We talk to Congress in terms of the American founding principles and ask: “do we all agree on those?” And everybody says, of course, they do, and then we put our immigration plan into that context and it’s amazing how it changes the dialogue.

I’ll give you an example of that. One of the things that America is about is that all men are created equal and need to be treated equally under the law. There’re no kings, there’re no aristocrats. We are all the same under the law. But when you look at the immigration system, it’s full of special deals made with unions or agriculture or with Colorado for ski instructors. That is not American.

What is American is saying let’s solve this problem fairly and evenly across the board and we don’t need an alphabet soup anymore of different categories that we’re going to treat people differently. We need to say, look, all people who apply for the red card, pass this national security check and terrorist watch list, prove or take a self-supporting job, welcome to our country as a guest, but no special deal.

Reason: Has anybody in Congress sponsored legislation along the lines of the red card?

Krieble: Several people have over the last 10 years. Congressman Mike Pence did before he became governor and he was very enthusiastic about this and wrote a fabulous bill that was only 200 pages and then Congressman John Shadegg, he wrote what he joking called the pure bill which was only 12 pages. Did you ever read the actual original Gang of Eight bill?

Well, it went on and on and on. I had the unprivilege of reading every single word twice. If you think Obamacare is a problem don’t pass the Gang of Eight bill. There were a hundred pages on how immigrants could sue their employers for free legal help. It just went on and on. It would be thousands of new government employees, billions and billions of dollars.

Reason: The H-1B program for high-skilled workers is a very flawed program but it allows the high-skilled immigrants on the H-1B to apply for green cards. But as I understand the red card proposal, a worker on the card would need a separate track to be able to get a green card. Why allow the red-card holder the same option of applying for their green card as H-1B high-skilled workers?

Krieble: We do that. That’s part of our plan – but it’s a separate program. When you come as a guest, you’re a guest and there aren’t green cards or citizenship. The second program is run by the government and you simply have to follow whatever the rules are for anybody else applying for citizenship, so you’re not prohibited from it. That has to be a separate program because we need a simple easy-to-care-take-of guest worker program.

Reason: One of the problems with the H-1B program is that it is employer-specific, so if you want to change employers, it’s a very difficult process. It seems that the red card would replicate the same problem and that’s not fair to the foreign worker.

Krieble: That’s simply not fair, because then you’re a slave to a particular job. The red card would be transferrable. The actual card is job specific, but if you find a better job down the street, you call your employment agency, you say I’m giving notice at this job, please cancel my card and issue me a new card for my new job, so people who are guests can be upward mobile.

Reason: So it is not employer specific?

Krieble: It is employer specific, but if you change your job, the employer has to call the agency and say cancel the card, he doesn’t work for me anymore. But the worker can call the agency and say I’ve got this other job and the employment agency has his fingerprints, can run him back through the security check to make sure he’s okay, call the company and make sure that he does have a job and send out a new card. You know how easy it is to cancel your MasterCard if you lose it and then the company issues a new one. Within a week, you’ve got the new card, so if anybody wants to move, they have to give a two-week notice and they have a perfectly legal access to that new job.

Reason: So they won’t have to go back to their country?

Krieble: No.

Reason: The idea of the microchip in the card with biometric information makes a lot of civil libertarians quite nervous. It hands the government tracking ability not only when foreign workers enter and exit the country but also potentially when they are travelling within the country. Does it worry you?

Helen Krieble: The government needs to have some idea who the foreign worker is, so a fingerprint or an iris scan is of great value to the government and I think that’s required. These people are guests in our country. We need to know who they are and that they are people who are not criminals, so it’s a very simple way of doing that and, as I say, that little microchip is absolute every-day routine for any American company that has security issues. Their employees all have those cards.

Reason: For a private company, it’s one thing, and, as you say, it is required for all workers. But in a red card, the information on this microchip is available to the government to keep track of foreigners, especially if they commit crimes. But Americans can engage in criminality too. So if a government has an interest in tracking foreign criminals, doesn’t it also have an interest in tracking native criminals? Wouldn’t the same logic that applies to foreign workers be extended to American workers? Why shouldn’t there be a National ID card with a microchip for all Americans?

Krieble: Citizens are free and the government should not be tracking citizens. If they get arrested for a crime, then they have to put in their DNA and their photographs, etc., so the government can keep track of them and almost every country has some way of keeping track of foreign workers who are not citizens. But remember that citizenship has a lot of privileges and one should be that the government is not keeping track of you every day. You’re a free private person.

Reason: So what happens when your red card-holder finally gets naturalized, what happens to this microchip and all the information on it? Does the government have to destroy that?

Krieble: I think they call their employment agency, prove that they are now citizens and cancel their card.

Reason: But the employment agency and the government already have all this information on them. What happens to that?

Krieble: I don’t know. That’s a very good question. As part of their citizenship, they should not be watched by the federal government and we know the federal government is watching us all the time now.

Reason: What realistically do you think are the odds that this Congress will embrace something like your proposal in the next two years?

Krieble: Well, you’ve noticed that already the discussion for guest workers, foreign workers, is no longer that they must have a path to citizenship. It is they must have a path to legality and I feel that we’ve played a very strong role in changing the language so I think we’ve already had a major influence and I do think that a guest worker program linked to border security is going to be one of the very first pieces that is enacted by Congress. It’s a piece that I think there would be a great deal of consensus on. It’s having foreign workers be productive, not be criminals, come through a gate and not through across the border illegally. It’s a regularization of something that is now a total nightmare.