Here is a startling fact from economists Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett: 82 percent of all Haitians who live on more than $10 per day reside in the U.S. In other words, America is responsible for the vast majority of the prosperity for Haitians. 43 million people live in countries where GDP would be 50 percent higher if it included expatriates living in other countries.

This means that to the extent that we care about providing ways for people to pull themselves out of poverty, we should care about making immigration lawful for people at the lower-end of the skill spectrum. But how? Our current immigration system provides very limited options for lesser-skilled workers. There are four ways for poorer people without family in the United States to come to the country legally.

  1. Refugee admissions: The easiest way to increase legal pathways for these immigrants would be to raise the refugee quota, currently set at just 70,000 per year, because under current law the president establishes the quota on his own each year. According to the United Nations, there were 16.7 million refugees—defined as a person who is persecuted by his government for being part of certain social classes—at the end of 2013, so a higher limit would be easily filled.
  2. Diversity visas: The diversity visa lottery that began in 1990 admits 50,000 immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States, mainly countries in Africa. The visas are available to anyone with a high school degree, which means many lower-skilled workers can apply. More than 5 million people entered the lottery in 2011.
  3. Employment-based visas: The employer-based system for green cards (permanent residency visas) is next to useless as it currently exists. Only 5,000 visas are allocated to workers without a college degree, but even if the allocation was increased, the regulations would have to be substantially altered to ease the hiring process and make the visas attractive to businesses in the United States.
  4. Temporary worker visas: For most workers, especially those not from the Americas, temporary worker visas are inaccessible. First, the caps are set very low, 66,000, for non-agricultural visas known as H-2B visas. Second, the regulations on hiring for both non-ag and farm visas (H-2A) are almost as burdensome as the green card process. But the biggest problem with the H-2 visas are that they are limited to temporary or seasonal jobs not lasting more than a year, which bars access to the vast majority of the economy.

Other ideas to increase lesser-skilled migration have been suggested. The Senate bill included a “merit-based” allotment of visas that created a points-based system to admit up to 250,000 immigrants who met various criteria, including language acquisition and employment. The Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh has proposed a tariff system that would allow workers to simply pay for admission (something many unauthorized workers already do, but just to human smugglers).

No matter what option Congress chooses, many of the world’s poor will not await its decision. They will come no matter what the law says. But changing the law is not charity (as Nowrasteh notes). Allowing immigrants to enter for work, not welfare, and build better lives for themselves is not a handout. It’s freedom. Let immigrants make what they will of it.