What’s Left: The Debate Over Immigration



President Obama’s recent immigration speech focused on four main goals. First, continuing to improve the security of our borders. Second, cracking down on the companies that hire undocumented workers. Third, providing undocumented immigrants the chance to earn their citizenship and holding them accountable by requiring that they learn English, pay taxes and a penalty, move to the “back of the line” and pass background checks. Fourth, streamlining the legal immigration system for families, workers and businesses.

President Obama highlighted two separate problems with our current immigration policy. His main focus is on finally solving our illegal immigration issue.

It certainly makes sense why President Obama would prioritize this side of the immigration issue. A system that traps 11 million people outside the protections of the law, while denying businesses the workers they need to grow, is clearly dysfunctional.

Additionally, the President has significant political clout on this part of the issue. The Latino community mandated a preference for the President’s illegal immigration policies compared to Governor Romney’s, as shown by exit poll results (71 percent to 37 percent, respectively). If the Republican Party hopes to remain demographically relevant in the future, they will need to adapt their immigration policies.

Republicans have recognized the need to reform on this issue, as demonstrated by the bipartisan plan Senator Marco Rubio and John McCain presented recently. In the eyes of the President, this seems to be the perfect opportunity to capitalize on his political capital and fix America’s illegal immigration issue.

However, I think that this is an incorrect prioritization by the President. Improving our current legal immigration process should be the more pressing issue.

As Americans, we think of ourselves as the world’s greatest immigrant society. This country was built on hard-working, ambitious people seeking the American Dream. However, over the past two decades, there was astonishing reversal. Other countries have been transforming themselves into immigrant societies, adopting many of America’s best ideas and even improving on them.

This problem comes from America’s lack of attention to maintain the immigration policies – those that helped make us great.

Would you have guessed that Canada and Australia both have a higher percentage of foreign-born citizens than the U.S.? If you had, I would be shocked.

Canadian immigration policy is now centered on recruiting talented immigrants to supply their labor force. Those individuals can apply for work visas themselves; they don’t even need to have an employer. The Canadian government awards points toward the visa, with extra points for science education, technical skills and work experience; 62 percent of permanent-resident visas in Canada are based on skills, while the remainder is for family unification.

In the U.S., the situation is almost exactly the reverse: two-thirds of America’s immigrants enter through family unification, while only 13 percent of green cards are granted because of talent, merit and work. The cap on applications for H1-B visas (for highly skilled immigrants) has been cut in half over the past decade.

It’s not as if America doesn’t need these people. American companies are struggling to fill 3.7 million job openings, mostly in science-related fields.

Meanwhile, foreign students receive half of all doctorates in such fields, and almost all of them are forced to head home after graduation.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls America’s immigration policy the single biggest problem facing the economy, and argues that our current approach is “national suicide.” It isn’t just Canada to which America is losing the best and the brightest. Australia, Britain and Singapore are all wooing the world’s most talented graduates. And then there are China and India, where many of these graduates come from.

So while President Obama is choosing to devote most of his time and political capital to solving another heavily partisan issue, the pressing need for legal immigration reform will most likely fall to the wayside. There is no need for a “grand bargain.”

We need simple, intuitive reforms to solve this issue. We should sharply reduce the number of legal immigrants who arrive because a family member sponsors them. It would be beneficial to massively expand the numbers who come in because they have the skills we need. We should recognize that certain industries do need temporary workers, such as farm workers, and allow those industries to set up temporary-work programs.

During a time of partisanship that is consuming Washington, we need an issue that can easily gain bipartisan support and restore some of the American people’s trust in our government.