Building a better immigration system

It's not just about undocumented workers

Marc Ambinder

It sure seems like Congress will enter the whirlpool of immigration reform next year. The surface debate is about undocumented workers and how to bring them from the depths. But the currents are pushing along several other issues, some of which may be more consequential in the long run for both the American economy and for the dignity of those people touched by legislation.

Writing for the blog of the Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program, Neil Ruiz, who is doing some of the most interesting scholarly work on visas and workforce development these days, sketches out the other areas that the first wave of reform is likely to tackle.

A casualty of legislative deadlock has been the STEM Act, which would significantly increase the number of green cards given to foreign students who get degrees from the United States. When you talk to forward-thinking national security professionals, they'll complain of the brain drain effect, wherein Chinese and Indian students take advantage of American education and then go back home and enrich the productivity and economy of critical industries that compete with the U.S.

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Democrats shoulder the blame here. "They didn't want to be seen as giving up on undocumented immigrants in an election year," Ruiz said of the party's unwillingness to consider STEM visas separately from an expansion of the Diversity Immigrant Visa, which focuses primarily on under-represented countries and populations. (They invoked the legacy of Ted Kennedy, and it worked to stop the bill.) Neither party wanted to increase the total amount of visas, so the GOP bill would have scrapped the diversity immigrant visa in favor of 55,000 more STEM visas. Post-election, Democrats are less likely to fight against a modification of the Diversity Visa program in the context of much broader immigration reform.

Both parties want to increase the number of visas for immigrant entrepreneurs, but Ruiz and others say that no one has yet figured out how to measure success appropriately, which is bottling up legislation. "What is the right mechanism, how do you measure the number of jobs, how do you make sure they attract capital, what happens if they fail." These are unanswered questions still. And if immigrants who get a visa to open or expand a business here don't succeed, should they be sent back?

High-tech companies like Microsoft and Oracle want to significantly expand the number of H1-B visas that the U.S. offers. H1-Bs, you'll recall, are issued annually to 65,000 foreign workers in "specialty" occupations; they normally last for three years. But competition from foreign workers can lead to unsettling and disruptive economic consequences for less-skilled native born workers. Companies pay for their visas, and one long-standing question has centered on how to make sure that the money that's gained is used to retrain American workers effectively. Ruiz and his colleagues are working with companies and legislators to try and figure out how to better spend the money, which would amount to, under a plan that Microsoft has floated, around $500 million a year, or $5 billion over 10 years. If states and localities were able to figure out how to target the money, there may be less opposition to an H1-B expansion because of the American skills gap and our relatively high unemployment.

And what of the most visible immigration reform issue? Within the Democratic Party, there is still resistance from many unions to a program that would legalize undocumented workers who don't fit the "DREAM Act" rubric, which has been, for the most part, already priced in the political calculus. And the Republican right wing may not allow their party to compromise much on issues like family unification and country caps — not to mention an overall increase in the total number of visas allowed.

Ruiz says that the success of truly comprehensive immigration reform may be determined by how well the two parties work together to avoid with the "fiscal cliff." If good will is poisoned, the momentum for immigration policy reform may be blocked. It is possible that a three-part approach could work better. First, move the high-skilled workers bills through Congress. Then regularize in law the immigrants who are being given status under President Obama's executive order on immigration. With both parties having gotten a clean win, then they can begin to debate the piece de resistance — what to do with undocumented workers already here.

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