02/09/2012 03:55 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012

Why Do We Have Immigration When Unemployment Is High?

If there is a justification for immigration during a period of persistently high unemployment, I have not heard it made by any of our politicans. President Obama was asked by the wife of an unemployed engineer why the U.S. allows H-1B visas (for engineers and other high-tech workers) when so many are unemployed. The president seemed remarkably ill-informed in responding. He said, without citing any statistics, that businesses tell him they cannot find enough engineers. But this kind of anecdotal evidence is usually misleading. We don't know what kind of businesses the president was referring to. He should have known that there are many unemployed engineers. In fact, the Census puts the number at 1.8 million.

So why do we have any legal immigration when so many Americans are looking for work? Isn't the U.S. government obligated to pursue immigration policies that serve the interest of our citizens? It is. One of the purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the current immigration law, is to preserve job opportunities for American citizens. On the other hand, employers can petition the government for permission to import foreign workers with specialized knowledge, in many cases engineers to work in technology companies. The INA requires employers certify that they could not find an American citizen to fill the job at the "prevailing" wage level (8 U.S.C. 1182 (n)(1)). However, the the law requires the Department of Labor to issue the certification within seven days unless it is incomplete or "obviously inaccurate." So the process is skewed heavily in favor of granting the requests.

The program is fraught with fraud and abuse. A federal government study concluded that 20% of the H-1B applications are fraudulent in some respect. An entire cottage industry of firms that obtain H-1B workers and then "loan" them to another employer has cropped up. One such firm has been convicted of repeated violations of the program, was fined and excluded for a year.

Unfortunately, the Republican presidential candidates have not pressed the issue of H-1B visa fraud in the campaign. They have either bought into the myth of a labor shortage, or, like Mitt Romney, instinctively know it is a myth but make only occasional rhetorical bows to the problem. Romney has said that legal immigration should be tied to the performance of the U.S. economy. But more often he simply declares that he "loves" legal immigration without any qualification as he felt compelled to say in the last debate in Florida. He also said the charge of being "anti-immigrant" was "repulsive."

Why is it repulsive? Surely one can favor a moratorium on H-1B visas (capped at 65,000 per year) to preserve employment opportunities during a time of high unemployment. As noted, that is one of the mandates of the INA. And any president who refuses to follow the law is violating his oath of office. I don't think adjusting immigration limits downward is "anti-immigrant," but if it is then the INA is anti-immigrant. It sets an overall limit on the categories of immigrants that can be admitted into the country by year including H-1B workers. This is a recognition that the U.S. cannot absorb an unlimited number of immigrants while maintaining a low level of unemployment.

Why not have immigration levels make economic sense?