With Arizona poised to impose the toughest immigration laws in the land, and right-wing radio hosts calling for snipers at the border, President Obama says it's time to take another crack at comprehensive immigration reform.
His call to renew the immigration debate no doubt leaves many
Americans thinking, "Here we go again," exhausted as we all are from the national brawl over health care reform. Goodbye public option, hello amnesty?
But there lies a path to immigration reform that could both transform an outdated system and win the speedy approval of most Americans. The seeds of the solution lie in the reform bill being hammered out in the offices of U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Chuck Schumer, a Democrat,
Their package of proposals includes a provocative idea that has not been getting the attention it deserves. The senators call for a dash of high-skill immigration reform.
More specifically, their plan would offer fast-track visas to immigrants with rare talent and ingenuity. They would, in other words, extend a wider welcome to men and women most likely to enhance America's competitiveness and create jobs.
Now that's an idea a skeptical public might not bother to oppose.
Oh, there are other far-reaching and surely controversial proposals in their
bill, according to what the senators have so far divulged. Tamper-proof national ID cards. A mea culpa from immigrants who entered illegally. Harsher sanctions for employers who willingly hire them.
But the high skill stuff is the game changer. So powerful and sensible
is high-skill immigration, it might as well inspire its own reform bill.
Graham and Schumer might keep that in mind if comprehensive
change proves impossible in a poisonous political climate.
To welcome high skill immigrants is to promote a lucrative and
little-know phenomenon. While the country was preoccupied with illegal immigrants, legal immigrants were building the New Economy.
The founders of Google, Intel, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, AST Research, eBay and YouTube are all largely immigrants. New Americans are behind more than half of the high tech companies in Silicon Valley and about a quarter of the biotech companies in New England.
In a global economy fueled by technology and innovation, high-skill
immigrants have become America's competitive edge.
Always a self-selected group of strivers, today's immigrants
often hail from nations that stress math and science education. Drop them into a smart economy in a free market democracy, and marvels happen.
Today's immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to earn an advanced degree, to invent something and to be awarded a U.S. patent. According to research by the Kauffman Foundation, they are almost twice as likely to start their own business.
Despite the anti-immigrant attitudes of recent years and recent weeks, America remains the greatest nation on Earth and the world's best and brightest still want to come here. The problem is, they often cannot get in. Every day, we bar and eject world-class talent--legal, high-skill immigrants--because we have not decided what to do about illegal immigrants.
Harvard researcher Vivek Wadhwa warns of a reverse brain drain underway. For probably the first time in U.S. history, he argues, skilled immigrants are leaving America in large numbers--partly because of the prospect of jobs elsewhere in a rapidly developing world, partly because of frustration with the U.S. immigration process, which often makes them wait years for an immigrant visa.
Schumer and Graham would open a new door. They propose offering an immigrant visa to any international student who graduates from a U.S. university with master's or a doctorate degree in one of the critical STEM fields--science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
"It makes no sense to educate the world's future inventors and
engineers, and then force them to leave when they are able to contribute
to our economy," the senators argue in a March essay in The Washington
As the editors of Inside Higher Ed noted, that simple step would likely boost efforts by American universities to recruit the planet's top scientists and graduate students.
It could also calm the fringe crowd and enlighten the discussion.
"Solving illegal immigration is more often than not phrased as a
choice between amnesty and mass deportation," Jena McNeill, a homeland
security analyst at The Heritage Foundation, wrote in The
"Most Americans want a solution that does neither," she added.
"They want an immigration system that enforces the law, helps the
economy, betters America's image, and brings new immigrants into the
United States, much like their ancestors did not so long ago."
By stressing high-skill immigration reform, the senators are heading
toward a winning formula. They move the debate away from fear and
prejudice and towards jobs and opportunity.
More importantly, they remind us what immigrants bring to America, and why their talents may be needed now more than ever.
Herman and Smith are co-authors of "Immigrant, Inc. -- Why Immigrant
Entrepreneurs are Driving the New Economy," published in November by
John Wiley & Sons.
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