01/07/2013 10:53 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Don't Fence Me in: The Need for Strategic Immigration Reform

Almost immediately after the national elections were concluded, immigration reform again became a topic for bipartisan political conversation and potential legislation.

Illegal immigrants had been at the center of debates and much of the discussion during the Republican presidential primaries. With their hard-line, hard-headed and hard-hearted stances on things like building a fence to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States and deportation of those who are here currently, the Republican candidates boxed themselves in and built a fence between their nominee for president and the country's emerging Hispanic population. This resulted in President Obama getting 70-plus percent of the Latino vote to Governor Romney's 30 percent.

That resounding defeat and other setbacks caused various Republican leaders to work independently or to join with colleagues from across the aisle to begin developing "comprehensive" immigration reform proposals focused primarily on addressing the illegal immigrant problem. According to Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution, "A comprehensive approach typically includes border security, worksite enforcement... changes to the admission process to admit more immigrants that are economically suited to the U.S. market... a policy that deals with the estimated 11 million people living in the United States without legal status."

These issues should absolutely be addressed as part of immigration reform approach that is "comprehensive" -- but, more importantly as one that is strategic. We need an immigration reform package that is structured not to build fences but to build bridges to ensure that we continue to attract and retain those highly skilled and talented immigrants who have been a well spring of American economic growth and development.

Vivek Wadhwa highlights the contributions of these immigrants to the country's economic success in his 2010 Democracy Journal article, "Our Best Imports: Keeping Immigrant Innovators Here." According to his 2006 study of more than 2000 technology firms started in the previous ten years, "25.3 percent had a chief executive or lead technologist who was foreign born." Wadhwa estimated that "in 2005 immigration-founded tech companies generated $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers."

Darrell West reinforces the importance of the immigrant entrepreneur in his seminal book, Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy, in which he notes that, "Between 1996 and 2008, immigrants were twice as likely as native-borns to start new businesses." Based upon his analysis, West concludes, "The costs immigrants impose are not zero, but those side effects pale in comparison to the contributions arising from the immigrant brain gain."

The evidence is overwhelming; talented and skilled immigrants have been a driving force in building the nation's intellectual, human and financial capital. But, our immigration system and policies are neither designed nor structured to magnify those contributions. They need to be.

The current approach to immigration is tactical and reactive, including most of the proposals that we have seen for "comprehensive reform." They deal primarily with the past and problem situations. We need to change the immigration paradigm. This can be accomplished by developing a strategic and proactive immigration system that is focused on the future and unleashing the economic potential that immigrants can bring to creating that future.

As Darrel West points out, one of the major flaws of our current system is that it is "tilted too far in favor of family unification over other important national goals." A conceptual model that might be employed to correct this deficiency and to construct an enhanced system which emphasizes using immigration as an engine to contribute to the growth of the economy and job creation might be a five level framework such as the following:

  • Entrepreneur with existing business
  • Entrepreneurial start-up
  • Advanced/High Skill
  • Mid Skill
  • Low Skill

These categories could be used in combination with factors such as country of origin and familial relationship to develop a methodology for rationalizing immigration decision-making and aligning it the nation's economic, skill and job development needs.

Wadhwa offers a number of excellent specific proposals for achieving this alignment including: raising the number of H-1B visas for workers and graduate students with specialized knowledge; increasing the number of EB-1 through EB-3 visas for skilled workers; and inviting foreign entrepreneurs to set up shop here. West provides recommendations similar to Wadhwa's and also gets into the nitty-gritty of making the system work better by doing things such as narrowing the definition of relatives to immediate families; linking immigration levels to the economic cycle, and establishing an independent commission to oversee the immigration system.

In conclusion, the United States is at a critical juncture in terms of its immigration system and policies. It appears that the window is open to move beyond immigration bashing and partisan politics to have a meaningful discussion and dialogue on immigration issues.

If we use that window for strategic rethinking and reform, the country and its citizens will get a significant ongoing return on that investment. If we squander it by focusing too narrowly and operationally, we will all pay the price both now and in the future.

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