There is no question that our current immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. It’s been that way for some time.
During 2013, Congress spent a considerable amount of talent and energy trying to find an approach to immigration reform that was workable. The Senate managed to pass a bi-partisan bill but things ground to a halt in the House.
Since then, there has been a lot of talk but no real action on immigration reform. Deportations of illegal immigrants have gone up. “Building a wall” became one of the primary talking points of the presidential primaries and campaign. But nothing has changed from a substantive or policy standpoint.
Now, Donald Trump has put forward an immigration proposal titled Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (Raise Act or Act) which calls for a shift to a skills-based immigration system from a family-based immigration system.
The Raise Act has caused quite a brouhaha within the Beltway. In our opinion, the brouhaha is warranted because the Act requires careful deliberation and considerable reform if it is be implemented. As currently constructed, the Act gets one thing quite right and four things quite wrong.
The thing it gets right is the increased emphasis on skills-based immigration. The things it gets wrong are: the sole reliance on skills-based immigrants; the significant reduction in the number of immigrants; the belief that this legislation would save the jobs and increase the wages of American workers; and the abandonment of the family connection as a factor in the immigration process.
A focus on the skills connection in immigration is nothing new. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed an immigration law (based upon a proposal by President John F. Kennedy) to establish a new system with skills of immigrants as a top priority. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed an Act calling for a system increasing legal immigration ceilings and employment-based immigration emphasizing skills.
In spite of this skills emphasis, as Darrell West notes in his book, Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy, over time the American immigration system has evolved so that it has “tilted too far in favor of family unification over other important national goals.” West advocates correcting this by changing the system to make it more skills-based.
Vivek Wadhwa is another advocate for changing the existing system’s policies and procedures to make them more skills- and entrepreneurially-focused. He presents detailed arguments on why this is essential in his book, The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talents.
Wadhwa recently wrote a column for the Washington Post in which he opined that President Trump’s immigration proposal “could be good for the country because it gives preference to the job creators and professionals who have for too long taken a back seat in the debate about comprehensive immigration reform.”
His assessment of the Trump proposal was not an unqualified endorsement, however. In the same article, Wadhwa stated that “The legislation needs to be improved and the numbers of immigrants admitted increased.” He also observed, “We need both skilled and unskilled workers, as well as musicians and artists…”
We agree with Wadhwa’s perspective on both counts. Talented immigrants have always been a major source of our country’s competitive advantage.
We need an immigration system that recognizes and builds upon this. But, that in and of itself would be insufficient.
As we wrote in the chapter on immigration in our book, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, we need an immigration bill and system that is comprehensive and strategic. Such a system would position the United States for success in the 21st century.
That positioning would take into account the facts, as Jeremy Robbins points out in his recent Washington Post article, that:
· There is “near universal agreement” among economists that immigrants bring “broad economic benefit” to the United States
· The aging of the baby boomer generation and our nation’s changing demographics means that there will be too many job openings of all types to be filled by new American workers alone
· There are many lower-paying and lower-skilled jobs that American workers do not want to take that immigrants will
That positioning would also acknowledge and build upon the understanding that the United States became the great nation it is because of immigrants not in spite of them.
In 1958, before he became President, John F. Kennedy wrote a book titled A Nation of Immigrants in which he noted
The abundant resources of this land provided the foundations for a great nation. But only people could make the opportunity a reality. Immigration provided the human resources. More than that, it infused the nation with a commitment to far horizons and new frontiers, and thereby kept the pioneer spirit of American life, the spirit of equality and of hope always alive and strong
In 2017, we need to remember this and develop a comprehensive and strategic immigration system that draws upon our immigrant roots to revitalize this immigrant nation.