Stop bickering over illegals, focus on legal immigration reform

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  • Illegal immigrants who attended school in Texas to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges

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  • Over 30% of scientists & engineers in Silicon Valley helped America stay at the cutting-edge of technological innovation are foreign born

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  • Obama must get behind #STAPLE Act

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More than 30% of the scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley who have helped America stay at the cutting-edge of technological innovation are foreign born. One-quarter of the Americans who have won Nobel Prizes have been immigrants, even though immigrants comprise just one-eighth of the U.S. population. With the U.S. facing the risk of a double-dip recession, an immigration policy that attracts skilled workers will help revive the ailing economy and provide American businesses with the highly productive workers they require. The private sector has been asking for such reform for many years; now is the time for the U.S. government to start helping, not hindering, American industry.

The anti-illegal immigration laws of states like Arizona and the debate over E-Verify, an electronic employment eligibility verification system, have made headlines for some time now. More recently, Governor Rick Perry has faced severe criticism from his fellow GOP presidential candidates for his policy of allowing illegal immigrants who attended school in Texas to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges.

"More than 30% of the scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley who have helped America stay at the cutting-edge of technological innovation are foreign born." -- Rohan Poojara

These high visibility issues all focus on illegal immigrants. Much research has been focused on the detrimental effects of illegal aliens, including lower wages for native workers that compete with low-skilled immigrants for jobs, and higher tax burdens on Americans who pay for public services. This makes discussion of immigration reform like the DREAM Act that grants legal status to unauthorized aliens a political non-starter in the current economic climate.

So how should we reform America's legal immigration system so that the U.S. remains the destination of choice for the best and brightest in the world?

However, legal immigration policies for permanent and temporary visas must be reformed because, unlike low-skilled, illegal immigrants that come to the U.S. surreptitiously, high-skilled, legal immigrants boost the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and increase the flow of capital into the nation. In addition, these workers would be well paid and therefore would add to government revenue by paying more in taxes than they would receive in government benefits. A greater proportion of high-skilled workers in the labor force also would lead to an increase in the demand for low-skilled employees, thereby decreasing both poverty and unemployment.

For the past several decades, the Family Reunification Act has defined U.S. immigration policy. Visas have been allocated on the basis of family ties to a U.S. citizen. From 1999 to 2008, only 15% of the approximately one million legal permanent residence visas issued were employer-sponsored. America's failure to reform immigration policy has caused the U.S. to lose ground to Canada and Australia, for example, which have altered their immigration criteria to attract high skilled rather than family-based immigrants.

The situation is no better with temporary visas granted for business and employment purposes. Decades of overregulation and micromanagement by the government have led to almost one hundred different categories of visas with complex rules and high costs. For example, firms pay government fees in the range of $2,500 to $4,500 for every employee they petition to hire on an H-1B (temporary work visa for skilled professionals), in addition to bearing the cost of delays in hiring and attorney fees of several thousand dollars. This affects the competitiveness of U.S. firms, particularly smaller ones, as emphasized in a recent Government Accountability Office report: "Small firms were more likely to fill their positions with different (that is, less suitable) candidates, which they said resulted in economic losses, particularly for firms in rapidly changing technology fields."

There is a lot of evidence to show the benefits of a skills-focused immigration policy. Volker Grossmann and David Stadelmann used data from thirty OECD countries to demonstrate that high-skilled immigration increases public expenditure for productive uses like education, roads, railways and electricity. This leads to increase in the marginal product of capital and boosts the incentives for investment in both publically financed infrastructure and private capital.

The benefit of legal immigration policies that place an emphasis on attracting skilled workers is also emphasized in the research of Sarit Cohen-Goldner and Yoram Weiss. Their work highlights that public investments in Israel increased after waves of high-skilled immigrants entered the country. Additionally, they also found a gradual transition from blue-collar to white-collar occupations in the workforce. Moreover, the benefits don't stop with the highly skilled immigrant-immigrants' children are also often exceptional contributors to society as Alex Nowrasteh highlights here.

So how should we reform America's legal immigration system so that the U.S. remains the destination of choice for the best and brightest in the world? There are several policy prescriptions suggested by reformers, but my favorite is Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny's pro-market strategy outlined in their book Beside the Golden Door. They recommend an auction process in which the government sells permits to employers to hire foreign workers. Revenues raised from the auctions will allow the government to compensate any parties for costs imposed by this freer immigration policy. To prevent abuse, workers will not be tied to a particular employer and will have a clear path to citizenship that should be an incentive for them to invest their savings in the U.S. instead of back home.

While there is no such wide-ranging immigration reform bill currently making the rounds in Congress, the "Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from leaving the Economy" (S.T.A.P.L.E.) Act, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has bipartisan support and is a step in the right direction. It would remove the numerical cap on H-1B visas and employer-sponsored green cards for foreign Ph.D. students who graduate from American universities in the sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics. President Obama must get behind this Act that would attract job-creating entrepreneurs to the U.S. at a time when we desperately need them.

Rohan Poojara is a research assistant at AEI.

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