Immigration Reform ASAP

In mid-December, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. The title of the bill says it all: the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 – in its short form, CIR ASAP. What you make of the “ASAP” – the common shorthand for “as soon as possible” – may depend a bit on whether one focuses on “soon” or “possible.” Whether or not Mr. Gutierrez’s bill – or someone else’s – ultimately carries the day, we all should hope that “soon” is the operative word here, because any immigration reform legislation certainly will face enormous challenges.

The obvious challenge: 2010 is an election year, with Congressional mid-term elections set for November. Although the U.S. economy is beginning to show signs of recovery, the pain of the recession continues for the millions of Americans who are still out of work. The challenge here will be to inform and enlighten people about the economic benefits of immigration reform. This will be no easy task. All too often, factual discussion of this issue gets drowned out by the loudest and most hysterical opponents of reform, including politicians who have been dining out on anti-immigrant rhetoric for the past several years. Indeed, some politicians will never support immigration reform – and in an election year, their anti-immigration demagoguery will only get louder and more strident as they try to harness economic discontent and whip up fear and resentment among the electorate.

That said, the Gutierrez bill is a sign of progress. When the bill was introduced on December 15, 92 members of Congress had already signed up as co-sponsors. Obviously, there is a lot of interest in getting immigration reform back on the agenda, although time is clearly running short, and the longer it takes to pass health care reform and new financial industry regulations, the less time and energy will be left to consider fundamental changes to our immigration laws. Still, the need for basic, systemic fixes remains urgent, because the problems in the system haven’t gone away – and the longer we put off a solution, the more we stand to lose.

Need convincing? I commend to your attention a couple of news items that amply demonstrate the urgency of returning immigration reform to center stage.

A report recently released by NAFSA: Association of International Educators, cautioned that the U.S. has begun to lose its claim on the best and brightest knowledge workers from overseas, because our immigration policies make it more difficult to live and work in the United States than in many other countries. The report notes that, “… countries like China and India are luring their nationals back with state-of-the-art facilities, and promises of good jobs with quick advancement.” (See A Visa and Immigration Policy for the Brain-Circulation Era: Adjusting to What Happened in the World While We Were Making Other Plans, by Victor C. Johnson, NAFSA Association of International Educators, December 2009.) In other words, U.S. immigration policy has created the perception that we have rolled up the welcome mat, leaving many talented foreign workers to ponder their options elsewhere.

That NAFSA report calls on us to rethink the concept of national security: “[a]ll prudent steps must be taken to prevent another act of mass terrorism on American soil. But a policy based in fear, that causes us to turn away from the world, is profoundly inimical to American security -because openness is part of security.” According to NAFSA, we must remain open to the outside world so we can continue to attract the talented foreign researchers and innovators we need to maintain our edge in the high-tech economy.

Immigration reform is part of the solution, says NAFSA, to make America more welcoming to foreign students, exchange visitors, scholars and H1B workers. Essentially, the message is that U.S. immigration policy can walk and chew gum at the same time – we can maintain secure borders that protect us from those who would do us harm, while preserving the openness that is fundamentally important to our economy and our society as a whole.

A few days after the NAFSA study was issued, the Wall Street Journal published a cautionary tale about the impact of the economic downturn – along with U.S. immigration hassles – on foreign-born professionals who work here. According to the WSJ, some expats are leaving the United States for greener pastures elsewhere – and those greener pastures may be back home in India or Germany or Singapore. (See With Fewer U.S. Opportunities, Home Looks Appealing to Expats, by Dana Mattioli, Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2009.)

The article cites layoffs, underemployment, and visa issues among the problems driving some foreign-born professionals to return home. Although these problems partly stem from matters that are largely beyond our control, there’s no excuse for not taking the corrective action we need to fix the things we can control. Visa issues are not beyond our control, if we address them promptly and sensibly as part of comprehensive immigration reform. We need to address these problems now – as soon as humanly possible. America’s place in the knowledge-based economy depends on it!

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.