Immigration and the State of the Union

As expected, President Obama’s annual State of the Union message focused on jobs and the economy, and the steps he believes the government should take to regain our national preeminence as inventors, creators, and technical innovators. (See Remarks by the President in State of Union Address, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 25.Jan.2011.) In two short paragraphs, the President addressed the immigration issue, and its relationship to America’s future economic prospects:

“…One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense. …”

“…Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enhancing this nation. …”

Here, the President interwove two strands of immigration policy that many have tried to keep separate: on the one hand, illegal immigration and what to do about illegal immigrants who were brought here as children – do we deport them to a “home” country that’s largely foreign to them, or keep them here to learn and work and contribute to our economy? The President’s approach suggests that he would like very much to pass the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for such people, provided they either serve in the military or go to college. That DREAM died last year, and would seem to have little chance of being revived, given the anti-immigrant leanings of many in the new Congress.

On the other hand, prospects seem reasonably good for the other strand of the President’s immigration policy: reform legislation that aims to attract – and keep – more highly-educated immigrants who can help to build the creative economy of the future, here in the United States – instead of taking their education back home to compete with American businesses. In concrete terms, this might mean a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would provide more opportunity for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates to work in the United States, either on H1B visas or with green cards. (See Obama Makes H1B, Green Card Reform a Priority, by Patrick Thibodeau, Computerworld blogs, 26.Jan.2011.)

What shape this might take is still difficult to determine; as the Computerworld blog points out, Republican control of the House could break the longstanding logjam by members resistant to a stand-alone H1B bill, resistant because they fear – not without cause – that comprehensive immigration reform will lose momentum if it’s handled separately. The concerns of organized labor will also need to be addressed, and this, too, will present some serious challenges. Still, if any immigration reforms are to be enacted in the coming year, H1B reforms would seem to have, by far, the greatest odds of success. Stay tuned.

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.