Comprehensive Immigration Reform Remains an Unmet Need

As President Obama is no doubt tired of hearing, he promised to tackle immigration reform within his first year in office. For a variety of reasons, that promise remains unfulfilled – the financial collapse and its aftermath, two wars, a string of natural disasters, the Arab Spring, and so on – but first and foremost, CIR was doomed by the refusal of Congressional Republicans to come to the negotiating table. This kicked the can down the road and over the horizon, to be dealt with only after the 2012 elections, if then.

Not that the need for fundamental reform of our immigration system has been quenched by the passage of time; far from it. Pressure for reform has been building for months – but Congress has done little to alleviate this pressure other than proposing a handful of partial fixes – the legislative equivalent of duct-tape-and-chewing-gum repairs.

The absence of Congressional action led state lawmakers in Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia to enact homegrown immigration remedies of their own, aimed at driving illegal immigrants from their states. Several recent articles show just how much the bloom is off the rose, as those states struggle with the unintended consequences of their immigration laws: civil rights lawsuits, bad publicity, lost business, and – foreseeably enough – labor shortages in critical areas like agriculture and the hospitality industry.

In Alabama, school officials have been pulling their hair out in clumps trying to cope with their new role as immigration cops. At the same time, Alabama businesses have been struggling with newly-imposed bureaucratic red tape. (See Ala. Bosses Go to School to Learn New Immigration Law, by Bob Johnson, Associated Press, 06.Nov.2011). In Georgia, the new immigration law will force thousands of professionals – immigrants or not – to submit additional documentation in order to keep their licenses, which “could delay licenses for tens of thousands of accountants, nurses, and many other professionals by an additional three to four months,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (See Licensed Jobs Hit in New Immigration Law, by Jeremy Redmon, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 05.Nov.2011).

Just as these unintended consequences have come home to roost, State Senator Russell Pearce – the prime mover behind Arizona’s SB 1070, and the wave of copycat bills that followed – was voted out of office last week, a result that CNN said was “widely seen as a referendum on tough measures against illegal immigrants.” (See Author of Tough Arizona Immigration Law Loses Recall Election, CNN Wire Staff, CNN Politics, 09.Nov.2011.)

Legal immigration channels are not faring much better. A case in point: U.S. tourism revenues still have not recovered from strict visa requirements put in place after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A recent article in the Boston Globe pointed out:

“The arduous process of getting a U.S. visa, particularly in emerging nations such as India, China, and Brazil, is costing the United States and Massachusetts a share of the fastest-growing segment of travel and tourism and hurting an industry that accounts for about one in 10 jobs in both the state and the nation.”

How hard can it be? The Boston Globe article said, “the wait to get a tourist visa to visit the United States is legendary in some places, so much so that the United Kingdom once raised a banner in front of a U.S. Embassy in India reading: ‘Come to the UK – no line.'” In the past decade, the Globe reports, “the nation’s share of overseas travelers has shrunk from 17 to 12 percent, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group.” (See Tourism Officials Tackle Visa Reform, by Katie Johnston, Boston Globe, Nov.04.2011.)

Now consider the case of foreign employees whose companies want to transfer them to their U.S. offices under the L-1 visa program. Your success in getting here may depend less on your company’s needs than on your country of origin. Approvals of L-1 visas have decreased sharply for applicants from India, according to a study released this month by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), a Washington think tank. (See L-1 Visa Approvals Decline Significantly at U.S. Posts in India in 2011, National Foundation for American Policy, Policy Brief, Nov 2011.) The drop occurred despite the high demand for talented, well-educated Indian employees in this country. According to the NFAP study:

“…an increase in denials over the past 12 to 18 months is making it far more difficult for employers to transfer employees based in India into the United States on L-1 visas. Employers say this is having a negative impact on growth, projects, and product development in the United States.”

Meanwhile, some of the best and brightest minds from overseas routinely fly home after graduation – to stay – because they find it too hard to get a visa to remain here and work. This, too, is self-defeating. What is going on? Aren’t these precisely the creative, entrepreneurial people we WANT to keep here, to build our economy?

Absolutely. As Alex Nowrasteh of the Competitive Enterprise Institute remarked in a recent article:

“Immigrants are more than twice as entrepreneurial as native-born Americans, according to the Kauffman Foundation’s Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. That advantage lasts several generations, as demonstrated by the fact that Americans with a Latino ancestry retain an entrepreneurial enthusiasm greater than that of natives.” (See Twenty-Five Years After Reagan’s ‘Amnesty’ Bill, Conservatives Should Support Increased Immigration, by Alex Nowrasteh,, 07.Nov.2011.)

Nowrasteh’s comments were echoed in the November issue of The Atlantic:

“People with creative ideas, intellectual talents and personal ambition drive innovation. From advancements in science, mathematics and health care to new technologies, products and companies, America has always relied on individual and collective breakthroughs in human knowledge and production to enhance our lives and our economy. As the nation continues to find ways to improve the educational and life opportunities of its own citizens to help spark innovation, we should not ignore an obvious source of human capital – those from other nations. If America wants to solve its innovation problem, solving its immigration problem would be a good start.” (See Entrepreneurs, Stay Out! The Utter Idiocy of U.S. Immigration Law, by Marshall Fitz and John Halpin, The Atlantic, Nov 2011.)

The good news is, there is growing realization that America should be doing a better job attracting and keeping foreign graduate students in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – and there’s an emerging consensus that these people should get green cards stapled to their diplomas, instead of taking home the treasure trove of state-of-the-art technical knowledge they gained in the United States. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg remarked earlier this month, America needs to make it easier for foreign STEM grads to stay here. (See Facebook Says U.S. Must Reform Immigration Policies to Remain Competitive, by Richard Blackden, The Telegraph, 08.Nov.2011.)

There is talk in Congress of providing that stapled green card to keep talented foreign STEM grads here, but Congress has been dragging its heels, and there is no telling when it might finally pass this small legislative tweak, even though it’s far short of – and far less controversial than – comprehensive immigration reform.

For some, Congressional dawdling could create an interesting market niche: an offshore answer to Silicon Valley, moored off the California coast, just outside the U.S. territorial limit. What sounds like the plot of a 40’s gangster film is actually the brainchild of two young entrepreneurs who hope to start a floating high-tech incubator “for foreign entrepreneurs who have difficulty obtaining visas.” (See Visa Problems? ‘Seasteading’ Your Startup May be the Answer, by Declan McCullagh, CNET News, 08.Nov.2011.)

The question is: does it really have to come to this – “seasteading” just offshore or states taking federal law into their own hands – or can we find a rational way to fix immigration on Mainland, USA? Most likely, we won’t find out until after the 2012 elections have passed into the history books – and that’s one more year too late.

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.