Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground

A 'virtual march' on Washington aims to bring more highly skilled technical workers into the U.S. It's time for a constructive debate rather than more vitriol.
The U.S. IT industry and a cadre of high-profile supporters are organizing a "virtual march" on Washington to lobby for what they call "innovation-focused immigration reform." Essentially, they want the federal government to make it easier for U.S. companies to hire and retain highly skilled and educated foreign professionals by issuing more work visas for those pros and even fast-tracking them for U.S. citizenship.

Notwithstanding the fact that virtual marches -- sans signs, chants and the passion of a physical protest -- are about as riveting as virtual pie eating contests, the movement is drawing a lot of attention. A similar virtual movement a year ago helped to defeat the SOPA and PIPA antipiracy bills that were before Congress at the time, so there are high expectations for this one.

The front organization for the March For Innovation is Partnership For A New American Economy, whose members are business and municipal leaders from across the country. Among its activists are New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, AOL co-founder Steve Case, venture capitalist Jalak Jobanputra and Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro. The goal of the march is to sign up thousands of supporters and then have them take to social media to pressure Congress to let more foreign nationals work in the U.S.

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A column in The Wall Street Journal by former publisher L. Gordon Crovitz mostly covers the march organizers' talking points. Among them: Every 100 foreigners who earn advanced degrees in the U.S. and then stay to work in technical fields create 262 jobs for American workers; 28% of all companies started in the U.S. in 2011 were founded by an immigrant; immigrants are more than twice as likely as a native-born American citizen to start a company; immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $775 billion in revenue in 2011. Each talking point (the group offers several others) links to research reports that support the group's claims.

At the heart of the movement is the notion that other countries are reforming their immigration laws to attract entrepreneurs and technical experts while the U.S. is turning them away. Australia, for instance, has used a point-based system since 1973 to evaluate prospective immigrants based on their potential economic contributions, prioritizing skill over country of origin. Likewise, Germany gives scientists, senior managers and other highly educated workers from other countries access to long-term visas, and it has opened up citizenship to entrepreneurs.

The evidence that immigrants can be a powerful engine of economic growth is compelling, no question. And in principle I'm partial to the view that highly skilled foreigners don't take away IT jobs as much as they create them. We as a nation should be concerned when many of the most talented people honed by our universities have no choice but to head home after graduation to start companies and make existing ones more competitive. We must overhaul this nation's visa and immigration policies to put more emphasis on economic need and less emphasis on numerical fairness, all while stanching the flow of illegal immigration.

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That said, this is a messy, gray, fluid issue. Who ultimately decides the economic value of a visa or immigration applicant -- a panel of bureaucrats or some corruptible public-private panel? Markets can change quickly. Yesterday's shortage of Cobol or Java programmers can turn into today's glut. How often do the legislators and visa and immigration panels update the rules to reflect those changes?

Engineer salary levels are stagnant in the U.S., despite the fact that tech employers complain of a dire labor shortage. So how many foreign-born engineers should we fast track for U.S. work visas and/or citizenship -- enough so that domestic salaries get depressed 10%, 20%? Ideally, visas and immigration would be loosened only for those engineering (and other) disciplines where the salary evidence suggests a true shortage, but it's unrealistic to expect the government gatekeepers to keep track of supply and demand for a range of technical specialties.

Longer term, critics complain that tech employers made their own bed. If not enough young people are piling into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, it's because they've watched companies ship many of those jobs offshore, the critics say.

Who's going to break this chicken and egg impasse? Will tech employers start bringing jobs back to the U.S., sending a signal to young people and their families that the STEM fields are a vibrant career opportunity? Or will students start gravitating back to STEM studies on their own, sending a signal to employers that they needn't relocate so much of their technical operations abroad or seek to import so many talented professionals? In my view, the ball's in the employers' court: Show the American public that you're truly committed to investing in a U.S.-based tech workforce, and this country will turn out STEM graduates in droves -- or it will give you the freedom to import what you can't find.

This debate, if you can call it a debate, is getting old (read the vitriolic comments underneath Crovitz's Wall Street Journal piece) because both sides refuse to listen to each other. It's not the greedy tech capitalists versus the rank-and-file malcontents, so stop ignoring each other's concerns as if they're irrelevant or nonexistent. There's a middle ground here, somewhere. And it can be found within the structure of debating and writing an immigration reform bill.

Find that middle ground. This virtual march on Washington is as good a place as any to start.

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