Immigration reform has stalled because of ugly Republican politics and an insistence by the Democrats that it be all or nothing. This has taken a toll on the country’s economic growth and global competitiveness. Witness the rise of Chinese companies such as Alibaba and Xiaomi — which now have their eyes on U.S. markets — and of their counterparts in India. Entrepreneurs worldwide are building the same technologies as Silicon Valley. America has lost its monopoly on innovation.
But there may finally be hope to slow the skilled immigrant exodus that is in progress.
New legislation introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Chris Coons, D-Del., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the Immigration Innovation (“I-Squared”) Act of 2015, prescribes some very sensible reforms.
This bill increases the cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 and allows it to reach 195,000 in years of high demand; removes the limits on immigrants with advanced degrees; allows the spouses of H-1B visa holders to work, so that they not be confined to their homes; and eases restrictions on changing jobs so that workers not be held hostage to abusive employers who pay lower than market wages.
Most importantly, it enables the recapture of unused green card numbers in order to reduce wait times for the more than a million skilled immigrants who are trapped in limbo, often waiting for more than a decade to get their visas.
And it exempts advanced STEM-degree holders, persons with extraordinary ability, and dependents of skilled immigrants from the visa caps. To retrain American workers who have seen their skills become obsolete because of technology changes, the Hatch bill reforms the way in which the hefty fees for H-1B visas and employment-based green cards are used.
These are badly needed reforms that should have happened long ago. Both political parties have supported key elements of them.
Yet no progress was made, because Democrats feared that legislation that they considered extremely important — the legalization of undocumented workers — would become less of a priority if they agreed to resolve the problems of legal, skilled immigrants.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said as much to me at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on immigration in February 2013.
The result of this impasse is that highly educated and skilled immigrants have become frustrated and returned home; start-ups in Silicon Valley have been unable to hire the workers they desperately need for building world-changing technologies; and entrepreneurs who want to come to the United States to start their companies and create American jobs have been unable to do so.
Why might there be progress now, when all efforts over the past few years have failed?
Because after the electoral defeat of Democrats, both sides are eager to show that they can act responsibly — and put the needs of the country ahead of partisan politics.
Grover Norquist, who is president of Americans for Tax Reform and a powerhouse in the Republican Party, says that the Hatch bill for high-tech-visa reform will get the support of the vast majority of Republicans.
He says, “They need this after six years of telling high tech they really support them but were being held back by the concerns of many Republicans who feared what the Senate might add to any originally targeted bill. Democrats in Congress and Obama need to support this after six years of holding skilled immigrants hostage to a mega deal and telling the business community to wait.” Norquist says that, because the Republicans control both houses, they can ensure consensus and prevent skilled-immigration legislation from being stapled to a larger, more complicated bill.
There is also an urgent need to enact the DREAM Act and to afford the undocumented provisional legal status. The president’s recently announced administrative changes were a good step forward, but are just a Band-Aid. Their approval by Congress is necessary so that these immigrants can stop living in fear of being deported and can start paying taxes. The DREAM Act is a human rights issue.
The estimated 1.8 million children in the United States who could be classified as “illegal aliens” have grown up as Americans, not knowingly breaking any laws. But because they don’t have the proper paperwork, they are forced to live in the shadows of society — as second-class human beings with limits on where they can work and study and what they can do. Until recently, they would also fear being rounded up in the middle of the night to be deported to a land that they don’t even remember.
Ideally we would have one comprehensive immigration-reform bill and solve all the problems at once. But as we have seen in the past six years, this isn’t going to happen.
The best hope is that we can get several sensible immigration bills passed that fix all the critical problems and that put this nation’s competitiveness back on track.
Vivek Wadhwa is director of research at Duke University and a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. He wrote this column for The Washington Post.